Bold Prediction Time: San Francisco is going to pick the absolute worst time to collapse. And though it feels harsh to label a 1-3 finish as such — when the club has 104 wins in their back pocket — but there's nothing else to call a change at the top of the NL West standings on the final day. Those pesky Dodgers refuse to let the Giants run away and hide. Down 9-5 to the Padres in the seventh inning last night, I watched them hit four bombs, collect three quick outs in the ninth, and snatch a convincing 11-9 victory from of a sure defeat. The champs are definitely still the champs; they can flip a switch no one else can even reach.
And those Padres are going to have a considerable say as to who wins the West. With a 78-80 current record, this once promising (and expensively assembled) roster should be playing hard for pride and a win percentage above .500. San Diego and Los Angeles finish out their 19-game knock-down, drag-out war tonight. I hope it's more of the same with these two in 2021. Seriously, three or four of the heavyweight bouts between the Dodgers and Padres this year could find their way on a Top Ten Most Entertaining MLB Games list. A San Diego loss tonight (Vince Velasquez vs. Tony Gonsolin) paired with an Arizona win (Bumgarner vs. Kazmir) would shrink the San Francisco lead to a single game. Oh, the irony of "MadBum" looking to spoil the party of his old mates.
On Friday, the scenes will remain the same (Oracle Park and Dodger Stadium) but the opponents shift for the final three contests of the regular season. The Giants host the Padres, while the Dodgers welcome the Milwaukee Brewers. An L.A. sweep would feasibly see the Dodgers out as NL West Champions for the ninth consecutive year — none more dramatically snuck in at the final hour.
If you can’t see all the tell-tale signs that the baseball gods are pulling the strings on this outcome, then you haven't been watching enough late-night games. It’s honestly how it has to happen. There's a cosmic agenda afoot.
Why? Well, because such a result would expose a giant (pun intended) flaw in the current Major League Baseball playoff format. The starker the "transgression," the greater the positive ripple effect. In all likelihood, Los Angeles losing as the Wild Card would still accomplish what I am wishing for. However, eliminating San Francisco that early can take the ramifications to a nuclear level. It's the difference between causing a moderate stir and a cataclysmic episode. If we're going to break this system, let's really break it.
And here's the grievance on the horizon: In theory, the Atlanta Braves or Philadelphia Phillies could finish with a record as poor as 85-77 and yet side step any/all discussions of a win-or-go-home Wild Card Game — provided they do not finish tied with one another. Thanks to lackluster seasons turned in by their immediate peers, protection akin to a first-round bye will be "earned" by one of the two clubs. A minimum of three Postseason games await whoever emerges as National League East Champion this week; it's already etched in stone.
Meanwhile, the unheralded Giants — damn-near wire-to-wire best team in baseball — will only be promised a single playoff game if Los Angeles chases them down in this final four games of the regular season. In essence, the NL East's health bar has been granted three lives, whereas the NL West's runner-up will only start out with one. That's a serious problem for the sport. It will undermine 29 weeks of unwavering, out-of-their-mind performances.
Subjecting a team with over 124 days spent in first place (93 consecutive for a majority of the summer) to a coin-flip game — to somehow prove they belong in the "real" Major League Baseballs tournament — feels like it should be illegal. Worse still, it is a format where the home favorite loses substantially more often than they win. Worst of all, the opponent hasn't won a handful of games over the last two and a half weeks; up until last night, they've literally won them all.
Note: I, for one, believe it's actually a really, really good thing St. Louis didn't carry a 22-game win streak into next Wednesday's NL Wild Card Game. It is the only thing that could have negated their chances at winning the tilt. Good juju turns to pressure when the number enters a historic stratosphere. Plus, the stage would have swung the pendulum to vital that the streak be kept alive. No Cardinals loss in the previous 18 days would have directly ended their season. Failing to answer that same bell in the Wild Card Game would have. That, and the Law of Averages. It wasn't going to go on forever, so each new day tested the upper bounds of fate.
There was no need to add anything to their impending big moment beyond playoff advancing. Veteran leaders like Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina realize this, and will reap every last benefit of "forgetting how to lose" for the better part of a month. But they'll also leave behind any undue stress associated with 20+ in a row with a smile. Now that they are safely in, one in a row is all that matters.
