October 8, 2012
The Weirdness of Wild Card Friday
Leading up to last week, there was some kerfuffle over how teams would manage their rosters for the first-ever Wild Card Friday. Would we see six LOOGYs? A player-manager? Three catchers? No catchers? Turns out the question we should’ve been asking was how the players themselves would handle the novelty of a single-elimination game. The answer? Not very well: we were treated to seven errors in two games, including a Braves infield that couldn’t have won a teddy bear at a carnival and dueling errant pickoff throws from Derek Holland and Darren O’Day that their first basemen hardly bothered to reach for. Between the errors, the botched (?) infield fly call, and the possible ends of two great careers (Chipper Jones and Jim Thome), there were enough storylines in play on Friday to keep Dick Stockton on script for the rest of the month.
I loved every second of it. Look, there are plenty of practical reasons to support the second wild card—it leads to more money and higher ratings, it puts a premium on winning the division, and it gives more teams late-season hope, all without cheapening the achievement of making the playoffs—but in retrospect, one of the best reasons to like it is that it gave us two unbelievable games. It should continue to do so in future years, too, for the reason stated above: the new format is putting the players in situations with which they’re unfamiliar. How many players have ever been thrust into one winner-take-all contest to keep their seasons alive? Even the College World Series isn’t so cruel. Everywhere you looked, players seemed just a little bit off, and I defy you to tell me you didn’t have fun watching, or that it wasn’t good for the game.
(And if that’s not a good enough reason for you, remember that a Braves game got Atlanta fans got so riled up that they actually threw bottles onto the field. I’m pretty sure they thought they were watching Georgia Tech football, but still.)
Naturally, given the baseball anarchy we just witnessed, a few players did things they might have found time to rethink on a less stressful day. To the grab bag!
No points are awarded for guessing Andrelton Simmons would feature prominently in this space. On an evening marked by a palpable sense that players lacked control of the moment, that anything could happen at any time, Simmons somehow stood out as particularly geeked out of his mind. There was the bobbled grounder that he should’ve thrown to first but instead fired to the backstop; there was the running so far out of the baseline that he almost tripped over the pitcher’s mound; there was the incredible overswinging that looked like he was trying to pull a branch out of a swamp; and then there was the top of the fifth, when he called time, bent over, and snorted the left field line. Fine, that didn’t happen, but the two plays that follow made us question his mental state.
Let’s first be clear that we’re not establishing causality here—Simmons is a-23-year-old rookie making his playoff debut, and he likely would have been a little tight regardless of any other factors, wild-card format or otherwise. Still and all, he put down one of the more inexplicable bunts you’re ever likely to see. In the bottom of the fourth, after David Ross had just bunted for a base hit, Simmons came to the plate with men at first and third, pitcher Kris Medlen on deck, and one out. Not, one would think, a bunt situation. But Simmons bunted the first pitch nonetheless, and the Braves’ moment of joy when Kyle Lohse's throw hit Simmons in the back was snuffed out when he was called for runner’s interference.