Game No. 163 sounds like something out of a bingo parlor or a bridge tournament. But it really is nothing to ridicule, even if it represents a one-game playoff that allows the winner to advance to another one-game playoff Wednesday, which allows that winner to advance to a divisional playoff series Friday, if you’ve got it all straight.
Real men don’t LOL about single-elimination showdowns in sports. If this is a cheaper version of the ultimate wet dream — any Game 7 — it’s still a vintage winner-lives, loser-dies scenario that qualifies as appointment TV no matter who’s playing. And once we figure out which of three teams wins the American League wild-card berth — Tampa Bay plays in Texas tonight, with the winner playing Wednesday in Cleveland to decide who plays the Boston Red Sox — some serious history must be considered about wild cards in general.
Never, ever underestimate the label.
In the last 11 years, know how many wild cards have won the World Series? Four.
Know how many have reached the World Series and lost? Four.
Know how many times during that period that a wild card team won at least one playoff round? Ten.
Remember the miracle St. Louis team that barely squeezed into the postseason two autumns ago, staged a comeback to win the National League championship series, then was within one pitch of elimination before rallying to beat the Rangers in the World Series?
The Cardinals were a wild card.
So while the Red Sox seem imposing and even frightening, do not discount the idea that the wild card will beat them. The most likely survivior of the round-robin seems the Indians, simply because they have a chance to breathe the next couple of days and will host the one-game wild-card playoff, though no one is sure a crowd will show up in economically ravaged, sports-depressed Cleveland. Meanwhile, the Rays tonight resume their heretofore nightmarish autumn rivalry with the Rangers, who advanced to the AL championship series in 2010 and 2011 after beating Tampa Bay.
“We have something to prove in Texas,” said Evan Longoria, per the Associated Press. “We’ve left that place too many times with our heads down and disappointed. I feel like now is the time to be able to turn that page.”
The Rays have only themselves to blame for this predicament of needing two play-in wins to reach the divisional round. They were in control of the No. 1 wild-card berth until Friday in Toronto, where Longoria left his Gold Glove at customs and Sam Fuld misplayed a ball that is still rolling toward Mississauga. Saturday, Chris Archer and the bullpen crashed, and suddenly, the wild-card lead belonged to the Indians. Only a victory Sunday put the Rays in the play-in to reach the play-in, and even that was fraught with a collapse and a Joe Maddon ejection and the usual freak show that is Fernando Rodney in the ninth inning. “We’ve been here before, we’ve been in these moments,” Maddon said. “We never do things seemingly easily.”
With a more difficult divisional path and down-the-stretch schedule than Cleveland, few doubt the Rays are a better ballclub. But emotion and momentum become potent elements in a sudden-death setting, so there’s no certainty they’ll get past the Rangers, who have won seven straight and are fighting for manager Ron Washington’s job, along with franchise dignity after being so close to their first championship two Octobers ago. One would think having ace and reigning Cy Young Award winner David Price on the mound tonight, as Maddon had plotted for this very situation, is a clear advantage against a fellow lefty, Texas’ Martin Perez. But as ESPN.com points out, the Price never has been right against the Rangers: He’s 1-4 with a 5.98 in eight regular-season starts, 0-3 with a 4.66 ERA in three postseason starts.
He, like the Rays in recent itmes, has something to prove in a big moment. “This is a moment that I want to be in. I want to be able to relish this moment and go out and have fun,” said Price, per the AP.
Longoria doesn’t seem concerned. “You can’t not feel good about it,” he said. “He’s the guy that I think everybody in this room looks to when we need somebody to go out and give us a great performance.”
If the Rays lose, don’t be shocked if it’s Price’s final game for Tampa Bay. This is an organization that has to maximize its limited resources, with MLB’s worst attendance figures in an unattractive ballpark, and just as baseball boss Andrew Friedman dealt James Shields for Wil Myers last offseason, he’ll be looking for another jackpot this winter.
It would be a crime if the Rays were burned by Nelson Cruz. Last we saw the Texas slugger, he was one of the bums slapped with 50-game suspensions in the Biogenesis scandal. He should not be active for the postseason, but lo and behold, there he is, just as Detroit’s Jhonny Peralta will be eligible.
These are not yet the playoffs, mind you. And if the Rays lose, it will be their second straight postseason miss after winning 90-plus games. But if you love sports, you will love the drama tonight, which funnels into a Wednesday night, which channels into a Friday at Fenway, which finally leads us into the customary October, a month that rarely lets us down.