ST. LOUIS — Baseball people never use the word tournament. Like points, referees and doping, it’s just not a part of the game’s lexicon.
Yet Major League Baseball is big on brackets now, with Friday’s introduction of a latest tier of playoffs: Eight teams are participating in 4 best-of-three series, with the upper seed in each matchup hosting every game. The 2 top teams in each league will sit this one out.
Welcome to the Wild Card Series, a product of the tedious 99-day lockout between M.L.B. and the players’ union that finally led to a collective bargaining agreement in March. The simplest solution to generate more revenue — besides selling ad space on uniforms, a tacky money grab coming next spring — is to create more content for television. And here it’s.
With the addition of a 3rd wild-card team per league, to go along with three division winners, there may very well be as many as 12 playoff games before the beginning of the division series. Each full season from 2012 through 2021 included just two — the instant-elimination wild-card games within the National and American Leagues.
Now, 40 percent of major league teams — 12 out of 30 — will qualify for the playoffs. It stays a more exclusive postseason field than those within the N.F.L., the N.B.A. or the N.H.L., but not by much.
“Originally, I used to be against it,” said Jimmy Rollins, the previous All-Star shortstop who’s now an analyst for TBS. “It type of felt like every other league whereas we see .500, perhaps one or two games up, make it to the playoffs. Fortunately it doesn’t work out that way in baseball.”
It almost did. Only two teams with winning records failed to achieve the postseason: the Milwaukee Brewers (86-76) and the Baltimore Orioles (83-79). The Los Angeles Dodgers, Atlanta, Houston and the Yankees earned a bye for the brand new first round, with the Mets hosting San Diego, St. Louis hosting Philadelphia, Cleveland hosting Tampa Bay and Toronto hosting Seattle.
A flaw in the brand new system, perhaps, is that two division winners may not even reach the division series. The Central champions — the Cardinals within the N.L. and the Guardians within the A.L. — had the worst records amongst first-place teams, forcing them into the wild-card rounds because the higher-seeded team in a matchup of seeds Nos. 3 and 6.
On the other hand, the Mets (101 wins) have a lower seed than St. Louis (93 wins), and could have to face the top-seeded Dodgers in the event that they survive their series with the Padres. So perhaps it doesn’t make perfect sense — but perhaps it doesn’t really want to. At this point, it’s best to only sit back and luxuriate in playoff baseball, March Madness style.
“I take lots of pride in winning the division — that’s great, super,” said John Mozeliak, the Cardinals’ longtime president of baseball operations. “By way of the brand new format, it’s somewhat premature to begin saying whether you prefer it or not. I’ll probably prefer it less if we don’t go forward, but that’s not likely a good proxy. I believe it’s type of exciting. It’s nice that we’re rewarded with three home games. Coming off of 162, numerous travel, knowing that you just’re here the subsequent few days is type of nice.”
After a full decade out of the playoffs, the Phillies don’t mind traveling to Busch Stadium for the games. They’ll start their ace, Zack Wheeler, in Game 1 against the Cardinals’ Jose Quintana, a left-hander who could help neutralize Kyle Schwarber and Bryce Harper, the Phillies’ left-handed sluggers.
Schwarber slammed 46 homers this season — far behind the 62 the Yankees’ Aaron Judge hit, but still second-best in M.L.B. — and Harper won the N.L.’s Most Invaluable Player Award last season. The leading candidate this 12 months is Cardinals first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, who led the N.L. in on-base plus slugging percentage (.982) while hitting .317 with 35 homers.
When the Cardinals last won a championship, in 2011, they were also led by a force at first base: Albert Pujols, who soon left for the Angels as a free agent but returned this spring for his farewell season. Pujols, now a delegated hitter, capped his profession with a remarkable ending flurry: a .323 average and 18 homers after the All-Star break, reaching 703 home runs for his profession.
Pujols, 42, and catcher Yadier Molina, 40, each plan to retire after the season, perhaps to be joined by starter Adam Wainwright, 41. All were with the Cardinals in 2011 (though Wainwright was injured), after they launched their title run with a breathless five-game division series victory over the Phillies.
The series finale, a 1-0 victory by Chris Carpenter over Roy Halladay, ended with the Phillies’ star first baseman Ryan Howard crumpling to the bottom with a torn Achilles’ tendon. That game — 11 years ago on Friday — ended the Phillies’ five-year postseason run and started what had been the longest playoff absence within the N.L.
“I’ve thought of it quite a bit, since it became almost like a fork within the road — one went right and one went left,” Mozeliak said. “It was such an epic game, probably one in all the best games any of us have gotten to look at, two incredible pitchers going face to face, our first two hitters scored the one run after which it was just shutdown city. For us it became more of a springboard, and within the Phillies’ case, it became a turning point for his or her franchise.”
The Cardinals, who’re making their eighth postseason appearance since 2011, are one in all several frequent playoff guests. The Dodgers are making their tenth postseason visit in a row, the Astros and Yankees their sixth, and Atlanta — the defending champion — its fifth.
Yet the Mariners are back for the primary time since 2001, and the Mets haven’t made it since a wild-card game in 2016. The Guardians won their division with the youngest roster within the majors — and of their first season with a latest name.
Cleveland has the longest championship drought in the game, with no titles since 1948. The Blue Jays have gone almost three many years since their last, in 1993, and the Padres, the Mariners and the Rays are still waiting for his or her first.
Whatever happens — identical to within the N.C.A.A. basketball tournaments — everybody will come away with something: officially licensed commemorative merchandise.
“It starts with latest gear,” Mets shortstop Francisco Lindor told reporters in Latest York, with a smile. “Walk into the clubhouse and see all the pieces latest — it starts with that.”