MLB playoffs

There's So Much to Love About MLB's Wild-Card Game

Baseball's chaotic win-or-go-home playoff game may not be fair but it rarely disappoints. Embrace it.

by Drew Fairservice
Oct 2 2018, 5:22pm

Photos by Jason Szenes, John G. Mabanglo-EPA-EFE

The wild card play-in games are, objectively, good. Two win-or-go-home games kickstart baseball's postseason, nervy affairs to set the table and clean the palate after a month of bloated rosters and tedious matchups during the dog days of summer.

While 2018 gifted baseball fans with two exciting Game 163s for the division titles in the NL Central and West, those games lacked the urgency of a do-or-die wild-card matchup. The only tension in those games was teams seeking to avoid the wild-card game. Therein lies the appeal to everyone but the players on the field. They are a much-needed shot of adrenaline after a long six-month season, where tight division races are a dying breed in the increasingly stratified (read: tank-laden) game of baseball.

Are the wild-card games fair? Not in a true sense of competition, no, of course not. Allowing the entire season to rest on a single game, where a bad break or bizarre call could send you packing is no one's idea of fair.

But there's something else to consider—it doesn't matter what you consider fair. Professional sports aren't "fair" now, and they never were. Set the idea of pro sports meritocracy aside, given the unbalanced schedule and disparity between divisions. The wild-card games are leaning hard into the entertainment side of this professional sports package and we're all better for it.

In a lot of ways, the wild-card game is the only pure thing left in this world. Baseball's reverent nature looks down its nose on the non-traditional. But it cannot resist the lure of something as meaningful as a "win and you're in" game.

Ninety-nine percent of all comic book movies are boring for one reason: The stakes are artificially ratcheted up too high, stakes few of these content marketing pillars bother to earn. Some beam of light threatens the entire planet, the fate of millions hangs in the balance of fist-fighting robots from beyond the moon. When every pitched battle is for the fate of the universe, the entire exercise loses its bite.

This is secretly why the wild-card games work so well. They aren't playing for the galactic championship or the World Series, that would be silly. While they're playing for something, they're not playing for everything, setting these games in stark contrast to the 162-game grind of the regular season.

In the wild-card round, one team loses and its season is over, the other takes a small step in a long journey toward a championship, advancing to a best-of-five series before the stakes intensify once again. It's just enough without straining credulity of the fans.

The wild-card games have yielded a high number of unforgettable moments throughout the short history of the format. Let's take a look at some of them.

We've seen walk-off homers like when Edwin Encarnacion sent the Orioles home for good. Lights-out pitching performances from capital-A aces, as big-game studs like Madison Bumgarner and Jake Arrieta single-handedly sent the Pirates packing in consecutive years, with Bumgarner returning in 2016 to cast the Mets aside. Conversely, the Yankees got exactly one out from their ace Luis Severino last year but still managed to blast the Twins 8-4.

Some games feature crazy comebacks—like when the Kansas City Royals twice shoved the Oakland A's aside in 2014—others are back-and-forth shootouts, like last year in the National League when the Diamondbacks and Rockies combined for four homers and four triples, including the only extra-base hit of shutdown reliever Archie Bradley's career.

Some games are turned by head-scratching calls, such as the bizarre infield fly play in the first ever wild-card game back in 2012, costing Atlanta its season. Or the infamous choice of Buck Showalter to let the unhittable Zach Britton cool his heels in the bullpen while Ubaldo Jimenez did... this:

In other words, it's a hell of a lot of fun.

It's a gimmick that strikes an ideal balance between leveraged competition and entertainment product. Perhaps the game would benefit from leaning into the latter even a little more. Bring the Players' Weekend jerseys back for one night only. Mic up every guy on the field—the atmosphere is generally tense, so balance that with entertaining flourishes in pursuit of the perfect game for neutrals and hardcore fans alike.

Let the wild card party wash over you. Let chaos reign. The round ball on round bat variance is good for the soul. The terror gripping Yankees fans is good, actually. At least they know they're alive.

May the hand of fate guide us toward the weird and the noteworthy. Let the excruciating cruelty of a win-or-go-home game either tease out those doubts or stuff them away for a short series against a better team. It's a bracing shot of October baseball, drink it in.