I'm not sure what is crazier to believe: that the Cardinals were capable of winning a franchise-best 17 games in a row, at the most crucial time of the year; or that they would still be 14.0 games behind the top Wild Card spot, despite making such a lengthy undefeated push. St. Louis would have been mathematically eliminated from the playoffs six whole days ago in the single Wild Card structure of the not-so-distant past. It would have been one of the earliest ends to a Wild Card race in the 27-year history of the expression. Yet there they were, clinching a playoff berth with five games still to go.
As for the Giants, the concurrent success of the Dodgers and Cardinals (recently) has to feel surreal. They can't gain any sizable distance from the one, while the other is lurking as the most dangerous team in baseball. If they escape the clutches of the villain, there's a pool of hungry sharks waiting below.
The hopper, in which playoff-caliber clubs get tossed into these days, creates nothing but random chance and carnage. It's a recipe on how to develop an amazing character and kill him/her off the show before it gains maximum popularity (a.k.a. ridiculously stupid). According to oddsmakers, the Giants only had an 8.9% chance to be anywhere inside the National League’s top five clubs this year — let alone pacing the entire 30-team field. Narratives like these are great for baseball as a whole. It'd sure be nice if they knew the ride was guaranteed to last at least one more weekend beyond Sunday's finale.
And that’s the key to this. Manager Gabe Kapler & Co. are going to have to play this thing out 'til the bitter end; hoping what they did with their 162 was enough. And honestly, it should have been weeks ago. Teams like the 2021 Giants shouldn't even be playing all their regulars these next four games. Alas, San Francisco can ill afford to take the foot off the gas now. Sputtering across the finish line — with a 1-3 record or worse — will allow unnerving thoughts of choking it all away to creep into the minds of fans and players alike. 104 wins on September 29 and potentially golfing by October 6.
I recently talked to my friend/colleague who is still with the Giants organization. He summed up the frustration quite well: "We can't break out the NL West Champion merch or pop the good champagne because the goddamn Dodgers are going to force us to win [a franchise record] 107 games!" That is especially annoying when contextualized in this manner: The Giants might have to best the 106-47 mark put up by the 1904 roster — playing their home games in Manhattan — simply to prevent one bad inning from ending their season.
Now, the untrained eye would say “Whether it’s the Giants or the Dodgers hosting the NL Wild Card Game, neither should be scared.” One is currently the best overall team in Major League Baseball and the other is reigning World Champions, having appeared in three of the last four World Series. Both are double-digit games ahead of the second Wild Card position. But these standings cannot be looked at without a little backstory; this is not just another franchise that charged hard to lock up that WC2 position. Have we forgotten the time the Cardinals looked like the least-threatening playoff entrant of the entire bunch and won the title that same year (2011)?
Furthermore, the Giants posted a 2-4 record against the Cardinals this season, so the fear is very real that one of those losses picks the wrong time to show up — with no ability to run it back and right the ship. This doomsday scenario isn't without tangible probability.
The Giants would be yet another big-league club with a triple-digit win total who missed out on a playoff series. And it wouldn't be their first time; the previous instance recent enough to fall inside the California chapter of their history book. In 1993, San Francisco finished 103-59, but couldn't leapfrog Atlanta in the NL West. Yes, kids... Atlanta in the West. Strange times. It was one year prior to realignment and a Wild Card to save them. That '93 team went down as one of only eight to ever have a 100-win season which didn’t include a shot at the title. In fact, their .636 win percentage was the fifth-highest in MLB history to not play in a Postseason series of at least three games. This year, the '21 Giants could best that unsavory distinction if: They finish 104-58, the Dodgers are a game better (or beat them in a one-game playoff), and the red-hot Redbirds roll into town and steal the necessary win-to-advance game.
Should all this madness transpire, brace yourself for a major overhaul to the Wild Card system. [fingers crossed]
Rule variations and subtle tweaks to the Wild Card are nothing new. Its nexus was a byproduct of expansion/realignment into three divisions per league — with the best second place team in each league rounding out two equal fields of four. With a strike taking away the opportunity to test out the new creation in 1994, it was the '95 Postseason that officially put the concept into practice. The Cleveland Indians won 100 games (out of a potential 144) to lead both the AL and MLB. However, they didn't meet up with the American League's lowest win-percentage qualifier (Seattle), nor the Wild Card (New York). Instead, they drew Boston in the ALDS. It was a really quirky 2 hosting 1, 3 hosting 4 situation; irrationally borne out of MLB/NFL shared stadium logistics.
