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Saturday, Apr 21, 2018
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Perils plentiful in MLB’s wild-card round

One more game.

At the very least, the Rays have assured themselves of that.

But when they face the Cleveland Indians in tonight’s American League wild-card game — the winner moves on, the loser goes home — the Rays must again summon one-chance urgency that seems so foreign to the baseball postseason.

“I think it is odd,’’ Rays second baseman Ben Zobrist said of the one-and-done format. “It’s for the fans. Hopefully, people gravitate toward those moments and it draws them into the whole season.

“For us, it’s a long, long time coming to this point, just to get into this position. You feel like the more you put into something, the more you want to get out of it. So one game? Yeah, you hope it bounces in your favor. In baseball, you could do everything right and still not win. Momentum can be huge.’’

The Rays have that, following Monday’s 5-2 victory against the Texas Rangers in a Game 163 tiebreaker. Already, they have lived the one-and-done perils (and you could include Sunday’s 7-6 win at Toronto).

But tonight’s game is a new baseball phenomenon.

Seeking to increase the postseason pool, an additional team was added last season and the one-game wild-card round was instituted. It adds value for division winners, which automatically begin with the best-of-5 division series. And it increases September interest for a handful of teams that would formerly be out of the playoff hunt.

“I’m a big fan of it right now,’’ Rays manager Joe Maddon said. “But from the beginning, I thought a best-of-3 series would be the appropriate way to decide it. Length of the season is a concern. I get that.

“But this is more like football. It’s Super Bowl stuff, which is cool. Our game is predicated on depth and 162 games, so this is definitely different.’’

Last season, the Baltimore Orioles went to Texas and beat the Rangers 5-1 in the initial AL wild-card game. Orioles manager Buck Showalter wasn’t certain what to make of it.

“We had one thing to show for it — a hat with two cards on it, an ace and a jack, like in blackjack,’’ Showalter said. “That’s all we got. We didn’t know whether to celebrate or not. I was wondering on Opening Day if they were going to show a flag with those two cards.’’

Things returned to normal when the Orioles then fought the New York Yankees in the division series, bowing out in Game 5, experiencing the ebbs and flows familiar to baseball’s postseason.

The wild-card game? A different experience.

“I think our club grasped that it was a different game,’’ Showalter said. “All season in baseball when you play, there’s always another game. It was the first time all year where there wasn’t another game if you lost. It was different, but baseball players are creatures of routine. So we kept things as normal as possible.

“All of a sudden, you’re in a one-game situation. The team that grasps that, the sense of finality about every inning and every pitch (will have success). You can’t let this game get away from you.’’

Orioles catcher Matt Wieters said he didn’t feel pressure, maybe because he and his teammates were blissfully ignorant.

“It was like going right into Game 5 or Game 7,’’ Wieters said. “You never imagined so much energy and excitement. It goes by quick. We flew into Texas and then the game was there. It was a blessing. We didn’t have time to think about it. It was a win-or-die atmosphere, but we just played like we normally do.’’

Rays third baseman Evan Longoria called it “a strange deal,’’ but said the potential quirks are an acceptable trade-off for fan interest.

“I understand it’s very hard to follow this game for 162 days straight,’’ Longoria said. “But as a fan, you should get excited for this time of year. I’m the same way with the NBA. I’m not going to every game. But I’ll watch the playoffs. March Madness, the same thing. Golf, I’ll watch all the majors. This is a spotlight moment.’’

It’s also part of baseball’s evolution. Prior to 1969, there were no divisions. The NL and AL pennant winners moved directly to the World Series. Then came the divisional split and best-of-5 playoffs. It was expanded to best-of-seven in 1985. After a strike wiped out the 1994 postseason, a wild-card team was added to each league in 1995.

Now there’s a wild-card game — and 10 total teams in the postseason. And once again, in a sport known for measured analysis based on hefty sample sizes, it’s one-and-done.

The reviews, as you might expect, are mixed.

“Not sure I like it,’’ said Rangers hitting coach Dave Magadan, formerly of Jesuit High. “It’s sort of a football mentality in baseball.’’

“I have no issue with it,’’ Rangers manager Ron Washington said. “Obviously, you’d prefer to win the division. In the one-game format, the best team might not win, but at least you’ve got a chance. I’d rather stake it on one game instead of missing it by one game and being on the highway going home.’’


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