Happy postseason baseball! We’re not even neck deep in the drama of one-run games or the thrill of blowouts, but the tensest and most nerve wracking game has already begun: the wild card game.
Changed in 2012, this win-or-go-home game was implemented to incentivize the importance of winning the division and making competition more intense, as many more teams were theoretically going to be competing for the last two spots.
It’s been four years. Has this format worked for better or for worse?
First, we have to look at wild card standing at the end of each of the four years. Let’s set a few ground rules as to what I’ll consider competitive:
1) The top two teams are separated by at maximum four games
2) The teams who are below the top two finishers must also be trailing by a maximum of four games
3) The wild card game itself was exciting: no major blowouts (winning by 6+ runs), no shutouts, each team has at least five hits (side note on this one: I love me a good pitcher’s duel more than anything, but a lot of other people want a good back-and-forth game where their team even has a chance to make it close; and in a play-in game, I’d have to agree.)
4) The winning team has applied all of this criteria to the subsequent series as well
American league, 2012: The Orioles and the Rangers played this one in its inaugural year, with the O’s taking the cake with a 5-1 victory. The game was a 1-1 tie for five innings until Adam Jones knocked in a sac fly to give the O’s a 2-1 edge, and they tacked on a few more insurance runs, including two in the top of the ninth. Both teams finished atop the wild card standings with a record of 93-69, certainly upping the competitive edge. Both the Rays and the Angles finished three and four games out, respectively. Each team collected at least eight hits. The O’s took the Yankees to five games in the ALDS, but ultimately lost, albeit in crazy fashion. Did this game live up to the hype? Absolutely.
National league, 2012: The Braves and the Cardinals played the inaugural play-in game on the national league side. The Braves were six games ahead of the Cardinals in the standings, but the Dodgers missed the second spot by just two games. This game had more run scoring than its American League counterpart: The score was 3-2 in favor of the Cardinals in the fourth inning after trailing 2-0 after two. They tacked on three more runs by the seventh inning before Atlanta started to fight back, but they ultimately failed to come back and the Cardinals emerged victorious, even though they only collected six hits and the Braves had 12. We absolutely cannot forget the infamous infield fly call, which probably screwed the Braves over and brought up the importance of good umpiring in such a critical game. I’m sure Atlanta fans are still salty about this, but that makes for a perfectly dramatic play-in game. The Cards won the ALDS and lost to the Giants 4-3 in the NLCS, but that’s only because it was an even year. This one passes.
American League, 2013: The standings tightened up on this one. The Cleveland Indians finished in the top spot by only half a game over the Tampa Bay Rays. Of course, the highlight of the Rays’ season was their epic comeback against the Yankees to force a tiebreaker game with the Texas Rangers, which the Rays won. The actual wild card game itself, while each team collected at least eight hits, was not terribly tense, as the Rays won the game in a 4-0 shutout. They lost the ALDS 3-1 as well, and it’s certain that their magic was outdone by that world champion Red Sox team. This one, unfortunately, does not get my thumbs up.
National League, 2013: The Pirates hosted this one against the Reds, making for an exciting division matchup. It was all the more exciting, considering it was the Pirates’ first postseason appearance since 1992 and the winner of the game would go on to play the Cardinals. The Bucs finished four games ahead of the Reds, and the Nationals finished four games behind the Reds for the second spot. The Pirates dominated the game, collecting 13 hits and scoring six runs, holding the Reds to six hits and two runs. Although they lost the ALDS three games to two, they made it competitive and proved to the baseball world that the Bucs were back in business. The wild card game itself wasn’t the greatest, but the events that followed certainly were. Approved.
American League, 2014: The Kansas City Royals finally emerged into the playoff scene, taking the top spot over the Oakland Athletics by one game. The teams that finished out of the standings were close, as three teams finished out by one, three and four games. This wild card game might have been the tensest game to date, as the Royals came back from a 7-3 deficit to force extra innings. After the A’s scored five in the top of the sixth, I remember sitting in my living room and saying to my brother “It’s all over for the Royals.” Oh, how wrong I was. They scored three in the eighth and one in the bottom of the ninth, and after the A’s took a one-run lead in the 12th, the Royals scored two to walk off for their first playoff win in 29 years. The Royals went on to sweep both the ALDS and ALCS, and took the Giants to seven games in the World Series before ultimately losing (it was an even year, after all). This has to be the best wild card team performance to date. I would give it three thumbs up if I could.
National League, 2014: How do you top the Royals in that AL wild card game? Well, you could be the San Francisco Giants and go on to win the World Series. Unsurprisingly, Madison Bumgarner had an incredible performance in the win-or-go-home game against the Pirates, blanking them in an 8-0 victory. Both teams finished the season with the same record, and the teams that finished out of the standings were not close. The Giants lost one game to the Nationals in the NLDS and one game to the Cardinals in the NLCS, but of course that doesn’t matter. The fact that the two wild card teams squared off in the World Series is something that I’m never going to forget. The game itself was kind of boring, but the events that followed were downright incredible.
American League, 2015: The Yankees squared up against the Astros in this one, after New York finished one game ahead of them in the standings. The Angels and the Twins both finished one and three games behind the second spot, respectively. This game was probably the most boring wild card game to date, as eventual Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel struck out seven Yankees and only allowed three hits. The Astros didn’t exactly dominate either, only scoring three runs and collecting five hits. It’s a shame this game had to be such a snooze fest. The Astros unfortunately went on to lose to the Royals in the ALDS, which angers me. Disapprove.
National League, 2015: A lot of people seem to forget that this game was the Cubs against the Pirates. Pittsburgh actually finished a game ahead of Chicago in the standings, with each team winning a whopping 98 and 97 games, respectively. (Seriously, the Giants finished THIRTEEN games out of the second spot.) The Cubs blanked the Pirates 4-0 and went on to defeat the division rival Cardinals three games to one in the NLDS before getting swept by the Mets in the NLCS. Despite the game itself being a little boring, it was exciting because it was the Cubs and Back to the Future said that they were going to win the World Series in 2015. I give this game a thumbs up.
American League, 2016: I can actually write about this one! Extra innings are always a thrill. The AL wild card race was incredibly close in the last two weeks of the season, with six teams in the mix. Ultimately, the Blue Jays and the Orioles tied for the first spot, with four teams finishing five or less games out. The game was relatively quiet for the most part, with the offenses only scoring two runs in the first nine innings. Toronto had a plethora of opportunities to score in late innings, but Baltimore pitching was able to get out of each jam. Ultimately, Toronto won off an epic walk off three-run homer from Edwin Encarnacion. Toronto will play the Rangers in Texas on Thursday.
National League, 2016: This game is, of course, happening tonight, and might feature the best pitching matchup for the two-team wild card game ever: Madison Bumgarner for the Giants and Noah Syndergaard for the Mets. Both have very strong cases for the Cy Young award this year, so don’t expect too many runs to be scored. But if I had to venture a guess, I would expect a very tense game… and I’m not just saying that because I’m a Mets fan and the prospect of one-and-done makes me want to vomit.