Technically, this qualifies as a playoff preview. Both the Braves and the Washington Nationals will, barring collapses of epic breadth, play into October. The Braves haven’t clinched anything – their magic number for taking the National League East is 17 – but FanGraphs sets their playoff odds at 100 percent. The Nats, who trailed the Braves by seven games as of Thursday afternoon, are given a 97.6 percent chance of reaching the postseason.
Since 2012, however, there has been a marked difference in how you qualify. If you win your division, you land in the best-of-five Division Series, which means you can lose twice and still advance. If you’re a wild card, the first hurdle is an elimination game. The 2012 Braves graced the first wild-card play-in; an infield fly later, they were gone.
Pre-2012, there was no great disadvantage – unless you count the home-field edge, when really isn’t that big a deal – to being a wild card. From 1997 through 2004, as many wild cards (four) won the World Series as division champs. Over that span, the Braves won their division eight times running; they reached the Series once, getting swept by the Yankees. Three times a second-place finisher in the NL East made the Series; twice the Marlins were champions.
The addition of the second wild card and the play-in changed the October dynamics. Only two play-in winners have reached the Series, both in 2014. Eight of the 14 surviving wild cards lost in Round 1. The play-in has also altered the way some front offices conduct their business. Not every general manager is willing to go all-out – or all-in, depending on your slant – in the effort to lift a club to a postseason that might last nine innings.
Said Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos: “I know there are some clubs who don’t want to be overly aggressive over one game. No one wants to lose the sudden-death game. But if you win that game, it’s like you won your division. My view is that the playoffs are the playoffs. You need to get in.”
Then: “If you believe in your club, you wouldn’t change your (deadline) approach. If you had a negative run differential, that might make a difference. It can go in the other direction, too. If you’re right around .500 but have a good run differential, that might make you more aggressive.”
The Nationals have the NL’s second-best run differential, trailing only the Dodgers. Some analysts believe the Nats will have a better chance come October than the team they’ll surely finish behind in the East. (Even the schedule favors the Braves: Of Washington’s final 24 games, 21 will come against teams above .500.) A split of these four games would essentially end this race, not that it has been much of one. The Nats haven’t drawn within 3-1/2 games of first place since April 30.
As a consequence, this series defies hype. The NL East runner-up, which is almost certain to be Washington, is all but guaranteed of playing beyond Game No. 162. The Braves have held first place since June 10. The Nationals didn’t rise above .500 to stay until June 30. They’ve overcome a terrible start to give themselves an October shot, which is the beauty of the wild card. But there’s nothing beautiful about the play-in game. It’s the most terrifying day of the seven-month season.
Asked Thursday if he’d prefer a best-of-five postseason assignment to a best-of-one, Braves manager Brian Snitker laughed. Then he said: “I definitely would. We’ve played that best-of-one (against St. Louis in 2012). It’s probably as stressed as I’ve ever been, especially the position I was holding.”
Snitker was coaching third base when the infield-rule was invoked on Andrelton Simmons’ fly ball to short left field. (We say again – short left field, as opposed to the, ahem, infield.) Umpire Sam Holbrook, for reasons forever unknown, ruled it an infield fly. Simmons was automatically out, though the ball dropped safely between shortstop Pete Kozma and left fielder Matt Holliday. The Braves, who trailed 6-3, would have had the bases loaded with one out in the eighth and Brian McCann, their best hitter, coming to bat. They wound up with nothing but a heartache.
Rightfully feeling wronged, Turner Field patrons flung whatever they had at hand. Said Snitker: “I didn’t enjoy that at all. I had a couple of bottles land at my feet. I told Danny Uggla (the runner at third), ‘I’m getting the hell out of here.’ He had a helmet on. I guess I did, too. But things were landing (all around him).”
The 2014 Pirates won 88 games, the same number as the Giants. The two were matched in a play-in game at Pittsburgh. The Giants won that night – Madison Bumgarner, who ruled that October, threw a shutout – and stopped playing at 11:21 p.m. Oct. 1. Bumgarner’s team won Game 7 of the World Series 28 days later. That’s the difference one game can make.
As it stands, the Nats will have to sweat out the play-in Tuesday, Oct. 1 – although with Max Scherzer as the presumptive starter, their opponent will sweat harder. Provided the Braves don’t spit the bit, they can wait until Oct. 3 to face the winner of the Central. (The Cardinals – yep, them again – held a three-game lead over the Cubs as of nightfall Thursday.) Given the Nationals’ depth of starting pitching, it would be no great shock if they survive the wild-card game and upset the Dodgers in the NLDS. Which could mean that …
Yes, these four games at SunTrust Park might indeed constitute a playoff preview – a preview of the NLCS, wherein the winner goes to the World Series.
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