This season is a reminder of how much baseball's Wild Card Games have made the sport better and more interesting. At a time when three of the six division races aren't close, 20 of baseball's 30 teams are within five games of a postseason spot. Two more -- the Diamondbacks
This season is a reminder of how much baseball's Wild Card Games have made the sport better and more interesting. At a time when three of the six division races aren't close, 20 of baseball's 30 teams are within five games of a postseason spot. Two more -- the Diamondbacks and Brewers -- are 6 1/2 games out.
The Rangers, Cubs and Giants all have leads of at least seven games in the American League West, National League Central and NL West, respectively. The Indians lead the AL Central by five, the Orioles the AL East by 4 1/2.
At this time last season, only one team -- the Cardinals in the NL Central -- had a lead of more than five games.
OK, sure, big leads can disappear quickly at this point in a season. Two years ago, the Cardinals went from 6 1/2 games out to 4 1/2 games up in about eight weeks. Last season, the Rangers needed less than two months to turn a nine-game deficit into a 1 1/2-game lead.
This season, the NL East is baseball's tightest division race, with three teams -- Nationals, Mets and Marlins -- bunched within four games of one another.
In another era, a number of teams might already be planning for next season, and nothing is quite as depressing for a baseball fan as watching your favorite team begin an organizational reset button by getting rid of some popular veteran players.
The Wild Card has changed that, dramatically and emphatically. In the AL, 10 teams -- count 'em, 10 -- are within 2 1/2 games of the two Wild Card berths.
When second Wild Card berths -- and Wild Game Games in each league -- were added in 2012, the goal was to put greater emphasis on winning a division title while giving more teams hope to go on.
Baseball also wanted the drama that comes with a pair of games in which eight months of work would come down to a single contest. That kind of drama is part of why we love this stuff.
It's also about hope. The Astros had themselves a 7-17 April, and despite winning 23 of 32, they are 10 games behind the Rangers in the AL West. But their October hopes are alive as they've trimmed their deficit in the AL Wild Card race from 8 1/2 games to one.
The Cardinals are 10 games behind the Cubs in the NL Central. The Pirates are 13 back. But the Wild Card berths offer hope for an October reset. The Cards are 1 1/2 games out, the Bucs 4 1/2.
In that way, the Pirates, Cardinals, etc., see a mere five-game winning streak as changing an entire season, and if either team gets into the Wild Card Game, they might just keep going.
Is a shot at a one-and-done game worth it? Yes, absolutely. The atmosphere around those Wild Card Games in Pittsburgh and Cleveland and other places has been magical.
Before the Giants and Bucs played the 2014 NL Wild Card Game at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Hunter Pence was asked about getting what amounted to a second chance.
"We're here because we weren't good enough to win our division," Pence said. "But we get a chance to keep playing. If you're a competitive person, you love that opportunity."
The Giants rode Madison Bumgarner past the Pirates that night, and 28 days later, they were hoisting their third World Series trophy in five seasons. That was the season in which the Royals clinched a Wild Card berth in the 160th game of the season, then defeated the A's in an epic contest that went 12 innings and lasted almost five hours.
Kansas City showed the heart of a champion in rallying back from deficits of 2-0, 7-3 and 8-7. That was the start of a magical run that lasted until Game 7 of the World Series.
It was a wondrous ride that served as a symbolic reawakening of the sport in one of the country's great baseball cities. Despite losing Game 7 of the World Series, the Royals knew they'd been part of something special. They'd had a taste of the very thing players dream of from the moment they first step onto a diamond or watch their first Major League game.
Kansas City was driven by the whole experience, by the highs as well as the ultimate low, and the club used it as motivation last season, when it won the World Series for the first time in 30 years.
To the Royals and Giants, the Wild Card Game represented hope. In a season like this one, it represents that kind of hope more than ever. That's why it has worked out every bit as well as anyone could have hoped.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U.