Thursday, October 8, 2015

Is a Wild Card victory the secret to a long postseason run?

The Cubs' Jake Arrieta

Baseball observers like to point out that the postseason is not so much a scientific evaluation of one team against another as it is a measure of who's hot in October. The San Francisco Giants have certainly benefitted from timely hot streaks in each of their three recent championship seasons. In none of those three years (2010, 2012, 2014) were they ranked among the top two or three teams in baseball, and with good reason. Man by man, they just didn't measure up against the Phillies, the Nationals, the Cardinals, the Tigers. What the Giants were instead was hot at the right time. But how can you explain such timely momentum when it happens three times in five years? Were the Giants just lucky or was there something else going on?

As I watched the Astros and Cubs roll to Wild Card victories the last two nights, it was hard not to be reminded that last year's World Series opponents, the Giants and the Kansas City Royals, were both Wild Card teams. All the pundits considered this an aberration--a subversion of the natural order and even grounds to consider scrapping the single-game Wild Card system. But what if last year's runs by the Royals and Giants weren't luck at all? What if being a Wild Card team is actually an advantage to a posteseason team? If momentum is the key ingredient in postseason success, then teams would do well to seek out circumstances that create momentum--for example emotional wins in elimination games like the Wild Cards.

Watching the Cubs bounce around on the field after last night's victory in Pittsburgh, I couldn't help but think that the feeling of validation they were experiencing, the rush of success, gave them an advantage over a cold Cardinals team heading into this weekend's NLDS. I know that betting against the Cardinals is never a wise move, but I wouldn't be surprised if the Cubs' momentum continues through this weekend and beyond. To my eye, they look like the 2014 Royals. Or maybe they're the Giants, with Jake Arrieta playing the role of MadBum.

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