Every October, the temperature dips, leaves perish, and football season reaches terminal velocity as the baseball playoffs accelerate into a drama-filled competition. This year is no different. However, several major variations exist in baseball’s postseason.
For the first time since the 1994 addition of the wild card, the playoff format has changed, kind of. A second wild card was added to each league’s postseason bracket, forcing an extra “playoff” game between the top two non-division winners in each league. However, this “playoff” game, is just a play-in game. Call it what you want, the name is arbitrary. In previous seasons, play-in games decided deadlocked division and wild card races after the conclusion of the regular season, and existed as a 163rd regular season game. The playoff bracket commenced as normal following these play-in games. But from this point forward, these (play-in) games are automatic, and should not be.
Case-in-point: The Atlanta Braves finished the regular season 94-68, earned a “playoff” berth, and lost in the wild card “playoff” game to the St. Louis Cardinals, whose record was six games worse than the Braves’. Six games! Previously, the Braves would have won the wild card, and that would have been that. They would have moved on and played the Nationals in a best-of-five series. Instead, Major League Baseball decided that as many as six regular season games should not matter, and a team who lost fairly should be given a second, or in this case, seventh chance, and could advance to the playoffs by winning one game.
The Major League Baseball playoffs contain the lowest percentage of total teams in the league in all of the major sports. To clarify, in 2011, eight out of baseball’s 30 teams made the playoffs. Basketball and hockey each have 16 out of 30 go, and football allows 12 of 32. So naturally, baseball looked to expand their postseason. Unfortunately, their effort was as bland, unproductive, and annoying as the NCAA’s attempt to expand their tournament. Just as there is no possibility for an even bracket with 68 teams, so too can an even playoff bracket exist with 10 teams. Play -in games are not a compromise, they’re a nuisance. And to propose that one “playoff” game is worth six regular season games is preposterous.
To make matters worse, in order to allow time for these extra games, the MLB had to squeeze the Divisional Series into a tighter space, allowing for fewer travel days. Therefore, during a pivotal five game series, teams will only travel once, making the first two games played in the city of the lower-seeded team, and the final three at the stadium of the superior team. I don’t care how good the higher-seeded team is, it is a daunting task to be forced to win one of two playoff games on the road. Despite the fact they are not technically “forced” to win one of two on the road, odds are not on their side to sweep three games in the playoffs at home.
The Nationals were welcomed to the playoffs and presented with this extreme challenge. Luckily for them, Washington was victorious today in St. Louis, something the Redskins could not say three weeks ago as a result of weak referees.
But the presence of the Washington Nationals in the playoffs is a quirk I rather enjoy this year. It is unfortunate eighteen times each season, but the Nationals are my second favorite team behind my beloved, yet perpetually frustrating Marlins. After several straight years of unpleasant baseball in our nation’s capital, the Nationals finally broke out in 2012 and won the National League East the same year the Phillies missed the playoffs for the first time since 2006.
Spirits are high in Washington after their outstanding season and first playoff win since the Senators’ 1933 run. Luckily, they were able to avoid the new wild card “playoff” game, and avoided the implementation of the outfield fly rule. But I will save umpire rants for a later post.