There’s an old adage in baseball that over the course of a long season, the best teams will always emerge. But for those playoff teams that don’t win their division, they have to play in the wild card game, a single contest that can undo six months of work.
The wild card game can also be rewarding, but one thing is certain: the win-or-go-home nature creates a sense of urgency.
“The wild card game is a ballbuster. Every pitch is critical, because at any one moment the momentum can change on any play,” says Bud Black, who managed the Rockies in the NL wild card game in 2017 and 2018. “As you move deeper into the game, the intensity just ramps up, times 10.”
In September 1993, MLB realigned from two to three divisions in each league and introduced the wild card, which gave a postseason spot to the team with the best record among non-division winners. After 25 years of divisional play, a whole new round was added to the playoffs, and the postseason field expanded from four teams to eight.
Baseball clings to its past like no other sport, but the owners had dollar signs in their eyes and approved the plan in an overwhelming 27-1 vote. The lone dissenter was a future president.
“I represent the silent voices of baseball purists,” Rangers general partner George W. Bush told the Los Angeles Times. “History will prove I was right.”
There was no wild card action in 1994 due to the strike that canceled the World Series. But 1995 started a 17-year stretch with the format, which gave the wild card winner a berth in the best-of-five division series. Wild card teams would play the team with the best record in the league, unless those two teams were from the same division.
A wild card team won the World Series five times in 17 years, including the Angels beating the Giants in 2002 in the first all-wild card Fall Classic. Both of the Marlins’ championships (1997, 2003) came as a wild card team.
In 2012, MLB expanded to two wild card teams in each league, and introduced a pair of single-elimination wild card games two days before the division series.
Those games hamper the wild card winner’s ability to set their pitching rotation for the division series, unlike the original wild card format that, from a planning standpoint, put wild card teams on an equal plane with division winners.
“That’s how it should be, 162 games is a long-ass time. To win the division means something,” says catcher Travis d’Arnaud, who was with the Mets for their wild card game in 2016 and is with the wild card Rays this year. “The goal when everybody leaves spring training is to win the division and get to the playoffs. I think they should get rewarded.”
In the old format, wild card teams won the division series over half the time, and at least one wild card team reached the World Series in nine of 17 years. Under the new format, with the advantage given to division winners, wild card winners have won six of 14 (42.9 percent) division series. The restriction on playing teams from the same division in the opening round was removed as well, so now wild card teams always play the team with the best record in the league.
“I would guess that the odds of beating the No. 1 seed is not as good as 6 out of 14,” says Matt Duffy, who was with the Giants for the 2014 wild card game.
Wild card teams under the old format averaged 93 wins per year, and in the new format the four wild card teams average 91 wins.
“Adding the second wild card team to both leagues was huge, because there’s so many good teams that got left out before that,” says Trevor Story, who played in the 2017 and 2018 NL wild card games with Colorado.
Even with the addition of a second wild card team in each league, only 10 of 30 teams make the postseason every year, by far the lowest percentage among major professional U.S. sports leagues.
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The game itself
From 2012-18 there have been 14 wild card games, several of them memorable. Madison Bumgarner added to his postseason lore with shutouts in 2014 and 2016, both performances on the road.
The Diamondbacks beat the Rockies in a white-knuckle shootout in 2017, an 11-8 thriller that is to date the highest-scoring wild card game ever. Three games have gone to extra innings, including the Royals’ astounding comeback to launch a World Series run in 2014, and Edwin Encarnacion hitting a walk-off home run for the Blue Jays while closer Zach Britton idly watched from the Orioles bullpen in 2016.
The win-or-go-home nature of the game emphasizes what we love in sport, with stakes at their highest for all the participants. It’s the perfect intro to the postseason every year.
“From a fan standpoint and for viewership, it’s very cool,” Black says. “It’s a Game 7, but in a wild card scenario.”
The intensity for the players is palpable.
“The feeling of hearing the fans, and the vibrations you were getting inside your body, it’s a very addicting feeling,” says Rockies catcher Tony Wolters, who drove in the winning run in the 13th inning in Chicago in the 2018 NL wild card game. “It’s something you won’t ever forget.”
The A’s are back in the AL wild card game this year after losing the game last year in New York, falling behind early and never catching up.
“It was tough because we gave up a couple runs in the first inning, and all of a sudden you feel like there’s a lot of pressure on you,” says A’s shortstop Marcus Semien. “Those games happen in the regular season but you feel more relaxed because it’s just a regular game. But once it’s the wild card and you know it’s win or go home, it’s added pressure.”
“It’s kind of crazy that it’s just one game, but that’s what you’re dealing with,” A’s outfielder Mark Canha says. “The stakes are high, and makes for a more heightened intensity.”
One of the best wild card moments came in 2013, when Pirates fans loudly chanted “Cueto” over and over again to taunt Reds pitcher Johnny Cueto, who was so rattled on the mound that he dropped the ball. On his next pitch, Cueto allowed a home run to Russell Martin.
Pirates fans were equally rabid the next year when they hosted the Giants in the wild card game.
“The atmosphere was unbelievable,” Duffy recalls. “When they opened the gates during our batting practice. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen ‘World War Z’, but those zombies that are really fast, it’s like that.
“Oh my god, they were coming down the rotunda in left field, people were stomping and waving Pirates flags. It was like, ‘Holy shit, these people are going to kill us.’”
The Giants won 8-0, with a Brandon Crawford fourth-inning grand slam providing all the runs that San Francisco needed.
“That was the moment that every single person in that crowd knew that it was over. The only people talking were the 30 guys in the dugout,” Duffy says. “Ever since that day, would I rather play in front of a roaring home crowd or would I rather silence a visiting crowd? I think that was pretty wild, man, to see 40,000 or whatever it was go completely silent.”
Any changes ahead?
While having a six-month season come down to a single game for two teams (in each league) might not seem just, the benefits are often exciting games and a built-in advantage to division winners, who proceed directly to the division series with three or four days off before having to start the playoffs.
“Baseball is always a sport of series, two out of three, three out of five, four out of seven. It’s always made sense in out sport,” Black says. “I’m not sure I would change it, but schedule-wise if it could be worked out where it’s two out of three to get to that division series, I’d like to be in that discussion or hear about it.
“As it stands now with two wild card teams and a one-game playoff, I’m okay with it.”
Dave Roberts has won his division in all of his four years managing the Dodgers, and 2019 is the second year his team will play the wild card winner in the opening round.
“Shortening the season a little bit to get [best-of-]7, instead of the best-of-5, that’s something I would add for the first round. I think the best team would come out of that,” Roberts says. “I may be a little biased after winning the division, but for them to have to play one and done, I’m alright with it.”
“I think it’s pretty good as it is now,” Story says. “I feel like it has to be a one-game playoff to see who goes on to the DS. It makes it pretty exciting.”
“The hype around a one-game playoff is pretty intense,” Duffy says. “While it’s not ideal to play in a one-game playoff — you want to go to the division series — but the momentum if you do come out of that game that you’re riding can really help. The high that you’re riding coming out of that one game, there’s nothing like it.”
“I feel like we’re trying to change a lot about baseball,” Wolters says. “I don’t think we need to change anything. We need to stick with something, and just compete, and play baseball.”