The Pirates clinched a playoff spot Wednesday in Colorado. In celebration, they did as little as the modern media and MLB.com Shop machines would allow them to do. They drank champagne in their official Postseason t-shirts and hats, but they drank it out of flutes, not straight from the bottle or by wagging their tongues in the mist sprayed by a teammate who won the race to pop the cork. This is their third consecutive playoff berth, and if all they do is host the Wild Card game on October 7th, it will be the third straight time they’ve done it. They acted as though they’d been there before, because they have been.
The Cubs clinched between games of their weekend series against the Pirates. They lost each of the first two games of that series, but the Giants’ loss on Friday night sewed up a playoff spot for them, so after their loss on Saturday, they went nuts. They popped corks, poured Bud Light all over one another, jumped around in ski goggles, the whole bit. They did so, again, despite losing three games in a row, two of them to the team they might well have to beat on the road in order to get a full playoff series.
Part of the gap between these two celebratory models is, of course, in the recent histories of the two teams. This season doesn’t represent a novel accomplishment for the Pirates (yet), but most of the Cubs have never had this kind of moment to savor. Another part of the equation is that the Pirates still have a shot at winning the NL Central, so they have a potential celebration for which to save themselves even in advance of the Wild Card game. The Cubs’ slim chances of winning the division died with their thwarted rally last Sunday against the Cardinals, so this was their moment, at least unless and until they win that one-game playoff next week.
Undeniably, though, the fact that one team could shrug this off while another so cherishes it underscores a lurking uncertainty all baseball fans feel, about how much of a playoff spot a place in the Wild Card game really represents. This was an immediate topic of conversation when the Coin Flip Game became a thing prior to 2012, and it remains at least partially unanswered. I ran down the list of losers of that game so far in a post back in January, and won’t re-list them here, but the long and short of it is that each season has seemed to see one loser cast in a cold light (with a deflating finish to the regular season contributing to the notion that these teams never belonged in the postseason, and were never true members of the playoff fraternity, despite their token appearance), and one left looking admirable even in defeat (thanks either to a nice narrative around the end of their season, the promise that they’d be back, or the sense that they were the better team but got caught on the wrong night).
It feels like that will happen this year, too. The funny thing is, it seems nearly certain that the Cubs and Pirates are both safe from looking like the lesser loser. Their records, the sense that they’re destined to be good for years to come, and their strong finishing kicks all point toward theirs being happy seasonal narratives, even if those seasons hit a brick wall next Wednesday. Maybe the Pirates would suffer from the appearance that there’s some hump they can’t get over, but that seems a silly conclusion to draw from one game. Based on all that, the Cubs were right to celebrate, and the Pirates were wrong not to do so. (Not in any moral sense. Who cares, really? This isn’t an indictment; it’s just an exercise.)
The Yankees could, if things go just badly enough, end up feeling like the non-playoff playoff team. That will certainly be the case if they manage to fumble away home-field advantage in the AL Wild Card game, and then lose the game itself, but the odds of that at this point are virtually zero. They could get sucked into a narrative about their age and their competitive window, or about the sizable AL East lead they coughed up over the final two months, but this was never supposed to be their season, anyway. They got performances they had no right to expect from a handful of ancient players (most notably Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira). They made no substantial trades or moves that could cost them in the long term in their effort to make the most of the present. They have actually played better baseball in the second half than in the first; they just got eaten up by the buzzsaw that is the Blue Jays.
No, the Yankees should feel like a playoff team no matter what happens in the Wild Card game, and one starts to get the feeling that most teams should. The Astros will have a slightly crestfallen fan base on their hands if they lose that game, because they led the AL West for so long, and because they made some trades that sent real talent elsewhere in an effort to make this season count. On the other hand, the team has dramatically overachieved, on the whole, and they have some terrific young players under team control for a long time. Besides, given how thin the margin in the standings now, reaching the game in the first place will require a strong, thrilling final week.
The Angels had some right to expect better this season, but they’re only going to get better in the next few years, and since they’re on the outside of the playoff picture looking in right now, the same principle applies: The buzz of this final fortnight will be a wide silver lining on the cloud of losing the Wild Card game, if that’s what it comes to. The Twins are in some combination of the Angels’ and Astros’ positions, with the most important thing for them being that they had absolutely no right whatsoever to expect to be this close to a playoff spot when the season began. Everything about their season is gravy. If the Rangers give away the West and lose the Wild Card game, that will sting, but they’ll still have had a surprisingly strong season under a first-year manager. You can make a collapse case around them, or a seat-of-the-pants, best-of-a-bad-lot argument for Minnesota, but it’s very unlikely any loser of the AL game will be left feeling hollow, like they didn’t achieve the playoffs.
There’s just one candidate this year. Only one team could, in any way, end up feeling like losing the Wild Card game meant a disappointing season, and one that never really reached the playoffs. It’s another team that clinched at least that much ages ago, on September 19th, also without celebrating very much.
The Cardinals’ time is almost up. They’re a good organization and they won’t just fade into mediocrity, but no objective analysis can project as good a 2016-20 for them as for the Cubs or the Pirates. They won a ton of games this season despite some brutal injury issues, but then, a handful of teams per season can point to crucial injuries that nudged them out of the playoff picture. Many have noted that some very fortunate sequencing went into their early-season dominance, and since the end of June, they’re worse than each of the teams chasing them in the NL Central. They’ve been outscored this month, and need a 3-4 final week to avoid their first losing month in three years. Their competitive window is closing, and to see it slam shut in this particular way—have the Pirates storm past to a division title, get ousted by their arch rivals in the Coin Flip—would actually spoil the season for St. Louis.
This is a nebulous discussion, but it’s worth having. The Wild Card games have, by and large, been taut, interesting, fevered affairs to date. That will eventually soften a bit. The system will lose its novelty, and it’s good to keep a sketch in our minds of how we’ll value this element once that novelty is gone. For the most part, the answer seems to be that teams that stay in the race all year just need some validation, some small justification, to call themselves playoff clubs and the year a success. The Wild Card game provides that, so while it may water down the competitive integrity of the game a bit and hurt the exceptionalism that comes from playing 162 games, it’s definitely an actual playoff game, and to belittle it (or take it for granted) is to miss an opportunity for a well-earned celebration. Only extreme exceptions exist.
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