Ouch. That hurt. That hurt big time.
Six months and 162 games of emotional investment, all washed away in one night. One bad, miserable, sub-par night.
Earning a Wild Card berth is not a reward. It’s punishment. For the teams who have to play the sudden-death game, for the fans who have to sweat through it and especially for the fans who have to suffer the one-and-done exit from the postseason.
Yesterday’s performance was not indicative of the Cincinnati Reds I have watched all season. They played poorly in every facet of the game. The team couldn’t pitch. It couldn’t hit. It couldn’t field. And it will have no chance to redeem itself. With one bad outing, the season is over.
The one-game, sudden death Wild Card round format was meant to put a premium on winning the division, and to adequately reward teams that do. But it’s too extreme a means to that end, and does a disservice to the fan bases of Wild Card teams.
The outcome of any given baseball game is undeterminable. The best team with the best players doesn’t always win each individual game. That’s why teams play 162-game seasons; so that the inherent luck involved with the sport does not factor into the standings; so that the cream has an actual opportunity to rise to the top.
Teams don’t even play single games through the course of the regular season. Instead, teams play series – typically of three games but occasional four- and two-game series – against opponents. Series victories are valued over individual ones, because they’re more indicative of who was the better team than a one-off.
Yet for these Wild Card teams, one single individual game determines the fate of their season. Win and you advance to a best-of-five series in the Divisional Series. Lose and you go home for the winter.
For fans of the loser, the format leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. It leaves one asking uncountable what ifs.
For example, what if Mat Latos hadn’t been suffering from bone chips in his pitching elbow, and had been available to start the Wild Card game as originally scheduled?
The injury forced the Reds to turn to Johnny Cueto for Tuesday’s start. Cueto, making just his third start from coming off the disabled list and only his 12th of the season, obviously hadn’t worked all the kinks out. He couldn’t get the ball down in the strike zone, resulting in every ball hit by Pirates batters being absolutely scalded – including those that went for outs. He lasted just 3 1/3 innings and dug a hole that Cincinnati’s offense could not climb out of. Latos had been the Reds’ most consistent and dominant starter throughout the season. Had he been available, Pittsburgh would not have had the luxury of Cueto’s thigh-high hanging sliders and change ups to tee off on.
What if Todd Frazier’s foul ball had been a couple of feet fairer?
The Reds had gotten a run back in the fourth inning, and trailed just 3-1 with two runners on base when Frazier blasted a skyrocket down the left field line. The ball eventually hooked just far enough to miss the foul pole by no more than two feet. Had the ball been fair, the home run would have put Cincinnati in front 4-3, quited the raucus crowd at PNC Park and flipped all of the pressure on the shoulders of the home Pirates.
What if the usually sure-handed Zack Cozart and Brandon Phillips hadn’t booted would-be double play ground balls?
Pittsburgh picked up a couple of unearned insurance runs that gave them breathing room and stacked the deck even higher against a possible Cincinnati comeback. In the third inning, Pirates outfielder Marlon Byrd hit a scalding groundball that kicked of Cozart’s glove and trickled into the outfield. Instead of getting two outs that would have ended the inning, Pittsburgh center fielder Andrew McCutcheon was able to go from first to third on the play and later score on a sacrifice fly. With one-out and the bases loaded in the ____, Byrd hit another should-have-been double play ball, this time to Phillips. Phillips bobbled the grounder, was only able to get one out at second base, and Pittsburgh plated yet another unearned run. Had the Reds gotten out of those innings unscathed, the entire complexion of the game might have changed. The deficit would not have been so daunting. Morale might not have been so deflated.
It’s not sour grapes. Through 162 games, the Pirates finished with a better season record. They won the season series against my Reds 11-8. That means something. And last night, the Buccos certainly showed they were the better team.
But the fans deserve better. After shelling out and showing up to the ballpark since the start of April, for their team not to have more than a one-game opportunity to fight for its season survival just doesn’t seem fair. I felt that way watching last year’s Atlanta-St. Louis Wild Card Game with Braves fans. I really feel that way having just gone through the same thing last night.
I support the sentiment behind this new Wild Card Game. Division winners should be rewarded for actually winning their division. There should be some advantage bestowed upon them, some disadvantage placed in the way of the Wild Card teams. The sudden-death format takes things too far.
A three-game series would accomplish the same goals. In fact, it might even provide a greater advantage to division winners than a one-game Wild Card round. Wild Card participants could potentially have to burn through their best three starting pitchers, as opposed to just one, before advancing to the next round of the playoffs to face one of the division winners.
A three-game series would produce a more deserving Wild Card winner. There are so many quirky things that can impact an individual game. A starting pitcher could get injured early. A team could hit the ball hard every at bat, yet unfortunately happen to hit it right where defenders happen to be positioned. An umpiring crew could make a bad call that turns out to be a game changer or decider. A lucky break here. An unlucky bounce there. The list could go on and on. By requiring a team to win two out of three, there is less a chance that the ultimate outcome will be decided by one of those circumstances.
And a three-game series would be fairer to the Wild Card teams’ fan bases.
Major League Baseball will come to understand that. Refinements will come. And fans of Wild Card teams in the future won’t be subject to the degree sting that last night’s game disaster has left me with.