Print and Go Back ESPN.com: SweetSpot [Print without images]

Sunday, September 25, 2011
The wild-card races we already have

By David Schoenfield



On Aug. 30, 1978, Dennis Eckersley pitched a complete-game five-hitter to lead the Red Sox to a 2-1 victory over the Blue Jays. They were 84-47 and led the AL East by 7.5 games over the Yankees.

The Sox played a doubleheader that day. Thanks to Jim Rice’s home run in the bottom of the seventh, his second of the game, they led the Jays 6-5 heading into the eighth. Playing third base for Boston that day was Butch Hobson, who had played despite painful bone chips in his elbow all season. Don Zimmer could have brought in a defensive replacement; after all, Hobson had already committed 31 errors, including one earlier in the game. He booted a grounder leading off the inning, and two outs later Bob Bailor doubled in two runs. The Jays held on for the 7-6 victory.

Starting with this defeat, the Sox would go 3-14 over their next 17 games. They would hit just .192 over that stretch and fall out of first place.

It begins innocently enough, doesn’t it?

On Sept. 6, 2011, the Red Sox clobbered the Blue Jays 14-0. Sure, they had fallen a couple games behind the Yankees for first place, but their playoff slot was safely secure: Boston was eight games ahead of Tampa Bay in the wild-card standings, after all.

The next night, Daniel Bard entered to protect an 8-6 lead in the eighth inning. As Bard strolled to the mound in Toronto, unlike Butch Hobson, there was no reason to expect him to fail. He’d been one of the American League’s most dominant relievers, with a 2.10 ERA -- including a 1.13 mark over his previous 39.2 innings. But he hit Brett Lawrie to begin the inning. He gave up a single and walk to load the bases but stuck out the next two hitters. He got two strikes on Eric Thames, who fouled off two pitches and eventually worked a walk. Jose Bautista walked to force in the tying run and then Edwin Encarnacion greeted Matt Albers with a bases-clearing double.

A hit by pitch, or Thames fouling off a two-strike fastball. Pick either of those moments or both, but they marked the beginnings of a collapse that perhaps 33 years from now will still be discussed, debated and cried over in watering holes throughout Boston.

* * * *

Reports over the weekend indicated that MLB and the players’ union have agreed in principle to add a second wild-card team to the playoffs, setting up a one-game playoff between the two wild cards. Haven’t the past few weeks shown why baseball doesn’t need this gimmick?

The Red Sox and Rays have played two weeks of nail-biting, stress-inducing baseball. Over in the National League, the Cardinals have nearly caught the Braves in another exciting wild-card race. Every game, every inning, every pitch has been vitally important for those clubs for two weeks now.

And we want to get rid of that for a scheduled one-game gimmick?

We’re supposed to accept that a one-game playoff is more exciting than the everyday drama we’ve had this month? Rays fans have gone crazy with every Evan Longoria home run. Red Sox fans have cursed every John Lackey bad start or Bard relief outing. Braves fans have suffered with every one-run defeat. The Cardinals have gone 25-8 since Aug. 25 to claw one game back of Atlanta, but the one game Cardinals fans may end up remembering most is the crushing 8-6, ninth-inning loss to the Mets on Thursday.

With a one-game playoff, none of that matters. The next three days don’t matter. The Red Sox and Rays would essentially be in (although the Angels remain mathematically alive), and Boston’s historic collapse would be irrelevant. The Braves and Cardinals would both be in and that searing defeat to the Mets would merely be a meaningless blip.

Since the wild card began in 1995, we’ve had six one-game tiebreakers. We’ve had many division and wild-card races come down to the final weekend or even final day of the season.

Baseball doesn’t need a gimmick. Baseball doesn’t need to tell its players and franchises, “Congrats on making the playoffs and busting your humps for 162 games. Now you have one game to advance.”

It’s made-for-TV gimmick, of course, an attempt to create “an event.” Guess what? We’ve had that kind of drama every night for three weeks, the drama that makes baseball the best sport there is.

* * * *

As for the 1978 Red Sox, people often forget this fact: They won their final eight games of the season to force a first-place tie with the Yankees. They threw four shutouts in their final six games. That team is remembered for their collapse, but they had something in them when they needed it most.

What about the 2011 Red Sox? Jacoby Ellsbury’s dramatic 14th-inning home run off Scott Proctor salvaged the second game of Sunday’s doubleheader. It gives Boston a one-game lead over Tampa with three games remaining. I know I’ll be glued to the TV set, because -- this season -- those games actually matter.