But what a wacky four days they may be.
Our problem, if we love baseball, will be figuring out whether to root for the success of this palpably unfair form of madness or against it. Would it be better for the future of the game if the whole mess is an overcrowded, mind-boggling bore? Or, because we’ll never see this exact kind of nuttiness again, should we hope for a constant stream of Tuesday-through-Friday chills? There will be eight games on Wednesday alone. Will it make us say, “So this is why, throughout history, cheap thrills are always so tempting”? Codicil: Remember, the road to hell is always paved with more wild-card teams.
As we watch this week, with MLB’s best team, the 43-17 Los Angeles Dodgers, at risk of being knocked out if it loses just two games to the Milwaukee Brewers, a 29-31 club that wasn’t over .500 all season, keep in mind that we should never trust when it comes to adding wild-card teams. There’s always big TV money in it.
These wild-card series will add between 14 and 22 games to the postseason. If it’s 20, that’s a 55 percent increase over the average number of playoff games since wild-card games started in 2012.
In the spring, Manfred talked up the plausibility of a 14-team format despite a 10-team postseason that works excellently. Thank goodness, he is now working hard to make it clear that he does not want 16. Horrors, no.
“I do think [postseason expansion] is a good idea. Do I ever think it’s going to be 16 teams? No, I don’t,” Manfred told The Washington Post’s Dave Sheinin. “We have always had a very selective postseason.”
Relative to the NFL (traditionally 12 teams but up to 14 this season), the NBA and NHL (both 16), MLB is a bit more selective. That’s a core strength. Don’t mess up a format you were lucky enough to stumble into eight years ago with the addition of the wild card vs. wild card games. Too much of a good thing can get your stomach pumped.
This is the background, maybe a dangerous one for the best interests of the game, against which this week arrives.
The ultimate example of what could happen, though all us fair-minded folks hope it doesn’t, is the madness that will begin in Chavez Ravine on Wednesday. Of course Los Angeles is more likely to win. But there’s a clear, ugly fluke way to lose, too.
The Dodgers will start Walker Buehler and Clayton Kershaw, then any of three other fine starters if there’s a Game 3.
How can the Brewers, with star Christian Yelich hitting .205 this year, beat a lineup that led MLB in scoring (5.82 runs per game) and hit 15 more homers (118, almost two per game) than any other team? The Dodgers who also led MLB in ERA (3.02) by more than a quarter of a run and have their deepest bullpen in years?
Because it’s baseball, that’s how.
No pitcher is significantly more dominant than the Brewers’ Brandon Woodruff, who brought 100-mph heat against the Washington Nationals in the 2019 National League wild-card game. In his past four starts, his ERA is 1.63 with 0.614 walks-plus-hits-per-inning-pitched and 36 strikeouts.
Can he beat Kershaw, the hexed man of October, if they meet in Game 2 on Thursday? Of course he might. Are there “clutch” players? I don’t know. Are there “chokers?” Yes. Pressure bothers most of us in some area of our life. That’s Kershaw in October. The Claw has helped torch five L.A. Octobers with a playoff ERA of 4.43 compared with his future-Cooperstown mark of 2.43 in the regular season.
Upsets are fun. But this would reduce “upset” to absurdity.
This October will have one crucial difference from playoffs both past and future — and it may well decide who meets in the World Series. Because the division series and league championship series will be played at neutral warm-weather or domed sites, there will be no days off needed for travel in either series. Just like real baseball!
Instead of studying which teams have the best Big Three rotation and best three back-end relievers, we need to ask which teams have genuinely deep pitching that could, in theory, work 12 games in 13 days to reach the World Series. Then, in the World Series, the usual days off return, even though all games will be played in the Texas Rangers’ new ballpark.
By that standard, the Tampa Bay Rays (40-20), the Dodgers — even though relievers Kenley Jansen and Blake Treinen have been vulnerable lately — and the Cleveland Indians look like the teams genuinely suited to this October.
That is, if any of them survive the next few days so that they can showcase their talent.
The club that fascinates me most is the brilliant Rays, the top seed in the AL who could use bailing wire and barrel slats to duplicate the QE2. The Rays can take your grounds crew, coach it up and beat your $200 million roster.
The Rays used 25 pitchers this season. Desperation? No. More like versatility and imagination: 17 of them pitched in at least nine games. Okay, you know their top three starters — 2018 Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell, proven October vet Charlie Morton and useful Tyler Glasnow.
On offense, the Rays used so many platoons and matchups that 16 hitters had more than 75 plate appearances. You probably don’t know them because some of them haven’t even met each other yet.
To Tampa Bay, this year’s expanded rosters just expanded possibilities. The Rays have the game’s best bullpen, with saves from 12 different pitchers, led by Nick Anderson (0.55 ERA).
The sentimental choice within the game, in part because coach Sandy Alomar Jr. has had to replace beloved, ailing manager Terry Francona, is Cleveland, with its scary top four starters. As deep as the Rays’ staff is, the Indians won the AL ERA title.
Shane Bieber, Carlos Carrasco, Zach Plesac and Triston McKenzie pitched 234 innings this year with a 2.38 ERA while allowing only 160 hits and 63 walks and fanning 303. As a group, they have pitched just like peak Max Scherzer in 2015 through 2018.
Cleveland, with no title since 1948, also fits the postseason pattern of this century. Almost every franchise, or city, with an almost-eternal drought, such as the Boston Red Sox, Chicago Cubs, San Francisco Giants, Houston Astros and Nationals, has won it all. Who’s left? Cleveland at 72 years and the rich Dodgers (yawn) at a mere 32.
In four days, or only three, all of these ideas may be smashed, replaced by entirely new preposterous plots, such as the recently hideous Miami Marlins advancing.
Whatever happens, we’ve never seen anything like it before. Let’s just hope we never see anything like it again.
Read more on Major League Baseball: