5 Biggest Keys to Winning a One-Game MLB Playoff
One game for all the marbles. This one game can make the "barely-in" teams dream of World Series titles. It can also send 95-game winners back to their couches to watch October baseball. Contenders have battled every game for the last six months for the hope of one do-or-die shot at the postseason.
Considering the importance of this one game, the smallest details can make or break the entire season. So how can your team win their one-game playoff?
While the complexity of baseball assures some unexpected variables when it comes time to decide the final playoff teams, there are a few keys that can give the participants an edge.
No. 1 Starting Pitching
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Ace pitchers have been bringing home World Series titles for decades. Every Yankee fan remembers Randy Johnson winning three of the Arizona Diamondbacks' four wins in the 2001 World Series.
The fact is, the loser of the AL Central race (Detroit or Chicago) has a decided edge over its playoff opponent, whether it be Oakland or Baltimore. In the best-case scenario for Oakland, it lines up Jarrod Parker to start the play-in game, owner of 29 career starts. The A's could also opt for Brett Anderson, who has pitched just 118.1 innings over the last two seasons combined.
The Orioles would likely choose either Wei-Yin Chen (31 career starts) or Jason Hammel (career record 42-51, 4.78 ERA). Out of all four options, Hammel is the only one with a postseason start.
For the Tigers, Justin Verlander has eight career starts and Max Scherzer has another three. Either would put Detroit at an advantage. For Chicago, Jake Peavy or Chris Sale would give the White Sox a leg up against the options for Baltimore or Oakland.
In the National League, Atlanta and St. Louis have impressive rotations with multiple options for must-win games. Adam Wainwright and the emerging Kris Medlen would be especially enticing to watch. Of course, if Philadelphia was to sneak in and steal one of their spots, Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels would all merit consideration.
No. 2 Fielding
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There is a reason Bill Buckner will never be remembered for his 2,712 hits or 1,208 career RBI. The best pitching performances can be undone by lackluster fielding behind them. Any pitcher who has ever pitched a perfect game can attest to the value of the seven guys behind them (and the catcher 60 feet in front).
Baltimore is No. 16 and Detroit is No. 18 in team fielding percentage out of 30 teams. That would leave Oakland (No. 24) in a precarious spot and might improve the chances of Chicago (No. 2). On the National League side, Atlanta (No. 4) holds a distinct advantage over St. Louis (No. 21).
In a do-or-die scenario, like a one-game playoff, every out matters and every extra out gifted by an error is likely to cost dearly.
No. 3 Experience
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Imagine for one moment that Baltimore sneaks past New York and wins the American League East. Andy Pettitte has 42 career playoff starts with a record 19 wins to show for them. No active pitcher in baseball brings to the table the kind of experience Pettitte does.
The Yankees boast a complete lineup of hardened postseason veterans. Derek Jeter has played in an amazing 152 postseason games. Robinson Cano, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and Nick Swisher also have extensive experience. This may be the month in which the Bronx Bombers feel the absence of retired catcher Jorge Posada and injured legendary closer Mariano Rivera the most.
Baltimore, Oakland and Chicago would all be at a disadvantage against the Yankees in experience due to their recent struggles prior to 2012. St. Louis and Atlanta have postseason experience on the roster, but both have recently replaced legendary managers who have been invaluable in such a playoff scenario.
No. 4 Bullpen
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If the 2001 World Series had gone the other way, Byung-Hyun Kim would live in the same infamy as Buckner.
Arizona took a 2-1 series lead into Game 4. Kim went into the bottom of the ninth with Arizona leading 3-1. He gave up Tino Martinez's game-tying homer in the ninth and Jeter's walk-off bomb in the 10th. Kim was called on the next day with a 2-0 lead in the bottom of the ninth in Game 5. Kim gave up a two-out Scott Brosius home run with Posada on second to tie the game, which the Yankees went on to win.
A bad bullpen can ruin the best starts. Detroit and Baltimore boast established closers while Oakland and Chicago have used rookies in Ryan Cook and Addison Reed, respectively, to varied results. Cook was eventually replaced by Grant Balfour.
If Baltimore overtook New York, the Yankees would enter the play-in game with one of the best pens in baseball.
On the National League side, St. Louis and Atlanta have excellent pens, and the Braves' back end of Johnny Venters and Craig Kimbrel clearly hold the edge.
No. 5 Luck
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Sometimes you do everything right. You go back to the warning track, find the wall, track the ball in the air, reach up to make the catch and Jeffrey Maier, the 12-year-old Yankee fan pictured here, reaches out and steals the home run.
At the end of the day, bad hops happen, calls get blown, the sun shines in someone's eyes and the game tips one way or the other because of it. Every World Series champion can point to moments in the playoffs where something simply went their way, and if it had not, the result may have been different.
The effects of such breaks are amplified in a one-game playoff. The best team may not win. This is the way things have always been and will always be. It may be a bitter pill to swallow for fans, but it also gives October baseball the magic that makes it special.