Why the One-Game Wild Card should be Here To Stay

There’s no telling if Dodgers’ utilityman Chris Taylor truly intended to end an entire season’s worth of grinding and battling with a single swing of the bat, but that was the outcome that was reached regardless when he clubbed Alex Reyes’ hanging breaking ball into the left-field seats at Dodger stadium.

“Once [Cody Bellinger] got to second, I was trying not to do too much,” Taylor explained simply after the game’s conclusion. “He kind of left it over the middle of the plate for me, and I was able to get it up in the air to left.”

The celebration was bonkers (as is typically expected of a walk-off win), but there was something more to the celebration this time around, even for a playoff win. Fans, management, and the players themselves wouldn’t have to play with the looming fear of imminent elimination for at least another week or so. One loss didn’t mean the end of the season. Amidst the raucous celebration, what felt like a collective sigh of relief filled the air of Dodger Stadium.

Baseball has received its fair share of criticism, but among the most heavily scrutinized aspects of America’s pastime is the Wild Card game — a one-game, winner-take-all showdown between two contending teams, with a playoff berth on the line. The winner earns the right to advance a round and compete in a five-game series against their respective league’s best team, while the loser sees six months and 162 games worth of work and effort rendered meaningless in the span of three-plus hours.

Baseball is a cruel sport, and in no setting was that sentiment better conveyed than in the aftermath of Wednesday night’s walk-off finish in Chavez Ravine. The difference in emotion is almost night and day; as Chris Taylor rounded third base, galloping home amid a chorus of elated cheers from overjoyed Dodger faithful, his Los Angeles teammates mobbed home plate, flinging water bottles and sunflower seeds in a chaotic frenzy of jubilation.

The Cardinals, meanwhile, looked like they had just finished attending a funeral. Which, in a twisted sense, was the truth — they had been forced to watch their season die. Most of the men in red jerseys had already escaped to the visiting locker room, heads down and pace slow, visibly deflated. The few mourning souls that had elected to stay in view of the dugout wore thousand-yard stares, unblinking eyes glued to the celebration on the field and around the stadium. Perhaps wondering what they could have done to make it so that they were the ones celebrating instead.

“I felt like we had a team that was going to win a World Series, honestly,” starter Adam Wainwright said after the game. And he certainly has a case —  a torrid hot streak that featured 17 straight wins had the Red Birds looking like potential NL favorites heading into the Wild Card game.

But it was one pitch — one bad, poorly-timed, costly mistake of a pitch — that ended all that speculation.

There’s a lot that goes into a Wild Card game. You can’t treat it like a regular season game, but you also can’t treat it exactly like you would a Game 7. The do-or-die mentality is absolutely required, but should your team come out victorious, a quick turnaround awaits in the form of a best-of-five series against the number one seed beginning two days later. You should do everything in your power to win, but technically speaking, burning all your best rotation arms for the sake of a win isn’t the best strategy to employ.

Then there’s the context of the Wild Card. This year, the Dodgers entered the Wild Card game with a record of 106-56, a record good enough to win every division in baseball except the one that they played in; the National League West, in which they trailed the San Francisco Giants by a mere one game. There was a real possibility that the second best team in the league wouldn’t even play more than a single game in the postseason. You can imagine the discourse that would come about were that the reality that came to pass. Where else in sports is a team like the 2021 Los Angeles Dodgers forced into a one-game play-in?

In a sport so clearly defined by series, a mere one game feels like a concept that goes against how the sport is intended to be played. But is that really a bad thing?

It was never intended for there to be a shift in the infield (or outfield, if you’re Joey Gallo). The designated hitter wasn’t an original rule either. Replay review wasn’t a thing until 2008. All of these things — wrinkles added to the sport to either add a new level of intrigue or modernize the game — have for the most part been positive changes to one of the world’s oldest sports.

The one-game Wild Card would fall into the former category. Baseball is typically played with some modicum of attention set on the future. You can’t throw tomorrow’s starter into today’s game as a reliever — even if his stuff is filthy — because who will start tomorrow? Burn your All-Star closer for two innings in one game, and he might be out of commission for the next two days minimum — so limit him to an inning of work instead.

All of that goes out the window when the Wild Card game is involved. In a contest where tomorrow is decided only if you win, there are no pulled punches. There is no thought given to the future — only the now. Which, in baseball, is treated as a rarity.

In 2017’s American League Wild Card game between the New York Yankees and the Minnesota Twins, runs were expected to be at a premium. Yankee ace Luis Severino, sporting a dazzling 2.98 ERA, was slated to toe the rubber against veteran right-hander Ervin Santana, who himself posted an impressive 3.28 ERA year. Instead, the two All-Star starters combined for a total of 2.1 innings pitched, each giving up three earned runs in the first inning (Severino was pulled from the game after recording only one out). A regular season game might have seen managers attempt to ride their starters longer, in an attempt to save the bullpen. In the Wild Card game, however, that train of thought never came to mind. 

A great moment like what happened last Wednesday night is dampened slightly if the game were the opener of a best-of-three set. The overall feeling is still a surplus of joy, but there’s always a looming feeling of dread coded to a baseball fan’s way of thinking — what if they drop the next two? All of a sudden, Wednesday night is meaningless, and the Dodgers are one of the first teams out despite having the league’s second best record.

Wild Card games take that feeling of a tied ninth inning and stretch it across an entire game. Every pitch matters. There’s no, “Well, we dropped this game, but I’m confident we can win the next two or three.” That feeling that a season could end on one mistake pitch, or one defensive error, or one swing and miss — that’s the feeling baseball thrives on. And should continue to cultivate.

That isn’t to say the rule can’t be changed. In the case of the 2021 Los Angeles Dodgers, a one-game Wild Card playoff does feel unfair to a team with the league’s second best record. One rule that has circulated among the baseball faithful is a seeded-style of Wild Card; if the top-seeded Wild Card team (the Dodgers, in this example) finished five or more games better than the lower-seeded Wild Card team (the Cardinals), then a Wild Card game becomes a series. If the top-seeded team wins, then they advance. If the lower-seeded team loses, then the top-seeded team has one more chance to beat them, again in their home stadium. If they lose again, the lower-seeded team advances instead. Conversely, if the top-seeded team is not at least five games better than lower-seeded team, the sudden-death format from years prior remains. This system of playoff is already installed in the Korea Baseball Organization, and is generally well-received across the baseball world.

Rule changes or not, baseball shouldn’t tamper with this feeling they’ve created with the Wild Card game. It’s the closest thing to a Game 7 that isn’t a Game 7. Sometimes, it’s the only game that feels like a Game 7 if no playoff series end up going the distance during a particular year. Whether the feeling comes from the building pressure of a do-or-die game, or the wicked joy of seeing a potential powerhouse like the Dodgers go down in a single game, baseball’s Wild Card is unlike anything else in the sport. And that’s a good thing.