One-game wild-card playoffs offer history, excitement -- and pressure
This is a historic night in baseball: back-to-back elimination games to begin the postseason, with two teams facing the cold possibility of getting booted from the postseason without ever playing a home game. The format brings guaranteed urgency to the postseason every year and validates the 162-game season by rewarding division champions with a ticket straight to the Division Series. It's a night everybody can love, with the exception of four people under immense pressure: the managers.
Nobody has more pressure on them in these games than Mike Matheny of St. Louis, Fredi Gonzalez of Atlanta, Buck Showalter of Baltimore and Ron Washington of Texas. Matheny and Gonzalez, having replaced legends Tony La Russa and Bobby Cox, will be managing their first postseason game. Showalter is 0-4 lifetime in postseason elimination games despite having the lead in every one of them. Washington is 1-2 when his team has faced elimination.
Elimination games are managers' games, and never more so than these wild card games. The Cardinals, Braves, Orioles and Rangers submitted the best possible roster to win one game, not a series of games. That means more pieces on the chessboard. With no need for four or five starting pitchers, managers can employ such luxuries as nine-man bullpens and six-man benches. That means pinch runners, pinch-hitters, third catchers and the ability to start matching up pitchers on hitters earlier in the game.
The season rides on every decision for these teams, which is why Gonzalez took the bold step of benching catcher Brian McCann and starting David Ross. McCann has been bothered by a sore right shoulder. Ross is the better defender even when McCann is healthy. Gonzalez knows the Cardinals like to start runners, and that with strike-throwers Kyle Lohse and Kris Medlen the opposing starters, the game might be low scoring and contested 90 feet at a time, not just one run at a time.
The toughest decision for the managers is when to first dip into the bullpen, especially for the NL managers. NL starting pitchers typically don't get a third at-bat when trailing. But now the second at-bat may be decision time.
Understand this: Nobody knows how these games will play out. If you go by the statistics, the Rangers and Braves have the edge, and seemingly not only because they are playing at home. (More on that myth in a moment.) Showalter is sending a lefthander, Joe Saunders, to the mound in Texas, which is about as far off the preferred path as you can get, particularly because Saunders is 0-6 with a 9.38 ERA against the Rangers in Arlington.
Texas has the second best record in the league when it faces a lefthanded starter (28-19). It is mediocre when it sees a righthander (43-43). Teams are 11-15 against the Rangers when they start a lefty in Rangers Ballpark this year, including 2-5 since Aug. 1.
It's a risk by Showalter from the start, but with Jason Hammel and Steve Johnson hurting, and with no lockdown starter on his staff anyway, Showalter leaned on Saunders' experience. In his four elimination games -- the first three with the 1995 Yankees and the fourth with the 1999 Diamondbacks -- Showalter lost 7-4, 11-8, 6-5 and 4-3.
Atlanta rates an edge because Medlen is riding the greatest winning streak in the history of starting pitchers. The Braves are 23-0 in his past 23 starts, covering three seasons. Moreover, no team can protect a lead with a greater inventory of power arms than Atlanta, with Craig Kimbrel providing as sure an endgame option as exists in baseball.
Okay, those seem like the obvious advantages, but go ahead and laugh at them. Elimination games can turn on a bad hop, a bad call (spare us such fate, please, lest the replay herd goes on a stampede) or a bloop hit.
And as for that edge in being the home team? Forget it. In the previous 10 postseasons there have been 18 double elimination games (win-or-go-home for both teams). Here's what those 18 games tell us:
• Home field is not an advantage. The home teams are 8-10 in those games.
• Scoring first is not an advantage. The team that scores first is 9-9.
• Games tend to be close and low scoring. Ten of the 18 games were decided by one or two runs. The teams combined for an average of 7.23 runs per game -- that's 16 percent lower than the 2012 MLB regular season average.
• Pitching changes increase. World Series Game 7 last year and ALDS Game 5 between the Tigers and Yankees included 22 combined pitchers. The average for the 18 games is eight pitchers.
• Slugfests almost never happen. Here are the runs scored by the losing team in the past 11 elimination games: 2, 2, 0, 2, 1, 1, 2, 1, 3, 3, 2.
History awaits. Chipper Jones just might be playing the last game of his career tonight. Josh Hamilton might be playing his last game in a Rangers uniform.
The starting pitchers offer all kinds of possibilities. None of the four starters in these two games with everything on the line -- Lohse, Medlen, Saunders and Yu Darvish -- have ever won a postseason game. Medlen and Darvish will be making their first such appearances. Saunders is 0-1 with a 6.00 ERA in four postseason games. Lohse is 0-4 with a 5.54 ERA in nine postseason games. Morris and Smoltz this is not.
In time, these games will grow even bigger. The excitement of a Game 7 is an unexpected gift; you don't know you're getting it until late in the previous night before it is played. But baseball can brand this night along the lines of the All-Star Game -- one of the rare dates in baseball when you can plan for the excitement well in advance. Call it Wild Card Knockout Night.
Is it unfair to have a winning season come down to one game? No, because you just played 162 games to stay out of this game. Some people still won't like it, and don't be surprised that managers are in this group. After all, the wild card game puts the most pressure on them.