The Wild Card works

MlbPostseason2014Few games on the MLB calendar can match the Wild Card ‘play-in’ contests when it comes to starkly revealing the slim margins between joy and despair.

The Oakland A’s and Pittsburgh Pirates made it to the playoffs, but it won’t really feel that way to them. They both played one game and then had to go home; in Oakland’s case the scheduling of their 30 September Wild Card game meant they couldn’t even claim to have played in October, the customary shorthand for postseason baseball.

It was better than not making it at all, but only just.

When MLB expanded the playoff format in 2012, up from eight to ten teams, one of the key factors cited for the change was the desire to make winning a division more important once again. This undoubtedly had been reduced in the previous Wild Card format where the team that won the Wild Card in a league was at no disadvantage to the three division winners.

The painful exits of the A’s and Pirates is exactly what MLB had in mind: you had better try to win your division because if you don’t, your fate will be decided by a single game.

This was especially relevant when it came to Pittsburgh. They were knocked out of the playoffs largely thanks to a dominant performance by San Francisco Giants starting pitcher Madison Bumgarner, who blanked the Pirates’ batting lineup over nine complete innings.

Pittsburgh went into the final day of the regular season still in with a chance of winning the NL Central division and they therefore chose to send Gerrit Cole to the mound against the Cincinnati Reds. The Pirates lost the game, despite a strong performance by Cole, handing the division to the St. Louis Cardinals and forcing Pittsburgh into starting a lesser pitcher – Edinson Volquez – in the win-or-go-home Wild Card.

As the outcome went against the Pirates you could make a strong case that their decision to start Cole on Sunday was a mistake. On balance that might be true, based on the fact that even if Pittsburgh had won their final regular season game, that still would not have been enough to win the division had the Cardinals then beaten the Arizona Diamondbacks, with ace pitcher Adam Wainwright scheduled to start that game.

The other side of the argument is that even if Cole had started the Wild Card game, he still may have not been able to save his team against Bumgarner’s outstanding performance and the possibility of the Giants’ ace pitching that sort of game against them was precisely why Pittsburgh thought it was worth the risk to try to avoid that scenario altogether.

You could look at it either way, the one thing everyone can agree on is that the dilemma the Pirates faced was exactly what this Wild Card format is all about.

That extends to the Giants’ situation too. They will be delighted to have the opportunity to face the Washington Nationals in their Division Series; however the fact that Bumgarner will not be available until the third game of the best-of-five series puts them at a disadvantage. The Nationals meanwhile have been able to set up their starting pitcher rotation exactly as they want, an advantage they have earned by virtue of winning their division.

Of the four Wild Card ‘play-in’ game winners from the first two years of the new format, only the 2012 Cardinals went on to win their Division Series match-up. The Giants may take some hope from that bearing in mind the Nationals were the team beaten by St. Louis in a year when the Giants went on to win the World Series.

Either that will bring San Francisco good luck or the Nationals are due for some revenge.

Division Series games up to and including Sunday

So far the start times for the Division Series games have been confirmed up to and including those scheduled for Sunday and these are listed below in BST.

Several of them start during the British evening, with those beginning in the early hours shown in itallics (i.e. Game 1 of the Kansas City – LA Angels series actually takes place in the early hours of Friday, U.K. time).

Thursday 2 October

22:37 Detroit at Baltimore (Game 1 of the series) *ESPN
02:07 Kansas City at LA Angels (Gm 1) *ESPN

Friday 3 October

17:07 Detroit at Baltimore (Gm 2)
20:07 San Francisco at Washington (Gm 1) *ESPN
23:37 St. Louis at LA Dodgers (Gm 1) *BT Sport2
02:37 Kansas City at LA Angels (Gm 2) *BT Sport2

Saturday 4 October

22:37 San Francisco at Washington (Gm 2)
02:37 St. Louis at LA Dodgers (Gm 2) *BT Sport2

Sunday 5 October

20:45 Baltimore at Detroit (Gm 3) *ESPN
00:37 LA Angels at Kansas City (Gm 3) *ESPN

As during the regular season, TV coverage in the U.K. comes via the BT Sport/ESPN channels. Those of you with an annual MLB.TV subscription can watch all of the postseason games live on on-demand as part of that account (no new purchase needed), or new customers can buy a specific International Postseason subscription for $25 (approximately £16).

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