The rotational home-field advantage scheme wasn't dropped until 1998, but the rule of preventing division foes from meeting in the first round remained. The mindset was to have rivals clash in longer series for the pennant vs. an early-round best-of-five. It wastes the drama and ill will.
The '98 season ushered in an ideology that no matter the record — in relation to the two other division winners — the Wild Card shall be the 4 seed, with an intent on them playing the 1 seed whenever possible. Second-place finish, second-class status. However, Wild Cards were still deemed worthy enough to be given the same best-of-five series protection as their first-place counterparts. As we all know, this is no longer the case; with a seismic transition to a singular 4 vs. 5 showdown beginning in 2012.
"Only" 70.5% of World Champions in the Single Wild Card Era (1994-2011) were division winners. That's not an overly large percentage when you realize the first-place teams outnumbered the second-place clubs 6-2 every season — and the former are inherently superior to the latter. However, the '97 Florida Marlins, '02 Anaheim Angels, '03 Florida Marlins, '04 Boston Red Sox, and '11 St. Louis Cardinals each proved the sprint finish to a marathon season is susceptible to flukes, luck, and teams stringing their best 11 games together at the most opportune time. "Let's require 12 wins to put an end to this nonsense. We're not going to have another three in a row on my watch." - former MLB Commissioner Bud Selig, probably
You could make a strong argument that the Cardinals drove the final nail in the coffin of the old system. Their 2011 run, in particular, showed the importance of knocking the Wild Card team down a rung... or else. Allowing each to come into the playoffs on equal footing as the division winners meant one dominant pitcher could steal a short series. Prime example: Chris Carpenter was able to pitch (and pitch well) in Game 5 of that NLDS against the top-seeded Phillies. If there was a Wild Card Game preceding that series, Carpenter would not have been available for three outings in eight days. In other words, St. Louis never had to “burn an ace” in the process of qualifying for the next round. Conversely, there was no real reward for Philadelphia being the league’s best regular-season team.
That very next postseason, MLB instituted the two-Wild Card system we still have today. This "Carpenter Rule" puts professional managers in the same quandary as college coaches who are pressed into a loser's bracket game: No use saving a guy for tomorrow when you need to win today. So, do you go with your best arm for as long as it takes to secure the victory? Do you piece it together with 2.0 IP out of several quality guys? All philosophical roads lead to the same place; the winning Wild Card team is not at full roster strength/rest compared to the top-seed they meet in the Division Series. And gone are the days of juggling the matchups for any reason — not NFL schedules or geographical rivalry deterrence. Hence, each league's best club is rewarded with a jet-lagged opponent running on fumes. Or so the creators of the system thought.
The overcorrection failed to consider that the team that survives the adrenaline rush of a glorified Game 163 could use the win as a catalyst to catch fire at the perfect time. And the stats bear out the premise of an awakening over a sophomoric slump: The Wild Card is a combined 7-9 in that subsequent Division Series. That's on par with the frequency three seeds "upset" the two (9-7 in that same span). The sample size is now large enough to call the 4/5 seed a safe bet to beat the 1 at least once per year. Only 2013 and 2018 saw both AL and NL top seeds advance. In fact, last year's Rays/Dodgers World Series was the first 1 vs. 1 since 2013 — and it ironically had a bananas 16-team field and no play-in rounds. Goes to show that the morning-line favorites typically triumph when all competitors start at the same place and time.
The momentum of a "running start" is clearly is a thing. Give a team the joy of wearing ski goggles and spraying alcohol around the clubhouse on that first Tuesday/Wednesday night of the Postseason, and they just might get addicted to how it feels. The bigger concern — for the folks watching on TV waiting to play their first playoff game — is that Wild Cards gain enough of a carefree attitude and confidence to repeat the celebration three more times. The 2014 World Series was played between two such clubs, the Wild Card Royals and the Wild Card Giants. Fifth-seeded San Francisco amassed a record 12 victories to lift the title. Washington equaled this feat in 2019 as the NL's fourth seed. That's oddly more titles won by Wild Cards than 2 seeds under this format (Houston - 2017*). Only 2001, 2009, 2013, and 2018 didn’t have a Wild Card team in baseball’s Final Four.
