Before the 2012 season, Major League Baseball changed the playoff format that had been in place for almost 20 seasons. Instead of four teams from each league advancing to the postseason, five now do with the two best non-division winners facing off in a one-game playoff to advance to the League Division Series.
I don’t particularly have an opinion as to whether this was a good change or not. I enjoy having an extra postseason game, especially one that often involves whacky managerial decisions. I like that two more good teams aren’t shut out of the playoffs. But I also think think that a single winner-take-all game after a 162-game regular season is incredibly cruel, usually to the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Because the Pirates have the misfortune of playing in the same division as the St. Louis Cardinals, they’ve had to play in the Wild Card game for the past three seasons. This season they won 98 freaking games, the second most in baseball! Unfortunately for them, the Cardinals won 100. This put them in the Wild Card game against the Cubs (who won 97 in maybe the most stacked division ever), which really means a Wild Card game against Jake Arrieta. In five games against the Pirates this year, Arrieta was 3-1, with a microscopic 0.75 ERA in 36 innings. Since the All-Star break his ERA was also 0.75, the lowest in history.
Jake Arrieta is the human embodiment of a buzzsaw, and the Pirates stood no chance against him tonight. He went the full nine innings, giving up just four hits (all singles) and no runs, while striking out 11. He faced only one spot of danger, when a single, hit batter, and error loaded the bases in the sixth. But Arrieta induced a double play grounder from Starling Marte to get out of the inning.
If Arrieta’s line sounds eerily familiar, it is probably because Madison Bumgarner put up a nearly identical one in last year’s Wild Card game against the Pirates. In that game Bumgarner went the full nine, giving up just four hits (all singles) and no runs, while striking out 10. The only thing that made the 8-0 loss to the Giants less heartbreaking is that the Pirates’ 88-74 record was the same as the Giants, so under the old rules they would’ve had to play a one-game tiebreaker.
But still, that’s two years in a row that the Pirates went to the “playoffs” only to bow out after a single game. Two years in a row running up against a stud pitcher in a winner-take-all situation, when only an Edison Volquez or Gerrit Cole gem could’ve prevented the loss, and maybe not even then. An obvious takeaway is that an ace is extremely valuable in the Wild Card round, which, sure, but aces have always been valuable. It’s not like the Pirates were sitting around refusing to acquire an ace because they didn’t see the value in it. No, there just aren’t that many “one of the best pitchers in the game” around!
This is where I wrap-up the blog with the take, the point that confirms the thesis, the clever kicker. I got nothing. I like having two more meaningful baseball games, and they’re not “unfair” in any manner; if a team wants to avoid the Wild Card round they should be better and win more games, or just go out and win the Wild Card game. I guess I’m just feeling weirdly sentimental about a dumb game where men swing sticks at balls. It seems shitty that the Pirates kicked-ass for 162 games and are done after three hours, and that the Pirates fans who finally get to root for a quality baseball team can only watch in horror as they slam into a brick wall in the playoffs.
Photo via AP