Baseball's postseason is here – well, almost here. Really close now. But before the traditional road to the Fall Classic begins, four teams will face off in the most un-baseball of baseball games, a single-game elimination to see which teams move on to the Wild Card rounds and which team's players get to discover what their kids have been up to the last six months.
The one-game tiebreaker used to be rare. It happened only 11 times prior to 2012, and is almost antithetical to baseball, a sport defined by incremental tallies: The 162-game regular season comprises an unbroken string of three- and four-game series, each decided by the accretion of good plays and bad plays, hitting streaks and slumps, pitching triumphs and fails, accumulated over sometimes achingly long stretches, save for this one unique moment.
But in 2012, Major League baseball made the play-in game standard by adding a Wild Card team in each league and having two sets of squads face-off for the right to move on to the real, actual playoffs. This one-game elimination round is a controversial, tortured device many thought spat in the face of baseball history.
"I hate it," then Nationals manager Davey Johnson said. "I'm old-school. I'm old."
Chipper Jones, whose Hall of Fame career ended in a home play-in game against the Cardinals flatly called it "stupid, to be honest."
"That doesn't seem fair," Jones argued two weeks before he and the Braves lost." Anything can happen in one game — a blown call by an umpire, a bad day at the office… at least in a two-of-three game series you have some sort of leeway." But that's also kind of the point. For all that's hated and loved, and for all that's odd, for some, it's baseball at its best.
Former journeyman pitcher Al Leiter knows as well as anyone how odd a single play-in game is in baseball. In 1999 he carried the New York Mets to the postseason as the starter in a one-game tiebreaker against the Cincinnati Reds. For him, the strange baseball brew of "the anxiety, the excitement, the 'Holy crap, if you do well you're going to be in the playoffs and if you don't you're going home kind of thing,'" worked. He pitched a complete game shutout, giving up two hits and striking out seven as the Mets cruised to a 5-0 win. They would eventually lose to the Atlanta Braves in the NLCS.
Sean Casey, the first baseman on the Reds team that lost says the atmosphere of that game was electric, "as elevated as I've ever felt in a baseball uniform," and wholly different from any others he has known. "The buzz in the city that night in 1999 was phenomenal. When it's a do-or-die game, it's unbelievably awesome." Of course, it was also a huge letdown for Casey, his teammates, and Cincinnati. The game is a heady mixture of elation and despair.
"All that hard work, the extra work, the spring training, all those months," Casey says. "It was devastating. The next day you're packing up your locker, you're driving home. I didn't watch one playoff game that whole postseason. I couldn't bear it."
Leiter and Casey now work together as analysts for MLB Network and have seen how adding just two teams, and just two games, has reshaped baseball in the years since it was introduced. They argue the drama and despair actually highlights the beauty of baseball's long, slow-freight-train of a season. You don't get to pace yourself anymore. Instead, you have to put everything you've learned and everything you've built — your best pitcher on the mound and your best bats in the lineup — into nine more innings to prove you really belong.
"Guess what? The games in April matter the same as the games in September," Casey says.
Some fear it creates a competitive disadvantage for the Wild Card winners, who expend all their energy and resources to stay alive. But Leiter points out the brief track record indicates the opposite; that the circumstances can make teams battle-hardened for the long road ahead, and give them an added amount of confidence and experience that can drive them to a championship. Half of the winners in the last three years have gone on to win the next round, too, and both teams in the 2014 World Series came via the play-in game.
"You're primed and ready for the postseason," Leiter says.
There's always the slippery-slope possibility of expanding the one-game series to three games, and then five, and adding more teams for more and more TV money until you get to the point the NBA is at, in which more than half the franchises qualify for the postseason. For a sport that barely allowed four teams in as recently as 1995, that would be a failure for baseball.
"You can't play for two more months," Casey argues. But fair or not, one more game is fun for the fans, often a boost for the winning teams, and good for the evolution of a sport better known for dragging its feet.
Getting to pour one more bottle of champagne is a good thing, Leiter says. "Look, I know the other side. But just, let's cool out. Let's just enjoy it. I'm going to enjoy the heck out of it."
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