This stokes the flame of debate over the overarching motive of having a playoff system at all... beyond the obvious (ownership and television greed). Is a league championship, in any major sport's league, designed to be a mere formality — a season-long achievement cherry on top of the sundae for the best team in the regular season? Or is a spin of the roulette wheel preferred? Personally, I'm here for the beginning-to-end consistency over lightning in a bottle. And that's coming from a guy who a) got fully swept up in the hysteria of the 2011 Cardinals title while living in St. Louis, and b) had his beloved Indians win 14 games in a row one year and 22 the next. Fun rides, but sometimes the blandness of the undeniable — such as a Tampa Bay Rays World Series victory in 2021 — is more warranted, thus more satisfying to me. Rewarding clear-cut dominance is okay, too. Call me crazy.
I also love English Premier League football (soccer) because it doesn't mess around with a postseason bracket. Man, I really must be nuts. The 20-team league is quite content in saying its comprehensive, closed-loop, home-and-away slate of fixtures is plenty to justify one club lifting the trophy. We've provided 39 matches; settle it inside that quantity. Understandably, this is one [unpopular] extreme. And though it is my fandom preference, I'm fully aware it is a contemporary dinosaur that only works in a foreign country. American sports culture can't live without bracket busters and Cinderella.
Since a Major League Baseball playoff was established way back in 1969, and it ain't ever going away, we might as well accept and improve its purpose. I don't want to see teams playing at the clip these Giants and Dodgers are to be knocked out in, or prior to, Round 1. And that's my head saying that, not my heart; I have no affinity for either. The solution: Re-seed all participants once the field is fully set.
Adding rounds and best-of's drags a warm-weather sport deeper and deeper into October/early November. Leave the number of participants alone. Re-seed AND do a Wild Card best-of-three? Nah. All eyes will be glued to the win-or-go-home excitement next Tuesday and Wednesday. It's gimmicky, and not always indicative of who should advance, but it's fun as hell.
It is indisputable that the Milwaukee Brewers are currently playing for absolutely nothing. And annual circumstances like theirs are yet another reason to re-seed the playoffs. Milwaukee cannot be caught by Atlanta, nor can they obtain the NL's top spot. With their win Sunday, they also cannot fall into the WC2 position; Milwaukee is officially locked in as Central Division Champions and the National League second seed with a week to go.
In a re-seeded scenario, the Brewers would find themselves in the third spot instead — in line to play the mighty Dodgers. That just so happens to be their final opponent of the regular season as well. As it stands in real life, Milwaukee has lost all reason to play this hand out, while Los Angeles will be playing for everything (attempting to avoid St. Louis in the Wild Card Game). It could devolve into a battle of veteran professionals against MiLB call-ups really quick. And the Brewers have every right to rest their everyday starters and utilize the entire depth of an expanded roster. However, this isn't great for baseball, and directly affects San Francisco's chances at hanging on.
In our hypothetical Postseason, home field advantage in a 2 vs. 3 matchup would still be up for grabs. That's not nothing to play for, with both L.A. and Milwaukee disincentivized to mail in anything down the stretch. Scheduling oddity: This hypothetical would see these two clubs playing as many as eight straight games against one another — should that fictitious NLDS require all five games.
Re-Seeded National League Postseason (as of 9/29):
1) Giants vs. Wild Card Winner
2) Dodgers vs. 3) Brewers
Wild Card Game
4) Cardinals vs. 5) Braves
I don’t know. I go back and forth on this. Come Sunday, San Francisco will have had 162 games to distance themselves from Los Angeles — with ample head-to-head opportunities (19). But this latest Wild Card format is just too much of a toss-up for me to send them there. The home team has only won 44% of the time (7 of the 16 matchups). This number is even worse for home teams in the National League installment: In five of the eight Wild Card Games played, the road team moved on.
With AL/NL balance finally achieved (15 franchises per; six evenly distributed divisions in total) and interleague play becoming ubiquitous, overall league standings have never been closer to accurate gauges, standardized coast-to-coast. There is no more accounting for strength of common opponents or large disparities in timing when said common opponents were played.
Every division in the modern major leagues has a club actively attempting to lose. However, few in history have this unfortunate fact offset by two sparring partners at the top playing .640 ball. And even though the NL West is home to the worst team in baseball (the Diamondbacks are 50-108 entering play on Thursday), the division ranks second in its cumulative win percentage. This number summates total wins by all members of the division, divided by total games played. Now, every divisional matchup is included in this figure, but each result is plainly a wash — one up and one down nets a universal .500 record for the entire group. So, anything over this neutral mark paints a picture of a division that went out of its geographic cluster and preyed on others. In FIFA World Cup terms, identification of this year's Group of Death. The American League East currently leads the way at .526; followed closely by the National League West's .515. The only other division with a net positive is the AL West: 399-393 record (.504). The reverse side of the coin is the NL Central (.496), AL Central (.489), and basement dwelling NL East (.470).
