There is nothing quite like an elimination game. That is part of what makes the N.C.A.A. basketball tournament and the N.F.L. playoffs so gripping. The desperation of those games, with the season in the balance for both teams, is compelling theater.
The Yankees played host to the Minnesota Twins in the Bronx on Tuesday night, with the Colorado Rockies set to visit the Arizona Diamondbacks on Wednesday. One advances, the other expires. Most teams let loose afterward with a boozy clubhouse party, which seems excessive from the outside. If you’ve lived with the tension of an instant knockout night, you might feel differently.
“I think what it does, for one night, is just add a clinching-type game — a Game 5 or a Game 7 right away,” said Sonny Gray, the Yankees’ right-hander. “It kind of gets everyone excited for what’s to come, especially when you have really good wild-card games.”
In 2012, baseball engineered this kind of instant drama for its postseason, creating a winner-take-all matchup between the two non-division winners with the best records. It was one of the league’s most inspired decisions. The best-of-five division series, which began in 1995, had some indelible moments, but they happened too infrequently.
Before the wild-card game, baseball had staged 17 consecutive postseasons that began with four best-of-five division series. Yet those series reached a Game 5 just 25 percent of the time — 17 instances in 68 total series.
Even worse, the wild-card winner advanced directly to the division series with no penalty other than getting to host just two of the five potential games. In 2010, the Yankees essentially conceded the American League East crown to the Tampa Bay Rays, grabbing the wild-card spot and resting up for a first-round series they would win. Major League Baseball took notice, and soon took action.
“We wanted to make sure everybody played for the division title; remember we had those couple of years where it didn’t matter?” Commissioner Rob Manfred said on Tuesday. “So we wanted to make sure everybody played hard all the way through the division. We wanted to disadvantage the wild card, so we decided: make them do a play-in game.”
Yes, this runs counter to the natural rhythms of a sport played in slices of mostly three-game series over a punishing six-month grind. When the very best teams lose at least 55 or 60 games per season, one game proves very little.
The retort, of course? Win the division, and you’ll have a playoff series. Wild-card teams should simply be happy with the invitation. Just ask Paul Molitor, the Twins’ manager, whose Milwaukee Brewers won 93 games in 1978 — more than A.L. West champion Kansas City, but not enough to win the A.L. East and earn a playoff ticket.
“I think it’s for the better,” Molitor said. “We still are in a better position; we don’t have half our teams going to the playoffs.”
Indeed, even with extra playoff spot, baseball admits only 33 percent of its teams to the postseason, a lower percentage than the N.F.L. (37.5 percent), the N.H.L. (50) or the N.B.A. (53.3). And two teams exit the stage almost as soon as they arrive.
In 2014, Gray’s Oakland Athletics wore baseball’s “Take October” sweatshirts on the bench in Kansas City, but, alas, they never quite got there. The Royals’ Salvador Perez lashed the winning hit in the A.L. wild-card game at 11:53 p.m. local time on Sept. 30. The hit catapulted the Royals to sweeps in the next two rounds and a berth in the World Series, which they lost to the San Francisco Giants, who had won the N.L. wild-card game.
The year before, the Cincinnati Reds lasted just one night in Pittsburgh, doomed by the raucous crowd that greeted the Pirates for their first postseason appearance in decades.
“It was the best atmosphere I’ve ever been a part of in my life,” said the Yankees’ Todd Frazier, who played for the Reds. “I remember getting booed just going out there to stretch. It sounded like a soccer match in Europe. It was so unbelievably loud. It was like, all right, we’re down, 1-0, already because of the crowd.”
The Pirates could make the best case for the unfairness of the system. They lost the National League wild-card game at home in 2014 and 2015, the first on a shutout by the San Francisco Giants’ Madison Bumgarner, the second on a shutout by the Chicago Cubs’ Jake Arrieta. The Pirates had gone 98-64 in 2015, matching their record from 1979, the last time they won the World Series. Yet one opposing pitcher ruined everything.
Before he knew his team’s fate, Yankees Manager Joe Girardi said he believed the wild-card teams should play a best-of-three series, rather than a one-game playoff. Girardi reiterated the point when asked about it before batting practice on Tuesday.
“I’m not crazy about it,” he said about the current system, and then explained how he would schedule the series he envisioned. “The penalty for being the wild card is there is no day off, so you play Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and then you play Thursday and Friday” to start a division series.
He continued: “I think in a situation like that, then it’s more of a normal roster. It’s more of ‘What is the team made of?’ as opposed to it could be a one-pitcher sort of thing.”
That is true enough, but a tiebreaker game or a rainout would throw that plan into chaos. Manfred also dismissed it as unrealistic, and harmful to division winners.
“If you do two out of three, and you think about it, it has to be four, maybe five days,” Manfred said. “And with that layoff, the division winners are going to feel disadvantaged by that. They don’t want to go that long without playing. It’s just too long. Two out of three was obviously the shortest you can go, but it just kind of ran contrary to what we were trying to accomplish in the first place.”
Baseball has problems — the pace of action; the lack of minorities in positions of authority; the scourge of pitching injuries; the outdated ballparks in Oakland and Tampa Bay; the rising costs of youth baseball and so on. But there is no momentum to change the wild-card format.
“Look, I do think, from a marketing-the-game perspective, knockout games draw a lot of attention,” Manfred said. “I think we’re probably in the right place on that.”