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The Yankees won because they were the better team, but there was a cost

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In the first entry of the 2017 MLB Postseason, everything worked like it was supposed to.

American League Wild Card Game - Minnesota Twins v New York Yankees Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

The Yankees and the Twins played a deathmatch on Tuesday, and it was interesting only because baseball was involved. Baseball is that college friend who’s always willing to throw an ashtray through a window for two minutes of laughs. The laughs end, the window is broken, and everyone starts to evaluate why they like him in the first place. And in that context, it was entirely plausible that the Twins could outscore the Yankees for nine innings.

They did not. The Yankees were the better team, and they won. Baseball did not have that many surprises in store. The Yankees’ plan this postseason is to hit dingers and go to the bullpen early and often, turning baseball into something of a Strat-O-Matic thought experiment by assembling a half-dozen dominant relievers and shortening every game. In this case, the Yankees shortened the game to a third of an inning, and it worked. My stars, it worked.

There was some chatter earlier on Tuesday, spurred by Ken Rosenthal, that if the Yankees lost, there would be calls for change. It’s right there in the headline.

If Yankees or D-Backs lose, expect wild-card outrage—and calls for change

As a fan of the last team that will ever win 103 games and miss the postseason, my advice to the Yankees would have been to win their division. This will be my advice to the Diamondbacks if they should lose on Wednesday night. Baseball used to have a system so unfair that it made winning the pennant something that made Russ Hodges’ soul escape his body and join the public domain. Then baseball made it a little easier to win the World Series ... a little easier to win the World Series ... and then a little too easy to win the World Series ...

And now we’re here. I’m here to argue that here is the best possible format.

Start with the idea of the wild card. I hated it, but I came around to it. It was the homework pass you didn’t deserve, but almost did, so you didn’t even feel guilty. By the time the Giants and Angels met in the first all-wild-card World Series, it wasn’t even a big deal. The wild card took all the heat, but what about that weirdo third division winner? They had things to answer for, too.

Still, there was an extra round of postseason baseball, which meant more chances for hijinx and chicanery. Without the wild card, we wouldn’t have Pedro Martinez dragging his smoldering arm into the game as a reliever. We wouldn’t have Chris Burke in the 18th inning, Edgar Martinez in the 11th, or J.T. Snow getting Pudge’d. The longer it went on, the more convinced I was that it was fair or, at least, desirable.

It was still a little weird. The Marlins have two World Series titles, but they haven’t won a division title in franchise history. The Rockies have a pennant without a division title, and they’re going for another one. There was something a little too cavalier about a wild card team waltzing in and feeling that entitled. They needed one extra obstacle.

This. This one game is that one extra obstacle. It’s just enough to make the team desperately want the division title. It’s not enough to make a team feel like they’re sitting in the corner of the postseason with a cone on their head. It’s an extra chance on the reality show, a Golden Scepter of Redemption that’s handed out by the winner of last week’s challenge. They get to have a deathmatch game.

The Yankees had to play the Twins, whom they’ve stuffed in a locker several times over the last 15 years, so it wasn’t that big of a deal. The Yankees were going to start someone who will get Cy Young votes. The Twins started someone who had a very fine season, but won’t get Cy Young votes. The Yankees had an expensive roster supplemented by egregiously talented youngsters. The Twins had a cheap roster, and one of their most talented youngsters was hurt. The Yankees had a bullpen of doom. The Twins did, too! Just, you know, in a different way.

But there still had to be a game, and for a few minutes, it looked like an ashtray was going through that damned window. The Twins still had talented players, and they were asserting themselves. Any fan of a last-to-postseason story can appreciate how close they were to advancing.

The Yankees won, and that’s because they had more home run hitters, because they had more relievers who could shut the other team down. They were at home, in front of throaty fans who wanted them to win. It all made a difference, and now they’re going to face the Indians. The Wild Card Game worked the way it was supposed to, and the better team advanced.

Except I’m more fascinated with the way the Wild Card Game worked that we can’t see yet. Luis Severino worked just a third of an inning, which I would assume will allow him to come back quickly in the ALDS. But at what cost? Is his routine off? Starting pitchers are weird about routines, everyone.

And that Yankees plan to deploy the bullpen early and often is exactly what the Indians did last year, except the Yankees are even deeper, somehow. They can afford to bring in Chad Green, one of the more valuable relievers in baseball, in the first inning. They did it because it was an elimination game, and more power to them. That was the plan.

Those innings mean something, though. Green is a former starter, so he can probably absorb them. David Robertson seems like a sturdy fella, and he’s not being used in a traditional eighth- or ninth-inning role, so the Yankees can play around with him. Tommy Kahnle is more of a mystery when it comes to stretching his arm out, but he certainly acquitted himself well. But those innings don’t reset after the 27th out. There’s a cost to spending that much bullpen capital this early. Andrew Miller allowed three earned runs in 27 innings last postseason. All of those earned runs came in the final two games. You could smell his tendon from the press box. It was like smoked paprika, but more ominous.

That doesn’t have to happen to the Yankees this year. They can ride that bullpen dragon all the way to the promised land. It’s a very good plan, really.

But there’s a cost to the Yankees taking this path. It might be inconsequential, and it might not prevent them from winning the World Series, but it’s a little cost. Just a few innings. And it makes the path of the wild-card winner just that much more respectable. It’s worth the addition of the second wild card to see teams scramble and play a Game 7 weeks before their competition has to.

In the end, the better team won. Baseball made sense. But the Yankees’ win wasn’t free. We’ll find out soon if it was a tax they could afford to pay, or if it upset the equilibrium of the whole plan. Either way, bless the Wild Card Game, always and forever. The only thing crueler than leaving the season after a single game was not making the postseason after 162 games, and now there’s a balance between the two.


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