Isolating the National League's rankings in this statistic, the hierarchy is NL West > Central > East. And wouldn't you know it, the re-seeded method has NL West in the top two spots, followed by two Central teams, and finally the single East representative. That order is exactly how I would handicap the National League playoff contenders this October. Seems like a Wild Card adjustment might execute the optimal level of course correction. Vegas doesn't agree, and that's partly because oddsmakers understand the present system has its blemishes. The predetermined game board limits movement away from certain matchups. Styles make the fight. For instance, Atlanta at +1500 and St. Louis at +2000 doesn't suggest the masses believe the Braves are better than the seemingly invincible Cardinals at this moment in time. They do, however, realize Atlanta has the flexibility of two losses to work through and St. Louis does not.
I'll be the first to say that division winning, no matter how weak at the bottom, always has to matter. But then again, a paltry 86 wins should not be recognized as the third-best total a league has to offer. I believe the role of a division title should be entrance into the pool of five, but nothing more. Context surrounding the ticket punched needs to be taken into consideration; division championships earn players a t-shirt and ballcap reward, not an impervious shield to the next round.
If anything, a division winner like Atlanta (or Philadelphia) in '21 should be thanking their lucky stars they even get to participate. There will be times when a team on the outside looking in posts a better win percentage than a division champ. The 2012 Tampa Bay Rays were 3 GB of the second Wild Card, but two games better than AL Central Champion Detroit. The Tigers were fortunate the shell of their feeble division saved them.
2012: Atlanta (94-68) was equal to division-winning San Francisco. This would have been a major test on how to handle ties. I don't think a one-game playoff would have been necessary; asking two already qualified clubs to play too much baseball in too many cities on back-to-back-to back nights. I vote "tie goes to the division winner, head-to-head record be damned." Meanwhile in the American League, Baltimore and Texas tied at 93-69 — better than division-winning Detroit. The two would have played each other in a one-game format, like they did that year, but not with elimination on the line. The loser would have been the 4 seed (hosting Detroit), with the winner advancing to the ALDS as the 3.
2013: Pittsburgh was better than division-winning Los Angeles.
2014: - None -
Brief sidebar: There is an old-school element to re-seeding that I really like. For 67 seasons (1903-1969), Major League Baseball was comfortable with the only Postseason series being the World Series. There was no sympathy for your favorite team if they finished one measly game behind the AL or NL leader. Being tops of the entire league standings was the sole method to protecting championship interests, and that is the same with re-seeding. With three divisions, only two of their winners could ever flip flop into WC1 or WC2 position. It puts an onus on being the best team in the league that hasn't been seen in half a century. Case in point:
2015: Both Chicago and Pittsburgh were better than two of the National League's three division winners — New York and Los Angeles. This would have been the lone time in history where the Wild Card Game included two division winners. Only the NL Central Champion (St. Louis) would have escaped the flip flop, by virtue of being baseball's equivalent of the Presidents' Trophy winner.
2016: - None -
2017: Arizona would have swapped places with division-winning Chicago.
2018: New York would have taken the 3 seed from Cleveland, who would have also been bumped down to role of Wild Card Game visitor (5 seed) against Oakland.
2019: Eventual World Champion Washington would not have had to sweat it out in the Wild Card Game, moving directly to the NLDS in place of St. Louis.
2020: San Diego was the NL's second-best club, and should have matched up with the 7th seeded Cincinnati. Note: Hopefully the weirdness surrounding a pandemic-shortened season — like even having 6, 7 or 8 seeds — is never seen again.
The verdict is nine seed adjustments would have taken place... spread over the past nine years of doing it this way. With two leagues, this is 0.5 an occurrence per Postseason. Not exactly frenetic/haphazard shuffling of the deck, nor undercutting the value of winning the division. Most times, nothing noticeable would be altered. For example, this piece says nothing about the chaos that could ensue on the American League side of the ledger. A wild Wild Card indeed, but presumably no need to re-seed the Junior Circuit's group of five, so a story for another writer. Oddly, the logistical nightmare of a four-way tie for the top (or only) Wild Card would have been a similar issue as far back as 1994. In other words, this one's not on the newest playoff system.
