The St. Louis Cardinals rallied in the ninth inning against the Washington Nationals Friday night, earned their berth in the NLCS and showed why expanding the Wild Card was a huge mistake.
But this is not a knock on the Cardinals. St. Louis won 12 of their last 16 regular season games in order to secure the National League’s second Wild Card spot ahead of the Dodgers.
Then, they traveled to Atlanta for their play-in game against the Braves. After winning at a hostile Turner Field, they earned an NLDS matchup against the best team in the bigs, the Washington Nationals. Finding themselves down two in the ninth inning of Game 5, the Cardinals put together a stunning rally that left the Washington faithful speechless.
Clearly, St. Louis has stepped up on every occasion to rightfully earn their place in the NLCS. Under the current playoff format, they certainly deserve it. But that does not mean that the current format is a good one.
The change in the Wild Card was meant to inject more excitement (and money) into the Wild Card race and the MLB playoffs themselves. Although certainly accomplishing that goal, it left a devalued regular season and an unreasonable playoff structure in its wake.
The American League Wild Card race went as well as the MLB could have hoped. In past years, either the Athletics, Orioles, Rangers or Yankees would have been left out of the playoffs entirely. But with the addition of a second Wild Card team, all four, whose records were hardly distinguishable after 162 games, were guaranteed a playoff berth.
But the National League race was the league’s worst nightmare. The Atlanta Braves easily claimed the first Wild Card with a 94-68 mark. But the second Wild Card ultimately fell to the St. Louis Cardinals, who finished the regular season six games behind the Braves.
Despite having bested the Cardinals by such a sizable margin over the course of the long season, the Braves were forced by the new playoff structure to play a one-game series against the Cardinals to earn a place in the “real” playoffs. The Braves’ six game lead was effectively reduced to mere home field advantage for that play-in game.
This new playoff organization threatens to reduce the MLB to the level of the other major professional sports. By only allowing four teams from each league into the postseason, baseball makes the regular season hold great importance. Teams cannot coast through the summer months hoping to just get hot at the right time. They have to perform from start to finish.
By expanding the Wild Card, the MLB inches closer to the NHL and NBA who allow about half of their teams into the playoffs. The result: teams like the Los Angeles Kings win the Stanley Cup despite winning less than half of their regular season games.
While all the respect in the world should be given to the Cardinals who did what they had to do to advance to the NLCS, the MLB should reconsider what the Wild Card expansion is doing to the actual competition. This is just the first step to reducing the regular season from a long test of a team’s quality to a six-month process of seeding the playoffs.