When the Toronto Blue Jays locked up their second consecutive playoff appearance with a win on Sunday, they also punched their ticket to the cruellest and most delicate game in North American major professional sports.
The Wild Card game is playoff baseball on steroids — perhaps that’s not the best word — and funnels 162 games of a gruelling season into one night, one player, one bounce.
Since the expansion from a single Wild Card spot awarded to the top non-division winner to a one-game playoff between the top two, this game has acted as the carrot dangling in front of mid-level teams. It’s held a great impact on free agency and the trade deadline as well, with teams now closer to a “shot” than they ever have been under the 30-team league system.
Wild Card teams also exist in the NFL, but not as a standalone game. Instead, the Wild Card team from each conference plays the second-ranked team in round one of the playoffs (with the number one team earning a bye). Sure, the single-elimination nature of the NFL playoffs are a fine line to walk, but in the context of a 16-game season, the same applies to most regular season play, too.
On Tuesday, the Blue Jays and Baltimore Orioles skip right to game seven. Do not pass Go, do not collect $200, just scrape together every remaining nerve and prepare for one of two definitive and sudden outcomes.
Major League Baseball fans are the real winners when it comes to the Wild Card game. The added game doesn’t hurt teams financially, either, but this game is arguably more viewer-friendly than any found in the regular season. Even when played between a fan’s 21st and 27th-favourite clubs, the cheap and immediate thrill is a can’t-miss event.
When that same fan’s team lands in the Wild Card game, though, it’s a different monster entirely.
One poor outing from a starting pitcher? The season is over, even if every other facet of the team clicked on that day. One unpredictable bounce on the infield turf? Free agency begins. One bad send from the third base coach on a bloop single? On to 2017.
Of course, the same goes for the Baltimore Orioles, who have walked just as thin a line between success and frustrating losses this year. Having American League Cy Young candidate Zach Britton at the back end of their bullpen certainly bolsters their chances, though, especially if the Wild Card is as close as it is expected to be.
In a true do-or-die game, regardless of the sport, a team’s greatest advantage lies in their ability to play consistently and have their “sure things” follow through. Often times, normalcy is King when it pressure mounts. The especially pertains to the Blue Jays’ unpredictable bullpen, which continues to give them trouble in the later innings.
Joaquin Benoit remains out with a torn calf and will not return until late in the playoffs if the Blue Jays continue on. Jason Grilli, who was next in line for Benoit’s eighth-inning setup role, has struggled mightily in his recent outings and Roberto Osuna is coming off some heavy usage (both recently and season-long).
First pitch is schedule for Tuesday night at 8:08 p.m. Eastern Time. Toronto is expected to start wither Marcus Stroman or Francisco Liriano while the Orioles will likely counter with one of Chris Tillman or Ubaldo Jimenez.
All aboard the tightrope.