The "They had 162 games to avoid the volatile nature of a single game potentially ending their season" crowd can't have it both ways. The Dodgers did have 162 games in which to prove to everybody that they belong in the playoffs... the real playoffs. And Los Angeles resoundingly has, to the tune of 102 wins and counting. That total is using their 162 as a letter of qualifications for protected inclusion inside the Division Series bracket lines. Are we really saying to Dodgers manager Dave Roberts: "You only won 105 games as the reigning champions? Tsk, tsk. That's clearly not the resume of a contender."
And this belabors why the Cardinals need to win next Wednesday. St. Louis is like the blind spot alarm for every system Major League Baseball implements. They sit in the back of the class and poke holes in the professor's theorems all the damn time. "This new way of doing this is sooooo much better than the old one." There go the Cardinals: "Oh yeah? Then why will the second-best team in baseball be eliminated before Game 1 of the NLDS?" It's going to take that level of putting Commissioner Rob Manfred's nose in the poop for him to see that it's a problem. It has to be that glaring an oversight.
If that second Wild Card were, let's say, Cincinnati — on some modest 12-8 stretch to close out their year — then San Francisco or Los Angeles would (of course) win the Wild Card Game by six or more runs. I say "of course" because that would be a kiss of death outcome. Sure, the proper team would advance; a mere formality for the NL West runner-up to have to vanquish a lesser opponents in "straight sets." It'd be the embarrassment level a casting director experience in requiring a mega celebrity audition: "Sorry for making you have to do that." But the groundswell support for re-seeding the MLB playoffs would lose its traction.
Since the game didn't trip up the Giants or Dodgers, nor require too much exertion, no one would even care what was intrinsically wrong with the matchup. "Team A beats Team B, who was 16 games behind them in the standings" is not a sexy headline. The result would also hinder the issue's ability to become a point of emphasis in a new MLB Collective Bargaining Agreement.
Aside from wishing the two NL West 100-win teams met later in a best-of-seven series, no one would have any complaints with this Mock 2021 Postseason. It will be decently packaged by FOX and TBS and sell just the same. No systemic revisions to the format in the offseason, because nothing would appear out of place to the viewers. Without the presentation of an alternative, you don't know what you're potentially missing out on. Now that I know it is plausible, however, I wish Brewers vs. Dodgers and Cardinals vs. Giants was an NLDS option.
Though it cannot alter this year's bracket, there's something in the air that screams a higher power has intervened for the sake of future iterations. The Cardinals are not your average second Wild Card any longer. They aren't limping in; quite the contrary. They have a 21st-century pedigree paired with a flair for defying expectations. Lie to me and tell me you can't see them winning this upcoming game. Why wouldn't they? The only straw I can grasp is that Jon Lester has been down this road twice before (A's in 2014 and Cubs in 2018) and lost both times.
One thing is certain with this upcoming National League Wild Card Game: It will be the biggest disparity in win percentage between the two competitors in the brief history of the contest. The previous record involved (you guessed it) St. Louis, who finished six games back of Atlanta in 2012. Note: The 2017 Twins were equally -6 in win total as WC2, but lost to the Yankees. Naturally, the Cardinals won their contest — the infamous Pete Kozma infield fly rule game — despite a wide margin in the final standings. It's what they always seem to do.
It's enough of a recent track record to have idiots like me saying: Their 17-game win streak is setting the table for a deep run by the Cardinals. I mean, even if they go 1-3 to finish out this week, they will still be winners in 20 of their final 25. That alone would make the double-digit chasm between them and their Wild Card host all but disappear. There's a vibe that is eerily similar to the 2007 Rockies, who won 14 of their last 15 games and wound up in the World Series.
Since 2000, Wild Card teams have appeared in their respective League Championship Series 22 times (out of a potential 42 opportunities) — counting the 2020 Astros as six seed. That’s an insanely high yield for what should be the worst team in the group. The Cardinals remarkably account for two of those 22; 9% of the instances while comprising 3% of the league (since 1998). Moreover, St. Louis is one of only six clubs this century to see the super underdog role all the way through to the ultimate prize. They're just a different breed.
It has to have the reigning champions going "anybody but St. Louis." As a Wild Card, they carry a reputation of producing that a Philadelphia or Cincinnati cannot match. The Cardinals are proof that all past records really do reset when the horses enter the starting gate, and they have as good a chance as any when qualified to run.
