It seemed as though nobody wanted to gain ground in the chase for the last National League playoff spot on Tuesday night. The Cincinnati Reds, losers of 11 out of their last 15, fell behind 6-0 to the Pirates and couldn’t muster a comeback. The Padres, now on a five-game losing streak, picked up just three hits against San Francisco and lost 6-1. The Phillies dropped their sixth out of seven as the Cubs took them down 6-3. And the Mets, who are below .500 and needed a win more than anyone, suffered a 7-6 heartbreaker in 11 innings that included, most brutally, a 10th-inning-ending double-play groundout by Francisco Lindor with the winning run on third.
The beneficiaries of New York’s failure to execute with runners in scoring position was the only team that’s shown any moxie of late: the frickin’ St. Louis Cardinals, who leapfrogged up into that second wild card spot on the back of their fourth straight victory, and their sixth in the last seven. The Cards are … fine, I guess? They have a brilliant age-defying ace in the 40-year-old Adam Wainwright, who’s somehow pitching better as the season rolls along. They’re enjoying a breakout year at the plate from beefy, piano-playing outfielder Tyler O’Neill. And they’ve also received another strong season from their slugging first baseman Paul Goldschmidt.
But St. Louis—with its 19th-ranked OBP, its 22nd-best slugging percentage, and its 14th-best team ERA—is not a squad that blows you the heck away. The Cardinals are having a year somewhere between fine and OK, which puts them right there alongside their closest competition, and only by lifting their level of play in these critical final weeks have they managed to emerge from the cloud of mediocre dust in the middle of this league.
Maybe that’s about what you’d expect from your wild card boys, especially in the era of two wild cards. But what jumps out the most when you check out the standings is just how pathetic these teams all look when compared to the Dodgers, who are still hustling to catch the nuclear Giants at the top of the NL West. The Cards, at 75-69, are 17 whole games back of their would-be opponents in the play-in game if the season were to end today.
Some of this is just the weirdness and randomness of baseball—swap the Braves and the Dodgers in their respective divisions and suddenly things don’t look so funny. But it’s also the most dramatic example yet of what baseball hoped to achieve when they expanded the wild card to two teams in each league nearly a decade ago. In olden times, San Diego would be already eliminated from the postseason. St. Louis and Cincinnati would only have the slimmest of prayers in the NL Central. And the Phillies and Mets wouldn’t be much better off in the East, either. Now, though, all these half-decent teams are on basically even footing with the defending champion that has by far the highest payroll in baseball and is likely going to top 100 wins.
The dark side to this setup should be readily apparent, and it comes mostly from the sheer coin flip that is a one-game playoff to decide who gets to make the NLDS. Though the Dodgers will get home-field advantage for this game—they’re 51-23 at home vs 42-30 away—their reward (or the Giants’, if they slip a bit) is the smallest of sample sizes. It’s one game, anything can happen, and the otherwise-dominant NL West runners-up could be knocked out with just a bad break or two. That’s a result that would further encourage (if that’s possible) teams to run terrified from the luxury tax because, well, what’s the point of spending over $250 million on a juggernaut of a team if you can’t even get a second playoff game out of it? And on top of that, it’d just be a bummer to miss out on a proper playoff series between the two best teams in baseball because the owners would prefer to make it as easy as possible to sneak into the postseason.
I guess I’m not hiding my feelings on the matter here. Sometimes I even long for the days when the World Series was exclusively between the two pennant winners, because it’s the fair and logical way to determine a champion. But here’s a twist I was not expecting—at least last night, I kind of appreciated the chaos. All of these games that would previously have been easily ignored now have a critical impact on this baseball season. Without the second wild card, it’s not a stinging unforced error by the Reds to let the Pirates beat them. Neither is it particularly important that Kyle Gibson allowed four runs to the Cubs. And if the NL playoff field was already set, I certainly would not have been up watching the Mets at 11:45 p.m., talking this dang Albert Almora through his ultimately doomed final at-bat. You can argue this stuff either shouldn’t matter or should have higher stakes, but for omnidirectional, vaguely punchy, mid-September drama, you can’t beat it. Check back with me, though, if we get Reds-Giants instead of Dodgers-Giants.