Tonight’s game giv­ing fans a rea­son to squirm

Win-or-go-home for­mat of play­off builds ex­cite­ment — and at­tracts a few boos

Baltimore Sun - - FRONT PAGE - By Jeff Barker

There is some­thing both ir­re­sistible and ag­o­niz­ing about the sin­gle-elim­i­na­tion wild-card game, the hotly de­bated win-orgo-home play­off the Ori­oles and their anx­ious fans are fac­ing to­day for the sec­ond time since Ma­jor League Base­ball in­tro­duced the for­mat four years ago.

It’s base­ball’s ver­sion of a scary movie: un­nerv­ing as it un­folds, but rap­tur­ous for those fans whose team is the one left AL wild card stand­ing at the end.

“Nerve-rack­ing,” said long­time Ori­oles fan Tommy Pluff, a high­way con­struc­tion worker from Aberdeen who sports a tat­too of the Ori­ole bird on his calf. Af­ter six months and162 games, he said, “you would think maybe they’d make it a two-game or three-game se­ries.”

“You’ve got to take what they give you, I guess.”

The Ori­oles face the Blue Jays tonight in Toronto. They are the first Amer­i­can League team to make a sec­ond ap­pear­ance in the wild-card game since the for­mat was in­tro­duced in 2012. They beat the Texas Rangers that year.

The wild-card game pits the teams with the best records that didn’t win their di­vi­sions in a sin­gle-game play­off to ad­vance to the di­vi­sional round.

The Ori­oles and Blue Jays fin­ished four games be­hind the Bos­ton Red Sox in the Amer­i­can League East with iden­ti­cal 89-73 records. The Blue Jays won home field by edg­ing the Ori­oles in the sea­son se­ries, 10-9.

Be­fore 2012, there was only one wildcard team in each league. The team with the best record that didn’t win its divi­sion ad­vanced to the di­vi­sional round for a full se­ries with the divi­sion win­ner with the best record.

Ma­jor League Base­ball added the sec­ond wild card to sus­tain more ex­cite­ment in more cities deeper into the sea­son.

“From the per­spec­tive of every­one, it’s worked out re­ally well in terms of adding an­other team to the mix,” Ma­jor League Base­ball spokesman Pa­trick Court­ney said. “It has cre­ated more in­ter­est — we went right down to the wire.”

The Ori­oles and Blue Jays didn’t qual­ify for the wild card un­til Sun­day, the last day of the reg­u­lar sea­son.

Since fans didn’t know whether Bal­ti­more would qual­ify for the post­sea­son — or where the team might play — die-hard back­ers scram­bled to make last-minute travel plans to Toronto.

That meant non­stop, round-trip air­fares top­ping $1,500 (con­nect­ing trips for a bit less), or the prospect of a 16-hour drive, there and back. Ball­park tickets at Rogers Cen­tre are play­off-priced, too: Up­per-level seats for tonight’s game were listed on StubHub be­tween $81 and $125. Most fans will watch on tele­vi­sion. “If they’re be­hind I get up and pace,” said Dawn Smith, a long­time fan in Dover, Pa.

The Ori­oles team store at Cam­den Yards was sell­ing black T-shirts with “Made for Oc­to­ber” in or­ange on the front, and caps read­ing “Post­sea­son 2016.”

Crit­ics of the new wild-card for­mat say the elim­i­na­tion con­tests set­tle the reg­u­larsea­son marathon with the base­ball equiv­a­lent of a coin toss. In a sport in which the best teams win only 60 per­cent of the time, they say, a sin­gle game is in­ad­e­quate to pick a win­ner.

“You’re play­ing 162 games over six months and boil­ing it down to one game,” said Ja­son Rol­li­son, manag­ing ed­i­tor and founder of the Pi­rates Break­down blog. “It’s just a dice roll.”

Pittsburgh has played in the Na­tional League wild-card game three years in a row. The Pi­rates won their first con­test in 2013, but lost the last two by a com­bined score of 12-0.

In the losses, they had the mis­for­tune of fac­ing two of the sport’s best pitch­ers: High­way con­struc­tion worker Tommy Pluff of Aberdeen shows off the Ori­ole Bird he has tat­tooed on his calf. Pluff of­fered a brief assess­ment of tonight’s win-or-go-home wild-card game against the Toronto Blue Jays: “Nerve-rack­ing.” Pluff thinks the wild-card matchup should be longer. But, he added, “You’ve got to take what they give you, I guess.” Madi­son Bum­gar­ner of the San Fran­cisco Giants and for­mer Ori­ole Jake Ar­ri­eta of the Chicago Cubs.

“I feel badly for Pittsburgh the past two years,” said ESPN broad­caster Dan Shul­man, who will call Wed­nes­day night’s Na­tional League wild-card game be­tween the Giants and New York Mets.

“There is the ar­gu­ment that one game might not show who is the bet­ter team but who has the bet­ter lead­ing pitcher. I un­der­stand it might not quote-un­quote be fair, but no­body said life is fair.

“I think it’s worked out great. A one- Dawn Smith of Dover, Pa., plans to watch tonight’s game on TV. “If they’re be­hind I get up and pace,” she said. game play­off is about as ex­cit­ing as it gets.”

The thrill-ride feel is part of the ra­tio­nale for the wild-card games, Court­ney said. They are games with in­stant con­se­quences, on par with March Mad­ness — the sin­gle-elim­i­na­tion NCAA bas­ket­ball tour­na­ment — or the de­ci­sive Game 7 of a long post­sea­son se­ries.

“What every­one de­sires is a Game 7,” Court­ney said. “What you’re do­ing is start­ing out the post­sea­son with a Game 7.”

If the high-stakes games are tax­ing for fans, imag­ine the toll on the play­ers.

“This is about the next 27 outs,” said Ori­oles in­fielder Manny Machado. “We’ve been grind­ing the whole year and we’ve dealt with a lot of ad­ver­sity and a lot of stuff. It’s com­ing down to one game.”

If the Ori­oles win the wild-card game, they’ll head to Ar­ling­ton, Texas, on Thurs­day for Game 1 of a five-game Amer­i­can League Divi­sion Se­ries against the Rangers.

“Let’s face it. These guys are, I’m not say­ing beat up, but it’s 162 games, es­pe­cially the wild-card teams,” Ori­oles man­ager Buck Showal­ter said. “They’ve had to play ev­ery game with no sense of wig­gle room or a safety net. It’s been a con­stant. And that can be good — make you tested for it — but it does wear on you.”

The length of the sea­son is part of the rea­son Ma­jor League Base­ball felt it couldn’t al­low wild-card teams more than one game.

A wild-card play­off se­ries “would elon­gate the post­sea­son,” Court­ney said, “and teams hav­ing to wait to play isn’t nec­es­sar­ily viewed as a pos­i­tive by the clubs.”

This sea­son’s World Se­ries could ex­tend as far as Nov. 2.

“Even to do a two-out-of-three wild-card se­ries takes too much time,” said Phil Wood, who broad­casts Wash­ing­ton Na­tion­als games. “Play­ing base­ball in Novem­ber isn’t ap­peal­ing to ev­ery­body.”

LLOYD FOX/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

Brid­get Lyons of Edge­wood sur­veys the post­sea­son mer­chan­dise for sale at the Ori­oles team store at Cam­den Yards. Some crit­ics of the cur­rent wild-card for­mat say it’s un­fair to de­ter­mine a team’s post­sea­son fate by play­ing only one game.

AMY DAVIS/BAL­TI­MORE SUN PHO­TOS

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