St. Louis has won seven of its last ten Postseason meetings with Los Angeles (2013 NLCS 4-2, 2014 NLDS: 3-1), while they've been bounced by San Francisco in both of their most recent playoff series (2012 NLCS: 4-3, 2014 NLCS: 4-1). The Dodgers exorcised a ton of recent playoff demons with last year's World Series title. However, the Cardinals may still have their number; the road to a championship didn't go through St. Louis.
What we're seeing these past three weeks is a bit of an aberration, though. St. Louis is still a team that was 44-46 at the All-Star Break. They are fortunate to not have outright spoiled a MVP-caliber season from Paul Goldschmidt — one where he, Nolan Arenado, and Tyler O'Neill all hit 30+ home runs. Make no mistake about it: The Cardinals really underachieved. Even with re-seeding, they still wouldn't be provided anything more than a playoff tryout.
Not winning the Central and falling short of 90 wins before October 1 is below the standard expressed by their current roster configuration and championship heritage. They've been reduced to asking the teacher to do a boatload of extra credit assignments before the final exam. It can't fully mask the C- effort turned in for six months, but the B+ looks a lot better than it would have in a vacuum. Being a 2021 Wild Card team went from bare minimum expectation leaving Spring Training to "it'll take a Herculean effort" on September 1. Manager Mike Shildt and his boys delivered on that, so the curious move to buy (and not sell) this past trade deadline comes out smelling like a rose.
It provides the Cardinals with the greatest quantity of house money ever brought to the Wild Card table. As recently as Labor Day, St. Louis found themselves buried behind San Diego, Cincinnati, and Philadelphia in the Wild Card standings. By then, most folks around the club had succumb to a "not our year" mentality. So when the Birds decided to treat their fans to the most incredible September in their storied history, the need (and thus pressure) for them to do anything more has gone out the window. The totality of the Cardinals season has turned into Apollo 13; the crew "lost the moon," but also didn't die. So there's that. Moral: Feeling let down, or defining what a success worth celebrating looks like, can dramatically ebb and flow as circumstances do.
In that, if there's not a "true" Postseason series this year for the Cardinals, it should roll off fans' shoulders far easier than those in Los Angeles or San Francisco. Three-quarters of the way through the league schedule, one was resigned the playoffs weren't going to happen, while the others couldn't wait for them to arrive. What does this team really have to lose next Wednesday?
This is why St. Louis will win. A really good team is going to feel unjustly eliminated. They will be correct in their grievance. The format will get transformed… again. And the methodology of granting Wild Cards access the NLDS and ALDS will once again be a result of the Cardinals exposing a deficiency.
I suppose it could go well for either L.A. or San Fran. The only other comp in this situation — the 100-win Yankees of 2018 — escaped their Wild Card Game without much strife. The 2015 Pirates are on the books as winners of the most regular-season games (98) among losers in this contemporary battle of Wild Cards. But that is nothing close to the rarified air of 103-107 wins one of the two West Coast teams will post this year. A loss will be unfathomably tough to stomach.
Playing in the one-and-done structure already feels like a slight. Wait until the Dodgers and Giants have to each use eight pitchers in Game 163 (Monday, October 3 in San Francisco, by virtue of a 10-9 head-to-head record). That loser has to turn and play Wednesday, October 5 against the fully rested Cardinals. In a re-seeded scenario, that game on Monday would be to determine the 1 and 2 seeds, not the 1 and 4 — meaning the next series doesn't start until Friday. October 8. Thinking about that is going to sting. Dodger or Giant fans might want to book airfare to New York City right now, in the off-chance they need to start flipping cars outside Manfred's office.
The fallout of a St. Louis win will either move the game to a best-of-three series, like last season's test balloon, or re-seed the entire pool of candidates. I motion the latter, and that we call it the Lars Nootbaar Amendment (just for fun). It'll make more sense than the cockamamie matchup situations MLB rolled out in 1995 and 1997, catering to those who split stadium rent with their local football team. As much as it pains me to acknowledge the validity of those particular World Series outcomes, they are in the record books forever — even though the paths navigated by the finalists were patently incorrect. It shows there's wiggle room to play with this system until it's getting the desired results. And for me, that begins and ends with making the Wild Card teams the two weakest regardless of first-place or second-place status.
Place a 100-win team, or winner of 17 games in a row into a position where they get a proven boost, and you might as well crown them now. Be sure to tune in on Wednesday night (TBS); the National League pennant winner is likely coming out of that Wild Card Game.