CLEVELAND — It's one game but it feels like a Game Seven. You might call it a gimmick but you would be wrong. This is baseball charging out of the chute to start its postseason in ultra-dramatic fashion. And it's brilliant.
On the surface, a wild-card game seems unfair. You go through a month of spring training, play 162 – or maybe even 163 – regular-season games and your fate is decided in one game?
So be it. No complaints from here or from the masses. Pittsburgh's PNC Park was filled Tuesday night with a howling, black-clad mass of humanity that was one of the most raucous October crowds in recent history. Cincinnati pitcher Johnny Cueto got downright spooked by the fans as the Pirates painted a memorable return to the postseason after 21 years and breezed to a 6-2 win in the National League wild-card game.
Cleveland fans, meanwhile, rocked the red and waved their white towels in filling Progressive Field for Wednesday's American League showdown between the Indians and Tampa Bay Rays. It was the Tribe's first playoff game since 2007.
“I love it. It's the greatest concept ever,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said in the hours leading up to the game. “I'm glad they thought of it. We were in a pretty good spot a month or so ago and looking to win the division. In that regard, you hate this moment. Now, you like it. Now, it's exciting to be here.”
“You can embrace it or moan about it,” said Cleveland skipper Terry Francona. “I'd rather embrace it and hope we win.”
The wild-card game started last year. It was partly a way to get one more team in the playoffs from each league. But it had a much deeper purpose too. For that, you can thank the 2010 New York Yankees.
Baseball executives all the way up to Bud Selig were appalled at the way the Yankees didn't care about the AL East title three years ago. The Yankees and Rays had already locked up the top two records in the AL and New York decided setting its pitching rotation for the division series and getting ready for a long October were more important than winning the division.
The Rays finished 96-66 while the Yankees went 95-67 after dropping eight of their final 11 games. The Rays ended up losing the division series in five games to Texas while the Yankees' pitching moves resulted in a three-game sweep of Minnesota before they lost to Texas in six games in the ALCS.
“It really meant nothing more than a T-shirt and a hat,” Yanks GM Brian Cashman admitted during spring training in 2012. “I'm not taking away from Tampa Bay, but we didn't try to win the division. We tried to line ourselves up for the playoffs and that worked.”
“I did not concede the division,” manager Joe Girardi insisted that spring when told of Cashman's comments. “What bothers me with that is when it comes out that way, it's almost like we weren't trying to win games. Now, when have you ever known me not to try to win a game?”
Sorry, Joe. You weren't trying to win. The starting pitchers in the last two games of 2010 were Ivan Nova (the version that made only seven starts at age 23, not the guy who has won 37 games the last three years) and Dustin Moseley. The Yankees lost both to drop the division by one game.
So the extra wild card was added to avoid another division tanking and create a huge advantage to win your division. You avoid this winner-take-all affair and can get ready for the division series. Teams will never stop pushing to win a division now.
Of course, the next question comes from those who think this should be a best-of-three affair. Fair enough thought but it's not happening. The schedule would go into November, which baseball wants to avoid. And here's an unintended consequence: Teams that win their division would be sitting around too long watching the wild cards battle.
You want all the rest you can get in the NFL, NBA and NHL postseasons. Not so in baseball. Sitting around is curtains for hitters, who start sprouting rust on their bats within a couple of days. Same for starting pitchers, who are actually too strong if not throwing on their every-fifth-day pattern.
Don't believe me? Ask the 2006 and 2012 Tigers or the 2007 Rockies how they did in the World Series after sitting for as many as nine days. They went a combined 1-12.
The Indians and Rays had been pushing for weeks just to get here, with Cleveland winning its final 10 games to fashion a 21-6 September. It's all about answering the challenge, like the Pirates did in the National League game. Francona, a Western Pennsylvania native, loved watching that one.
“I grew up 30 miles from Three Rivers,” Francona said, referring to the Pirates' old home park. “Unless we're playing them, I'm a big fan of what they're doing because I grew up there and I knew every lineup from Manny Sanguillen to Willie Stargell to Dave Parker. I was thrilled. I thought the whole thing was really neat.”
The all-or-nothing nature of the game was a big reason why.