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Dodgers-Cardinals Epic Is Exactly Why There Are Two Wild Cards

Plus, we look ahead at both ALDS matchups.

Major League Baseball received plenty of scrutiny over the last month for its wild-card format. Detractors complained that forcing the second-best team in the majors to risk elimination in the do-or-die round wasn’t the purpose of the two-wild-card system.

Sure, it’s true that when MLB instituted the second wild card in 2012, the intention wasn’t to have the defending champion Dodgers, who won 106 games, match up with the Cardinals, who won 16 fewer games. However, MLB did want to emphasize the importance of division races while also expanding the playoff field by two teams (one from each league) and creating back-to-back nights of must-watch television to begin the postseason. Mission accomplished.

The moment of vindication didn’t come as Chris Taylor’s walk-off, two-run homer off Alex Reyes sailed into the Southern California sky, but four hours earlier, when millions of casual fans and diehards alike tuned in to the action. What they saw was an epic game filled with suspense, exhilaration, disappointment and then, finally, euphoria. Dodgers 3, Cardinals 1.

The Los Angeles Dodgers celebrate the walk-off two run home run hit by left fielder Chris Taylor (3) against the St. Louis Cardinals during the ninth inning at Dodger Stadium. The Los Angeles Dodgers

The tightness of the game definitely played into these drastic swings of emotion. It’s the reason this one was far more exciting than the AL wild-card game, despite the Yankees–Red Sox rivalry. From the beginning, it was clear Max Scherzer did not have his best stuff last night; the biggest question over the first half of the game was when Dave Roberts would pull his ace. The Cardinals scored in the first on a wild pitch and had at least one batter reach base in every inning. But L.A., with its deep pitching staff, didn’t break; St. Louis went 0-for-11 with runners in scoring position. Another question: How long would Mike Shildt ride 40-year-old Adam Wainwright? Uncle Charlie was relieved with one out in the sixth inning after a dribbled single down the third base line. Pressure mounted with every pitch, every pitching change and every stolen base (there were five!).

But, more important, the tension of this game was tied to its stakes, which were undoubtedly heightened because of the Dodgers’ having the second-best record in the regular season. Win and advance; lose and go home.

Indeed, this season prompted a key question about the virtues of MLB’s wild-card system, but we were looking at it all wrong. This wasn’t about whether a team’s fate should come down to a single game to begin the playoffs, but why it does.

Last night’s game provided all the evidence we need to answer it: This is exactly why.

1. THE OPENER

The Dodgers never wanted this. They spent the last six months trying in vain to avoid the exact scenario they found themselves in Wednesday night: a white-knuckle stressfest of an elimination game to begin the postseason. Instead of a quick exit, the four-hour pressure-cooker ended with yet another instantly iconic postseason moment for a franchise with more than a few of them.”

So begins Nick Selbe’s postgame column from Dodger Stadium. He captures the atmosphere of the moment perfectly, both the Cardinals’ dismay and the Dodgers’ jubilation. This was the best outcome for the sport, with the Giants and Dodgers meeting in the postseason for the first time, following an instant classic.

2. ICYMI

Missed some or all of last night’s game? Relive it all in our live blog.

Dodgers Win Thriller on Taylor’s Walk-Off HR by Emma Baccellieri and Matt Martell

Revisit the tension, sorrow and excitement in real time from L.A.'s epic victory in the NL wild-card game.

Curious about what’s going on with the third NL West contender? Here’s an update on San Diego after its disappointing year.

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Welcome to the Updated Version of Playoff Baseball by Tom Verducci

3. WORTH NOTING from Tom Verducci

The Etch A Sketch that is the postseason proved itself again. The Cardinals’ title as “the hottest team in baseball”? Poof. Gone. Suddenly they could not get any of those RBI hits that came nightly in their 17-game September win streak.

Cody Bellinger’s .165 batting average? The sixth-worst ever for anybody who came to bat as many as 350 times? Means nothing now. Gone with one shake.

The Dodgers’ 3–1 walk-off win in the NL wild-card game over the Cardinals stands as a reminder of how October has its own ecosystem. It laughs at what we call “momentum” of the regular season.

Chris Taylor added to the exhibit. Taylor hit zero home runs off a breaking pitch in August and September. He had hit .119 off spin in the final two months, managing five hits among 245 breaking pitches. Of course, he walked it off by smashing a hanging slider from Alex Reyes.

Now Bellinger is a cat to keep your eye on in the NLDS against the Giants. As bad as he looked in the regular season, he saw 18 pitches in four plate appearances in the wild-card game, stroked an 0–2 pitch for a single and stole two bases. It was only the third game in his career in which he reached base three times and swiped two bags. The guy who hit eighth—and was the subject of some first guesses as to why he started instead of Taylor—might just be a factor in the NLDS. Hey, it’s October. It’s a brand-new game.

4. WHAT TO WATCH FOR

Today begins the American League Division Series, with the Astros hosting the White Sox at Minute Maid Park (first pitch: 4:07 p.m. ET), to start things off. Then, the Red Sox travel to St. Petersburg to begin their five-game set with the 100-win Rays at Tropicana Field (first pitch: 8:07 p.m. ET).

The first game, a rematch of the 2005 World Series, back when Houston was a National League team, is the more exciting of the two. Both clubs feature young, dynamic players and core veterans—along with managers who are in their 70s: Tony La Russa and Dusty Baker.

La Russa came out of retirement before the season to lead Chicago, the organization that gave him his first managerial gig. It seemed like an odd fit at the time, and it remains a bit puzzling today. Beyond the obvious personality differences between La Russa and Tim Anderson, there were baseball concerns, too. La Russa, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame as a manager in 2014, last wore his baseball pants in ’11. While only a decade ago, the game was vastly different than it is now. He led the Cardinals to their most recent World Series title that year and then retired from the dugout. The White Sox are one of the most talented rosters in the game, anchored by the best rotation in the American League, but they coasted to the AL Central crown and haven’t played well against teams with winning records. They went long stretches of the season without several of their core hitters, who missed time with injuries. Now, their lineup is at full strength. It’s fair to wonder whether the White Sox made it this far because of, or in spite of, their 77-year-old manager.

5. THE CLOSER from Emma Baccellieri

The Red Sox’ Game 1 starter, Eduardo Rodriguez, made two starts against the Rays in September. They couldn’t have gone more differently. The first (Sept. 2) featured six scoreless innings with six strikeouts. The second (Sept. 7) was a disaster, with Rodriguez getting torched for six runs, failing to make it out of the fourth inning and watching the Rays attack his cutter in particular. Presumably, he learned a lot from both outings, and the Rays learned just as much about him. So just what will we see from Rodriguez tonight?

That’s all from us today. We’ll be back in your inbox tomorrow. In the meantime, share this newsletter with your friends and family, and tell them to sign up at SI.com/newsletters. If you have any questions for our team, send a note to mlb@si.com.