Major League Baseball received a lot of scrutiny over the past month for its wild card format. Critics complained that forcing the second-best team in the majors to risk being eliminated in the life-and-death round was not the purpose of the two-wild card system.
Sure, it’s true that when MLB instituted the second wild card in 2012, the intention was not for the defending champion Dodgers, who won 106 games, to face the Cardinals, who won 16 fewer games. However, MLB wanted to emphasize the importance of divisional races while expanding the playoff field by two teams (one from each league) and creating consecutive must-watch TV nights to start the postseason. Mission accomplished.
The moment of vindication did not come when Chris Taylor’s two-run home run off Alex Reyes sailed into the Southern California sky, but four hours earlier when millions of casual fans and fans tuned in to the action. What they saw was an epic game filled with suspense, euphoria, disappointment, and then finally euphoria. Dodgers 3, Cardinals 1.
The stiffness of the game definitely played a role in these drastic changes in excitement. It’s why this was so much more exciting than the American League wild card game, despite the rivalry between the Yankees and the Red Sox. From the beginning, it was clear that Max Scherzer didn’t have his best things last night; the biggest question during the first half of the game was when would Dave Roberts draw his ace. The Cardinals scored in the first on a wild pitch and had at least one batter in every inning. But LA, with its safety 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 after a dribbled single down the third base line. The pressure increased with every pitch, every pitch change, and every stolen base (there were five!).
But more importantly, the tension in this game was tied to the stakes, which no doubt escalated as the Dodgers had the second-best record in the regular season. Win and advance; lose and go home.
In fact, this season raised a key question about the virtues of MLB’s wild card system, but we were getting it wrong. It wasn’t about whether the fate of a team should comes down to a single game to start 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’ve spent the past six months trying in vain to avoid the exact scenario they found themselves in Wednesday night: a stressful white-knuckle party from an elimination game to start the postseason. Instead of a quick start, the four-hour pressure cooker ended with another instantly iconic postseason moment for a franchise with more than a few. “
So begins Nick Selbe’s postgame column from Dodger Stadium. It perfectly captures the atmosphere of the moment, both the dismay of the Cardinals and the jubilation of the Dodgers. This was the best result for the sport, with the Giants and Dodgers meeting in the postseason for the first time, following an instant classic.
Did you miss part or all of the game last night? Relive everything in our live blog.
Dodgers win Thriller in Taylor’s Walk-Off HR by Emma Baccellieri and Matt Martell
Relive the tension, pain and excitement in real time of Los Angeles’ epic victory in the National League wild card game.
Curious about what’s going on with the NL West’s third contender? Here’s a upgrade in San Diego after its disappointing year.
Padres Fire Manager Jayce Tingler after two seasons by Michael Shapiro
Interested in the five-decade relationship between Tony La Russa and Dusty Baker before the White Sox and Astros start their ALDS in Houston this afternoon? See his story in our postseason advance.
Welcome to the updated version of Playoff Baseball by Tom Verducci
3. WORTH NOTING by Tom Verducci
The Etch A Sketch that is the postseason once again proved its worth. The Cardinals’ title as “the most popular team in baseball”? Fagot. Missing. Suddenly, they couldn’t get any of those RBI hits that came nightly on their 17-game winning streak in September.
Cody Bellinger’s .165 batting average? Sixth worst for someone who hit up to 350 times? It doesn’t mean anything now. It was finished with a smoothie.
The Dodgers’ 3-1 victory in the NL wild card game over the Cardinals is a reminder of how October has its own ecosystem. He laughs at what we call “momentum” of the regular season.
Chris Taylor added to the exhibit. Taylor hit zero home runs on a breakout pitch in August and September. He had hit .119 with spin the past two months, handling five hits among 245 break pitches. Of course, he walked away breaking a slider that was dangling from Alex Reyes.
Now Bellinger is a cat to be reckoned with in the NLDS against the Giants. As bad as he looked in the regular season, he saw 18 pitches in four plate appearances in wild-card game, pitched 0-2 for a single and stole two bases. It was only the third game of his career in which he reached base three times and stole two bags. The guy who finished eighth, and was the subject of some early speculation as to why he started instead of Taylor, could be a factor in the NLDS. Hey, it’s October. It is a completely new game.
4. WHAT TO BE CAREFUL
The American League Division Series begins today, with the Astros hosting the White Sox at Minute Maid Park (first pitch: 4:07 pm ET), to begin. The Red Sox then travel to St. Petersburg to begin their five-game set with the 100-win Rays at Tropicana Field (first pitch: 8:07 pm ET).
The first game, a rematch of the 2005 World Series when Houston was a National League team, is the more exciting of the two. Both clubs feature young, dynamic players and top veterans, along with 70-year-old managers 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 job as a manager. It seemed like an odd fit at the time, and it’s still a bit unnerving today. Beyond the obvious personality differences between La Russa and Tim Anderson, there were also concerns about baseball. La Russa, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame as a manager in 2014, last wore his baseball pants in ’11. Although only a decade ago, the game was very different from what 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 rose to the AL Central crown and haven’t played well against teams with winning records. They went long periods of the season without several of their center hitters, who lost time with injuries. Now his lineup is in top shape. It’s fair to wonder if the White Sox got that far thanks to, or despite, their 77-year-old manager.
5. THE CLOSER by Emma Baccellieri
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 being burned for six runs, unable to get out of the fourth inning and watching the Rays attack his particular cutter. Presumably he learned a lot from both outings, and the Rays learned so much from him. So what will we see of Rodriguez tonight?
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.