Following one of the wildest, and historic, regular season final slate of games ever in 2011, MLB decided a way to capitalize on that chaotic frenzy was to add a second Wild Card slot in both leagues. Those two teams would then vie for the Wild Card winner, and would face the division winner with the best record, regardless of division, in the NLDS.
Five Years of Wild Card Games
This week, the Minnesota Twins, New York Yankees, Colorado Rockies, and Arizona Diamondbacks will constitute the sixth edition of this Wild Card Game. The AL winner will face the Cleveland Indians in the ALDS, and the winner between the two NL West teams will face the NL West Division Champion Los Angeles Dodgers.
Here is a look at the previous slate of Wild Card games and how the winners progressed in their World Series glory quests.
The new format debuted with the oddity of the previous season’s league champions being involved in a one-and-done scenario to repeat their title. The defending champion St. Louis Cardinals, finishing at 88-74, were in Atlanta to face the Braves, who went 94-68. Most notably this was the second time the Braves were back in the postseason since the end of the franchise’s epic 14-season run of postseason appearances. This also marked the final game played for future Hall of Famer Chipper Jones.
The Cardinals won the game 6-3, but not without controversy in the bottom of the fourth. The Braves’ Andrelton Simmons was called out on his way to first as an errant throw bounced off his helmet. Two runners would be left stranded as the Braves trailed by one run at the time. The AL game was less eventful, but the Baltimore Orioles (93-69) stopped the Texas Rangers’ (93-69) bid for three-straight AL pennants with a 5-1 victory in Arlington.
Unfortunately, the Orioles fell to the Yankees in a five-game ALDS. However, the Red Birds’ run went to a Game 7 of the NLCS in which they loss to the eventual World Champion, San Francisco Giants.
Oddly, two years in, and the new Wild Card race format produced a Game 163 as the Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays finished with the same 91-71 record. Therefore, a play-in game for the right to play the 92-70 Indians was held in Arlington. The Rays, behind a complete game from David Price, defeated the Rangers 5-2. They carried that momentum into the game in Cleveland with a 4-0 victory.
Over in the National League, the Pittsburgh Pirates (94-68) played in the first of three consecutive NL WC games. This first year’s effort would be a 6-2 home victory against the Cincinnati Reds (90-72).
Neither team though made it past the Division Series. Though the Pirates proved to be a tough out for the eventual NL Champion Cardinals in a five-game series, the Rays mustered one victory in their ALDS against the eventual World Champion Boston Red Sox.
2014 would see the first wild ride through October for the new format, with both Wild Card winners reaching the World Series. The 2011 Cardinals were the last Wild Card winner to make the World Series, and this would be the first all-Wild Card World Series since 2002’s Giants vs Los Angeles Angels series.
The Giants (88-74) matched up against the Pirates (88-74) at PNC Park, while the 89-73 Kansas City Royals hosted the 88-74 Oakland Athletics. Madison Bumgarner started etching his name in October Baseball lore with a four-hit, complete game shutout 8-0 victory. In the American League, the Royals walked off in the 12th inning to win their game 9-8.
The Giants marched through the postseason, defeating the Washington Nationals 3-1 in the NLDS and the Cardinals 4-1 in the NLCS. The Royals had a little easier ride, sweeping the Orioles in the NLDS and the Detroit Tigers in the ALCS. That would lead to an epic seven-game World Series which the Giants would hold onto to win their third title in five years.
2015 would see the last of the Pirates’ three consecutive appearances in the Wild Card game. This year, following a 98-64 regular season, they hosted the 97-65 Chicago Cubs.
The 86-76 Houston Astros had made the postseason for the first time since moving to the American League. They squared off against the 87-75 Yankees, in Yankee Stadium.
The Cubs would defeat the longstanding franchise rival Cardinals in a four-game NLDS, before getting swept out of the NLCS by New York Mets. The Astros, on the other hand, lost a five-game ALDS to the eventual World Champion Royals.
The Giants (87-75) continued their trend of making the postseason in the even seasons of this decade by facing the Mets (87-75) at Citi Field. Meanwhile the Toronto Blue Jays (89-73) were at home to face the Orioles (89-73) in the AL game.
Bumgarner picked up where he left off in 2014 as the Giants defeated the Mets 3-0, while a Edwin Encarnacion walk-off, three-run homer capped off a 5-2, 11-inning victory for the Blue Jays.
Even-season magic ended for the Giants though as they lost a four-game NLDS to the eventual World Champion Cubs. The Blue Jays went a little further by knocking off the Rangers in a three-game ALDS sweep, but then fell to the Indians in a five-game ALCS.
While detractors will point to the one-and-done aspect adding a bit of contrived frenzy to the proceedings, things do seem to have roughly the same effect on the winner as they’ve been during the old one Wild Card winner format. As far as the home field goes, while the NL has only seen one home team win the game, it has been a little more balanced in the AL, with two home teams winning. The more telling story though is that through the first 10 games, there have been five shutouts and only one losing team has scored four or more runs (Oakland in 2014). Determining the hot hand based on a team’s pitching staff, and that night’s starting pitcher, is more glaring here, than in any form of a series.
Still, the format has had its moments, and baseball doesn’t seem to be in any hurry to change it.