First of all, I don’t consider the Wilder Card game to be the first round of the playoffs. It feels more like a play-in game outside of the playoffs kind of like those two ridiculous play-in games in the NCAA tournament. If anything, they cheapen the playoffs. That being said, the Wilder Card displayed almost every negative thing possible said by its doubters (myself included).
Baltimore vs. Texas
This game would have happened regardless of the new format, as the two teams finished the season with 93-69 records. As I wrote in an earlier column, the entire American League playoff race played out like it would have under the old format. Four teams fighting for two divisions (six if you include Tampa Bay and the Angels) and ultimately, three playoff spots. Texas losing this game put the finishing touch on a collapse that really hasn’t gotten enough attention. Why didn’t it get more attention? 1 – Because Texas isn’t an East coast team. Had this been the Mets, Yankees, Red Sox, or Phillies, we would have heard more about it than this year’s elections. 2 – They “made the playoffs.” Without the Wilder Card, they would have talked more about game 163 as the Rangers’ last chance to save their season. Instead, we got a passing mention about how they blew the division by getting swept by the A’s at the end of the season. This story should have been enormous – a team in the World Series the past two years coughing up a five game lead with nine to play. Maybe it just happened so quick that nobody could react. Even their no-show in the play-in game went by without much talk, though that may have had more to do with how boring the game was.
In losing 5-1, the Rangers never really threatened once the Orioles took the lead in the 6th inning. They had 7 runners in scoring position on the entire game and their number 3 and 4 hitters (Josh Hamilton and Adrian Beltre, respectively) went a combined 0-8; Hamilton with 2 strikeouts and grounding into a double play. The Orioles weren’t much better, only putting 5 runners in scoring position, but they managed to cash in three of those while striking out 12 times. This game was almost a total dud, and even though it would have happened under the old format, it still makes the Wilder Card oh-for-one.
St. Louis vs. Atlanta
This game is the first of many to come that will prove the idiocy of this format. Forcing two unequal teams to play a 5- or 7-game series at least minimizes luck and misfortune. A one-game playoff spits on the entire regular season, in this case saying that two teams separated by six games in the standings are actually equal. Further compounding this stupidity is the fact that the Giants had the same record as the Braves. So why weren’t they forced to play as well? As advocates of this nonsense repeatedly say “if you don’t like it, win your division” (which the Giants did) as if geography is a valid reason to punish teams that performed better while playing in a tougher division. Getting into the playoffs is the reward for winning a division; they shouldn’t get any more than that.
Having said that, this game is the epitome of dismissing a season, as the Braves played arguably their worst game all season. In what will be known as the Infield Fly Rule Game, the Braves lost 6-3 by virtue of 3 errors and the worst umpiring call since Jim Joyce screwed Armando Galarraga out of a perfect game in 2010. Regardless of what you believe cost Atlanta this game, it shows the inequity of a one game playoff and how luck can affect single games. The worst thing is that it was Chipper Jones’ final game – where he went 1-for-5 at the plate (with a very weak infield single) and committed the most costly error of the three – a sad final memory of a great player. Oh-for-two.
For all of the whining about baseball needing more one-and-done games (one of the main justifications for pushing the Wilder Card), all four division series went the distance in their five game sets.
San Francisco vs. Cincinnati
After winning the first two games in San Francisco, the Reds appeared to be on their way to a sweep, outscoring the Giants 14-2 during those games and heading home to close out the series. Then, the Reds stopped scoring, losing 2-1, 8-3, and finally 6-4. You’ll hear a lot of talk about the loss of Johnny Cueto being the cause, but it’s more a case of the Reds not getting clutch hits, going 3-24 with runners in scoring position over the last three games. When Buster Posey crushed a grand slam in the fifth inning of game 5, pushing the score to 6-0 and effectively ending the Reds’ season, the entire city of Cincinnati slumped their heads in defeat, as much for the end of the Reds season as in the knowledge that they now have to pay attention to the Bengals.
Detroit vs. Oakland
A final note on the absurdity of the current playoff setup and seeding, the Tigers finished seventh in the American League by record. You read that correctly, the Tigers finished worse than the Yankees, Oakland, Baltimore, Texas, Tampa Bay, and the Angels. Yet, by virtue of geography, they got an invite to the playoffs and got to watch the Wilder Card game from the comfort of their homes. If there was ever a case to be made for handicapping a less-deserving team in the playoffs, Detroit is its subject. I’m sure the A’s would have loved to only face Justin Verlander once (assuming he pitched in the Wilder Card game). And just so there’s no confusion, they finished with the same record as the Cardinals, the NL Wilder Card team.
