Twenty MLB teams saw their 2015 season come to an end on Sunday, but for the other 10 the excitement has only just begun.
It’s rare that we get a postseason that disappoints in MLB and, based on this year’s entry list, we’re going to be in for another treat this time around.
It all gets going late on Tuesday night (technically 1 a.m. on Wednesday morning for us in the UK) with the American League Wild Card between the Houston Astros and the New York Yankees, followed the next night by the National League version between the Chicago Cubs and Pittsburgh Pirates.
Baseball is a game for the traditionalists and so the introduction of the Wild Card ‘play-in’ game was, like most changes, not universally welcomed in 2012. However, it has been a success from the off, producing exciting races down the stretch in the regular season and then the thrilling, excruciating all-or-nothing Wild Card games themselves.
I’ve felt the bitter disappointment that this cruel contest can bring having suffered through the Oakland A’s Wild Card loss to the Kansas City Royals last year. It’s a crushing blow, as if you’ve hardly made the play-offs at all.
From a personal point of view, the Royals’ run to the World Series made it all the harder to take, only enhancing the feeling that it could have been my team in the Fall Classic. Still, the Royals’ success, and that of their nemesis the San Francisco Giants – who also got there having come out alive from their Wild Card showdown – showed that whilst a team would always prefer to qualify without the Wild Card worry, so long as they win it they have as good a chance as any to go all the way.
That will be the mantra for all four Wild Card teams this year.
Although this is far from being a vintage New York Yankees team, the aura of the fabled Pinstripes may still come into play now they’re in the play-offs again after – for them – a long two-year absence.
The Houston Astros meanwhile have been one of the great surprise stories of the season. We all knew that their recent years of abject uselessness, handing them a bevy of high amateur draft picks with which to stock up on the best young talent, was designed to bring about better days such as these, but few of us realised that those better days would come so soon.
Dallas Keuchel, Houston’s starting pitcher for the Wild Card game, may have a lumberjack beard, but the only thing that’s merely “OK” about him is the abbreviation of his home state, Oklahoma. The Astros’ ace has been outstanding this season and the left-hander should match up well against the left-leaning (in the handedness rather than political sense) Yankee batting lineup. The question mark is simply whether pitching after only three days’ rest knocks him out of his usual stride.
There are more question marks against the Yankees’ expensively acquired Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka. Injury fears have plagued him for the past year or so and he’s been effective rather than outstanding this year in his second MLB season. This would be a good time to show that he was worth the considerable investment.
In the National League Wild Card, it’s the Chicago Cubs that take the Houston Astros role. Like their old NL Central rival, the Cubs deliberately chucked several seasons away as they rebuilt a team that had got old and expensive, and have climbed back into competitiveness earlier than most expected.
It’s difficult to imagine anyone coming into a Wild Card game in more relentlessly brilliant form than the Cubs’ pitcher Jake Arrieta will do. In 12 starts from 4 August to 2 October, he has allowed a total of four earned runs. Honestly, four earned runs. Those 12 starts include a no-hitter against the NL West division-winning LA Dodgers, and two impressive appearances against the Pittsburgh Pirates.
He’s been so good that Pirates fans have been wondering out loud whether they have much of a shot of winning the game ever since it became clear he would be lined up by the Cubs to start it.
The Pirates have good reason to fear yet another dominating start by Arrieta, but they know they’ve got a great young pitcher on the mound too in Gerrit Cole. This might just be the start in which things don’t quite go Arrieta’s way. Certainly the Pirates would like to believe that he’s due an off-night and, as is the way in this Wild Card game showdown, that could be all it takes for Arrieta’s excellent season to – whilst far from going to waste considering all he and the Cubs have achieved to get here – come to a disappointing end.
This is the third consecutive year in which Pittsburgh has hosted the NL Wild Card game, so everyone – from manager Clint Hurdle, the players and the PNC Park fans – knows exactly what to expect. They beat the Cincinnati Reds in 2013 and lost to the Giants last year, so they’ve got direct experience – if it was really needed – of just what this game means.
After the A’s heart-breaking meltdown a year ago, there’s a part of me that’s glad to be able to look forward to the two Wild Card games this time around without the potential emotional distress of tiredly peering out from behind a cushion at 5.45 a.m. as your hopes of glory – we were 7-3 up heading into the bottom of the eighth inning, don’t forget, then took an 8-7 lead in the top of the twelfth – crumble to dust.
But then again, oh how I wish we were there with the chance to experience the other side of it.
For two teams the Wild Card play-in will seem like a cruel joke. For the other two it will seem like the sweetest thing imaginable, an exhilarating start to a potential World Series and a season that will never be forgotten.
Both games are live from 1 a.m. on BT Sport/ESPN and online for MLB.TV subscribers (don’t forget, whilst U.S. fans are ‘blacked out’ from watching the postseason live on MLB.TV, those restrictions don’t apply in the UK).