There are plenty of reasons to dislike the presence of MLB's second wild card teams, but tonight's matchup is not one of them. That's because we will get to watch two great pitchers—James Shields of the Kansas City Royals and Jon Lester of the Oakland A's—start the precise game that they were acquired to win, a game that could be the last that either will pitch for their respective teams.
A common gripe about baseball is that there's no guarantee that the big moments, the ones that decide games and seasons, will be placed in the hands of the best players on the field. Lineups and rotations are constructed to defeat circumstances as best they can, but sometimes teams just have to suck it up and run a fourth starter to the mound in Game 7, or wince as a slap-hitting shortstop strides to the plate with the bases loaded and two outs in the bottom of the ninth.
Tonight's game is set up to run counter to all of that. The A's traded away one of their best hitters for Lester and one of their best prospects for Jeff Samardzija before this year's trade deadline, the idea being that the two aces could lead the A's on a charge into the postseason. The Royals gutted their farm system in order to get Shields two years ago, basically hanging a sign around his neck that read, "This guy—this is the guy who is going to get us to the playoffs for the first time since 1985, goddammit!"
Shields has been the ace the Royals were hoping to get, and Lester has posted a 159 ERA+ in his 11 starts with the A's. Both have done their part, and the fact that their teams are in a one-game playoff rather than preparing for the ALDS is no fault of theirs. It's unfair that they have to shoulder the success or failure of an entire season in one start, but there is also something undeniably fun behind the idea that they will be doing just that. Lester and Shields were both acquired to win this game, and now they have the chance to go out there and do it.
This fun is compounded by the fact that it's unlikely that Lester and Shields, both in the last years of their contracts, will still be with their teams come next season. The A's will almost certainly let Lester walk even if they can afford him, and while the Royals will have some money to throw around, it's going to be hard to keep Shields if teams like the Red Sox and Yankees open the war chests. After tonight, one of these guys will be the gamble that paid off, and the other will likely never get another chance to become the same. Rarely is a season-deciding game so perfectly cast.
I'm always going to feel ambivalent about MLB's decision to restructure the wild card. Not only does it raise the possibility of a very deserving playoff team getting duffed by a much shittier team in a one-game playoff, it makes the last few weeks of the season harder to get excited about. While teams are killing themselves to lock up that second spot, I can't help but think, "Well, the field's just going to change again after the first wild card game, so why bother getting too excited about any of this?" But then a game like this one comes along, and I love the second wild card. Now we get to watch two equally matched teams in one deciding game, and all those bleak truths about the nature of baseball I mentioned up top are momentarily scrambled.
Success in baseball is all about surviving the slog. It's about run prevention, riding out slumps and regressions, luck, bullpen depth, effective platoons, and about a dozen other things that can and can't be controlled by the players and managers. But sometimes, like it will be tonight, it's about putting the season in the hands of the two guys best equipped to handle it, and asking them to go kick some ass.