By Phil Rogers, Chicago Tribune –
Life’s cruel sometimes.
A year ago, the Cardinals and Rangers were atop the baseball world. They rode their talent and ability to deliver in the clutch all the way to the World Series. Now they’re fighting for their lives in a new form of torture, the wild-card showdown.
Sure, there was stress in the Series, especially for Neftali Feliz, Nelson Cruz and the Rangers. But what situation brings the most pressure, trying to finish off the World Series after losing it the previous year or trying to avoid falling on your face altogether?
Tough question. The latter is the situation Ron Washington’s team is in after losing a 13-game lead in the American League West.
The Rangers face the little-to-lose Orioles on Friday night after the defending champion Cardinals play the Braves in another of these win-or-go-home games that Major League Baseball instituted to expand the playoff field from eight teams to 10 last winter.
All four of these teams are here for one reason: They failed to win their divisions. The teams that did, including the 88-win Tigers, have gone directly to the division series, which begin Saturday in Detroit and San Francisco and Sunday with the Yankees visiting Texas or Baltimore and the Nationals playing in St. Louis or Atlanta.
No matter what you think about the one-game concept, there is one huge flaw in the 2012 format. That’s having the teams with the best records open the division series on the road to accommodate a two/three setup in the best-of-five round.
Commissioner Bud Selig wanted teams with the home-field advantage to get a possible Game 5 at home without having a travel day after Game 4, so it was drawn up this way. It’s a quirk in the postseason schedule being used this year (and only this year) because the dates for the season and the World Series were in stone before the wild-card games were added,which forced days off to be reduced.
This is a bad idea, and you’ll hear plenty about it if, say, the 98-win Nationals or 95-win Yankees fall into 2-0 holes against wild-card teams before getting a game in their ballparks.
This is unfair, and lots of people think it’s also unfair to force teams built for 162 games to win on demand just to advance to the division series. But if you’re a baseball fan, you’re going to be watching Friday, aren’t you?
That was the idea, and consider the storylines coming your way:
Can Ron Washington and Josh Hamilton get their grooves back? The Rangers were probably the only team that truly expected to get to the World Series when it went to spring training, but they lost the West when it lost a four-game lead with six to play. This may be the biggest game they have played since Game 5 of the 2010 AL Division Series in St. Petersburg, Fla., when the postseason winning began, and a loss could be the last game in a Rangers uniform for the manager and the slugging center fielder, who will be a free agent after the season.
Is there autumnal life after TLR for Cardinal Nation? Tony La Russa and Albert Pujols both departed after the Cardinals came back in Game 6 to beat the Rangers in a seven-game World Series. Rookie manager Mike Matheny was a huge success but hasn’t been tested in the postseason. It helps that he has a veteran team.
Will this be the last game of Chipper Jones’ Hall of Fame career? The last link to the Greg Maddux/Tom Glavine/John Smoltz Braves has been on a farewell tour in 2012, and it would be a great story if it led all the way to the World Series. If he does something to help the Braves advance to meet the Nationals, it will be remembered forever.
Is Yu Darvish all that? The Rangers will start their Japanese import, who might have the biggest range of pitch speeds in history. His fastball clocks in the mid-90s, and he has developed a slow curve in the mid-60s. Is he a facsimile of Nolan Ryan or Satchel Paige? He can be both in the same game.
Is baseball ready for the next Mannywood? Manny Machado, 20, has been a late-season catalyst for the Orioles. He made a quick transition from shortstop to third base, improving the defense significantly and adding a power bat to the bottom of a deep lineup.
The trip from these games to the World Series is daunting, indeed. My guess is that whoever advances will be division series fodder for the teams that play in the World Series. Let’s call that one Yankees over Nationals (in 7).