Anyway, this series also looked destined for a sweep, as the Tigers jumped to a 2-0 lead. The difference between this series and SF/Cincy is that the A’s were heading home with a deficit instead of a lead. The A’s fought back, winning the third game behind Brett Anderson’s fantastic pitching and a Seth Smith home run. Down 3-1 in the ninth inning of game 4, the A’s seemed to be cooked, but did what they’ve done all season with their 15th come-from-behind victory. Seth Smith, again, was a pivotal piece in the comeback, delivering a 2-run double. Two outs later, Coco Crisp redeemed himself from a dropped fly ball in game 2 (that arguably cost the A’s that game) by delivering a game-winning 2-out single that scored Smith. Unfortunately for the A’s, game 5 featured a fully rested Verlander proving why he deserved the MVP award last year. Verlander tossed a 4-hit shutout to slam the door, yet again, on the dream of a Moneyball World Series win.
Baltimore vs. New York (Yankees)
This series reaffirmed my hatred for the Yankees (they won 3-2). How is it that the guys that save seasons for the Yankees are never the superstars, but random dudes they just happened to pick up off the scrap heap? Bucky Dent, Aaron Boone, and now Raul Ibanez (I’m sure there are others). Seriously, no other team could get away with pinch hitting for one of the greatest hitters of all time and have it work out not once but twice. When Ibanez crushed (and there’s no other way to describe it) his second home run of the game in the 12th inning of game 3 for the win, every fan in Boston felt a little closer to the fans of Baltimore while simultaneously feeling nauseous at the flashbacks of Aaron Boone in 2003. If that wasn’t bad enough, the Yankees escaped defeat despite “hitting” at a triple slash of .211/.278/.333, despite Russell Martin (.176), Curtis Granderson (.158), Alex Rodriguez (.125), Nick Swisher (.111), and Robinson Cano (.091!!) all “hitting” like Jamie Moyer, despite Joe Girardi benching Rodriguez for game 5 and getting an 0-3 from Eric Chavez in his place. This is why everyone outside of the Bronx hates the Yankees. I’d love to say Detroit will demolish them if they continue this pace, but at this point it wouldn’t surprise me if the Yankees won while benching Rodriguez and letting pitchers hit for themselves. Wait, don’t tell Girardi I said that.
St. Louis vs. Washington
Let the second round of second guessing begin. What do I mean? Stephen Strasburg, of course. Did general manager Mike Rizzo make the right decision in shutting down Strasburg, their best pitcher, in early September? The moment St. Louis second baseman Daniel Descalso closed his glove on Ryan Zimmerman’s pop-up to end the series and seal the Cardinals’ victory, every fan in Washington Google’d “Mike Rizzo residence” with mischief in their eyes. The case for shutting down Strasburg has been argued ad nauseam, so I won’t go into it here. All I will say is that Strasburg’s arm blew out after just 68 innings in 2010, even though the team took extraordinary care to avoid exactly that. Considering his mechanics have not changed, it’s only a matter of time before it happens again and Rizzo’s only chance for redemption is if the Nationals make another playoff run, sooner rather than later. Frankly, I’ll be surprised if he makes it to 2014 if the team does not make the playoffs next year.
But about the series, the Cardinals have nullified the asinine notion of handicapping the wild card through the Wilder Card game by winning this series. There a lot of reasons to root for the Cardinals to win the World Series – being a Matt Holliday fan, sticking it to Albert Pujols for choosing money over immortality, rooting for the underdog, rooting for a repeat World Series champ – but my favorite is to infuriate the Verduccis who hate it when the wild card teams win (the whole reason he argued for the Wilder Card game in the first place). Let’s be honest, the Wilder Card game exists to put more money in the owners pockets, not for any existential reasons like ill-perceived fairness. If it did, the Cardinals winning should provoke some a new handicap like reducing the wild cards’ rosters or forcing their best hitter to bat opposite handed or making the pitchers wear eye-patches over their dominate eye. Have I made my point yet?
On a final note, Bryce Harper showed his immaturity, yet again, following his strikeout in the ninth inning of game 5. Just to be sure I really saw what I saw, I backed up the DVR and re-watched him face the infield, glare at the Cardinals fielders, and grab is crotch in an unmistakable way that said F*** You. This was a petulant move by a kid who just finished a 3-23 (and 0 walks) showing for the series and was throwing a little tantrum because he struck out. With that move, the division round was over.
By now, it should be fairly obvious that I’m rooting for a rematch of the 2006 World Series, featuring Detroit and St. Louis. There is no team I like less than the Yankees and I just can’t root for the Giants, the closest thing the Rockies have to a rival. I’d also be lying if I said I wasn’t secretly thrilled that three of the four remaining teams feature the three worst records of all ten playoff teams (another blow to the reasoning behind the Wilder Card). So here’s hoping the Yankees continue to hit like tee-ballers sans the Ibanez heroics and the Cardinals continue to stick it to Pujols and every person who thinks the Wilder Card team deserves to be handicapped.