The next one comes Wednesday night in Phoenix, with the Arizona Diamondbacks playing host to the Colorado Rockies. Maybe the starters, Arizona’s Zack Greinke and Colorado’s Jon Gray, can stick around longer than Severino and the Twins’ Ervin Santana, who made a dubious sort of history: Never before had the starters in a winner-take-all game both been gone by the third inning.
That is knockout baseball, though, the kind of drama the sport first engineered for the 2012 postseason, creating a play-in game 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 being host to 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. Even with the 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 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, losing in the 12th inning of the A.L. wild-card game at 11:53 p.m. local time on Sept. 30. The Royals would go on to 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 then 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 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 on Tuesday during batting practice.
“I’m not crazy about it,” he said of a one-game play-in and explaining how he would schedule the series. “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.”
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.”