I think most of us would agree that after losing two of three in a disappointing weekend series in San Francisco to fall five games out with 21 to play, any hopes the Dodgers might still have of taking the NL West are on life support. That’s not to say “dead”, of course, because it’s not totally ridiculous to say that all they need to do is pick up one game in each of the next two weeks to put themselves into position to enter that last three-game set with their destiny in their own hands, but considering how each side has been playing lately along with the ongoing health concerns of Clayton Kershaw & Matt Kemp, it doesn’t seem particularly likely.
If it seems like it’d take a miracle to catch the Giants right now, then it’d take a miracle and then some to overtake Atlanta for the wild card, given that the Braves are 6.5 ahead of the Dodgers and don’t even offer the benefit of head-to-head play. Short of Atlanta somehow repeating last year’s collapse and the Dodgers being able to take advantage of it, that’s not a scenario which seems in any way possible.
For most of the last two decades, that’d be the end of it. The Dodgers would try (and probably fail) to catch the Giants, the Braves would run away with the wild card, and we’d console ourselves with the knowledge that playoffs or not, the first six months for this organization post-McCourt got off to a great start.
But that’s not the case this year, thanks to the latest brainchild of Bud Selig, a man who continually insists that the public does not want more instant replay in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary: the second wild card, and it’s there where the Dodgers have a real chance. They sit just one game behind St. Louis, and not only do they welcome the Cardinals for four games later this week, the defending champs are losing players just as quickly as the Dodgers are – in the last ten days alone, they’ve had to contend with additional injuries to Jake Westbrook, Lance Berkman, & Rafael Furcal.
So if you can’t see the Dodgers making up five on the Giants or 6.5 on the Braves, surely you could see them overtaking a one-game deficit on the wounded-but-still-dangerous Cardinals to take that second wild card spot. Yet if they do, then the question becomes: does it really matter?
I mean, I know it matters, because being in the playoffs is better than not being in the playoffs, but we’ve never seen an October like the one we’re about to. Your only prize for taking that second wild card is one game at the home of the first wild card, to be played on Friday, October 5. (The final regular season game is set for Wednesday, October 3. I’m assuming for the moment that there’s no tie for the second wild card, which would necessitate a tiebreaker on Thursday, October 4, and would just complicate things further.)
As things stand, that would send the Dodgers to Atlanta for that one game winner-takes-all showdown, much like the game between the bottom two teams that kicks off March Madness, and that’s sort of a dummy prize. If you lose that game – which, considering you most likely had to claw up until the last day to get it, probably comes without Kershaw on the mound – you don’t even get the benefit of a single home playoff game. You lose, and you go home. You win, and you move on to Washington or Cincinnati.
From baseball’s point of view, this makes a lot of sense, because there had been complaints in recent years that winning the division didn’t carry enough of a prize. Now, the wild card teams are penalized the way they should be, and if a team is going to make a run to the title as a wild card, they’re really going to have to earn it. (To this day, the Marlins still have two more World Series titles than they do division titles, which seems wrong.) For all the concerns about whether adding another playoff team even made sense, this was the one part of it I always agreed with.
From the point of view of the team, however, does it mean anything? Will you hang a banner saying “2012 NL Wild Card”, especially if you didn’t even get a home game? Should you be proud of being the fifth-best team in the league, which is what the second wild card is? Again, if you get in, win the game, and make some noise, no one’s going to care that you were the second wild card. If you get in and your stay in the playoffs lasts for three hours 3,000 miles from home, I’m not sure anyone’s going to remember that, either.
None of this affects how you approach the rest of the season, of course. You play the games on your schedule, try to win as many as you can, and see where the chips fall as far as playoff positioning. You don’t target the division or the first wild card or the second wild card; you just win. And, it should go without saying, none of this is relevant if the Dodgers can’t get their offensive act together. Yet with the Pirates sinking like a stone, the Dodgers are the only team within five games of St. Louis for that last wild card spot. We’ll know a lot more at the end of the weekend, but for the moment it looks like Selig’s shiny new toy is the only path for the Dodgers into the playoffs. What exactly that means, in this new era of baseball inclusiveness, remains to be seen.