For at least three of the four Wild Card teams this season, there are some incredible come-up stories. The Pirates and the Reds not only held it down for the National League Central to join the Cardinals as three teams from the division to reach the postseason, but the Pirates are making their first playoff appearance since 1992.
Cincinnati is in the playoffs for a second straight season, but the Reds were establishing a history of toiling in obscurity before making the playoffs now in three of the last four seasons.
The other Ohio team is all set in the American League, with the Indians waiting on Monday’s tiebreaker between the Rangers and Rays to determine who gets the final Wild Card spot.
One can’t help but think this whole process is a bit exhausting, though. These Wild Card teams play 162 games just to make it to what’s essentially treated as a play-in game to the playoffs. The six division winners are cooling it right now because they get a legitimate five-game opportunity to advance.
So how good exactly are these four last-to-get-in ball clubs, two of which are going to be gone as quickly as we realized they were there?
Pirates vs. Reds:
Pittsburgh is the quintessential small ball team that’s winning with excellent pitching and scoring runs by committee. The Buccos finished the season with the third lowest ERA in the league and top five in shutouts. That’s how you neutralize a threat.
All of that work on the mound makes up for what this group lacks at the plate, as a middle of the road team in on base plus slugging percentage. Andrew McCutchen and Marlon Byrd should be enough bats to get the Pirates past the Reds, who they just swept this past weekend in a three-game series to decide who would get home field advantage in the Wild Card game, so long as the pitching lives up to the expectations.
I don’t get the impression these Pirates are just glad to be here, yet it’s a team that’s been knocking on the door and unable to come in for the last couple of years. They jumped out to a strong start to the 2012 season, but reality was handed to the Pirates not too long after that. Perhaps the comfort level would be different if Pittsburgh had won the NL Central, but this Wild Card business has to keep them motivated, knowing it could be over so quickly.
The Reds are almost a mirror image of the Pirates with what the pitching staff is able to do, but we saw over the weekend that Pittsburgh has the edge against this group after completing the series sweep.
Indians vs. Rays/Rangers:
At the start of September, the Indians were 71-64 and ESPN ranked their playoff probabilities at 12.6 percent. At that time, it still seemed like the Yankees would contend, or even the Orioles. The Rangers and Rays actually had extremely high probabilities of making it, but obviously one of them won’t after Monday night’s showdown.
The Indians were an afterthought when it still seemed like the Rangers would win the AL West, before a September collapse allowed the A’s to sidestep them.
It’s a completely different story in Cleveland today.
Cleveland completed one of the best final months of the regular season in the past 18 years, going 21-6 in September and finishing on a 10-game winning streak. There might not be a hotter team in baseball right now. Don’t look now, but all of that positive energy in the Cleveland might even be rubbing off on the Browns.
Ubaldo Jimenez has been nearly untouchable in his last six starts, dealing 51 strikeouts compared to seven walks and allowing an average of just 1.09 earned runs. Nick Swisher blasted seven home runs in September.
Imagine how the Rangers and Rays must be feeling right now, knowing one has to slaughter the other just to decide who gets the team that can’t do anything wrong right now.
The argument could be made, at least for this season, that the Rangers are the anti-Cleveland team, since they chose the end of the season to implode rather than bringing their A-game. If the Rangers win Monday night, they’ll face an Indians team that showed them up over the last month. That won’t take away from the fact the Rangers (and Rays, too) have more talent than Cleveland on paper.
But at least for now, Cleveland can take pride in what it took to get here.