By force of habit or by resilience to preserve tradition, which is all-important in tying together the ends of the game, Major League Baseball is slow to embrace change. When the decision was made three years ago to expand the postseason even further and create a second Wild Card spot in each league, the original returns were the usual mix of skepticism and concern about the game getting outside of itself. But six series play-in games later, not only has the decision to ramp up the postseason with the MLB Wild Card game added an undeniable flare to the late-season pennant chase, but it has also provided a much needed kick-start to the playoff spotlight.
Without failure, each game has brought a unique spin thus far on a carryover storyline from the season that would have previously been null and void. A long-standing issue with the few invites to the postseason, where just 26% of each league was competing for four guaranteed playoff spots, was that it made every non-second-place team in any division’s season irrelevant by, at the very latest, midway through September.
Just a brief look back at the 2010 season showcases a great opportunity where two clubs were shorted what could have been not only unique October story lines, but also deserved chances to roll the dice on a postseason series run — where anything can happen.
The Boston Red Sox finished third in the American League East with an 89-73 record, a distant finish behind the 96- and 95-win Rays and Yankees, respectively. Yet a one-game Wild Card playoff between the Yankees and Red Sox would be an undeniably intense game for it all. Instead, it was an opportunity missed.
On the other side of the fence, the San Diego Padres had an incredible late-season surge to become one of the most unlikely 90-win teams in recent history but fell short of the lone NL Wild Card spot by a game behind the Atlanta Braves. The Braves went on to fall in four games to the eventual champion San Francisco Giants, while the Padres (who owned a 12-6 season advantage over their divisional rival) could have potentially changed the entire way history played out if they had another crack at the Giants.
But “ifs” and “maybes” are limitless in the chronicles of sport history. It has been proven repeatedly that when the two peer teams that finished just outside of their inter-division prize are pitted against each other, the collision has yet to unmemorable.
In 2012, the Braves and Cardinals faced off in the first game ever in the series, and it was a tight-knit battle that came down a still-disputed interpretation of the infield fly rule between Matt Holliday and Pete Kozma, which saw the Cards narrowly defeat the indomitable Kris Medlen in Atlanta.
Later that night, the Baltimore Orioles shocked the world by knocking off the two-time defending AL Champion Texas Rangers in Arlington, which continued on the Orioles’ urgent, oft heart-stopping push of 2012.
Going back a year ago, the intensity of the situation ramped up another level, with the rise of the Cleveland Indians and Pittsburgh Pirates going front and center. The Indians were the most improved team in the American League and pushed to Detroit Tigers to the final days of the season before finishing second in the AL Central by just a game. Their postseason hopes were confronted by a Tampa Bay Rays team that had to play back-to-back elimination games for the first time in MLB history to make the series playoff rounds, first with a 163rd game play-in contest vs. the Rangers to qualify for the Wild Card game, THEN the WC game against Cleveland, which they also won via a coming-of-age shutout from young hurler Alex Cobb to qualify for the AL Division Series versus the Red Sox. It was a gauntlet for the ages to say the very least.
On the NL side, the greatest run of the year for the Pittsburgh Pirates was completely validated, when they brought postseason baseball to the city for the first time in 20+ years by defeating Johnny Cueto and the Cincinnati Reds. It was the first time that a third-place team had qualified for postseason play in the young history of the expanded postseason. It was a showdown of inter-division rivals and proved the point in every way that the new format served to make the games matter more (and not in the hokey “This One Counts” way of the All-Star Game either).
Last night’s return of sudden death playoff baseball provided yet another new twist on the game’s most exciting component. It found the most deprived land of postseason baseball in Kansas City, Missouri, and magic was delivered yet again — on repeat. It was a meeting of a team that had clawed its way back past the boundaries of the regular season for the first time in 29 years, meeting a fallen favorite looking to salvage what was supposed to be its crowning campaign.
In a game that saw five lead changes and ran 12 innings, everything that makes an underdog story great came true: a final at-bat, a walk-off win and an underdog going over. Salvador Perez’s game-clincher sent Kauffman Stadium into overload and simultaneously reaffirmed the potential of the postseason, as well as a dawn of a new era for the Royals.
In a game that is constantly demanded to be more exciting, more exhilarating and more “with the times,” that standard is being met with regularity since the MLB turned to the one-and-done formula, while not turning its back completely on the series style play that has defined it for so long.
As was the weather gets a bit crisper, the heat is rising on the diamond. Good luck keeping the flame going tonight to the Pirates and Giants. But something says they won’t need it.
I’m a firm believer that the closest I’ve gotten to Heaven is Game 6 of the 2011 World Series. In the meantime til we cross paths again, I’ll pass along the gospel of the Field of Dreams here, Cheap.Seats.Please, I70 Baseball, and ‘Live From The Cheap Seats’.
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