The excuses sit on the MLB postseason schedule like a ball on a tee. A division-series exit by the Reds, Nationals, Yankees or A’s will prompt disgust over the highest seeds opening on the road. They won’t enjoy home-field advantage until the back end of this hastily arranged playoff format.
It’s a bad system, loaded with injustice, but recent history should stifle much of its excuse-generating potential. The 2011 world champions clinched a playoff spot on the final day of the regular season, then hit the road to visit an opponent with a far superior record.
The Phillies’ 102 wins made them the 31st major-league team since 1980 to hit the century mark in victories. The Cardinals made them the 20th not to reach the World Series. Only four of the 31 -- the 1998 and 2009 Yankees, the 1986 Mets and the ’84 Tigers -- won it all. In the last 25 seasons, championship clubs with win totals of less than 88 outnumbered the 100-win titlists 3-2. (The 2006 Cardinals, 2000 Yankees and 1987 Twins vs. the ’98 and ’09 Yanks.)
Anecdotal evidence about the benefits of a final month loaded with must-win urgency keeps piling up. There’s no known science behind it. "The secret to an athlete's edge or 'mental toughness' is still the Holy Grail to achieving peak performance in sports," Anthony Luke, the director of the Human Performance Center at the University of California, San Francisco, said via email. "Then there's always the wild card of 'luck.' If we could measure these things, believe me, we would."
The closest thing to statistical analysis, late-afternoon Vegas odds on Thursday, gave the somnolent wild-card Rangers (with a 3-7 record over the last week) a better shot at winning it all than the soaring A’s. But a narrative about edges for late bloomers and lulls that threaten dominant teams has taken hold. Tony La Russa endorsed the theory in his new book, “One Last Strike,” writing that he and his Cardinals coaches agreed before the start of last year’s playoffs that their club “had already been playing like every game was the last game of the World Series or of their lives. That had made us tougher to beat.”
As a manager, La Russa oversaw four 100-win seasons and claimed three World Series trophies. None of them overlapped. His clubs in Oakland dominated for three straight seasons, but won only one World Series.
In the book, he writes that the 1990 team, which won 103 games, allowed ego to breed complacency and that his failure to motivate those A’s enabled a hungrier Reds team to sweep them in the Series. The 1988 team, which won 104 in the regular season and then was KO’d by Kirk Gibson and the Dodgers “resisted, during the week off between winning the pennant and starting the World Series, our efforts to keep their intensity level up.”
In a phone interview, La Russa said he did not believe that winning 100-plus games cost those A’s their edge. Both years, he pointed out, they swept a strong Red Sox team in the ALCS.
But La Russa said the 1990 sweep by the Reds stimulates a lot of internal second-guessing.
“I really felt that when I had the meeting before the Series that we weren’t quite there, and I should have come back and come up with a different message,” he said, “But I didn’t. That’s not saying Cincinnati wouldn’t have beaten us in six or seven, but they wouldn’t have done it in four straight.”
Years later, after hearing about a Vince Lombardi speech to the Green Bay Packers, La Russa wished he had stressed the significance of winning back-to-back championships. But anyone who ever witnessed the insufferable preening of Jose Canseco can imagine the difficulty of prodding him to transcend his always-amazing self. Regular-season dominance certainly fed the egos mentioned in La Russa’s book, even if it didn’t lead the A’s directly into a lull.
This year, three teams -- the Nationals, Reds and Giants -- clinched playoff spots at least 10 games from the regular-season finale, and they had to start negotiating the value of rest versus the importance of staying sharp. The Giants used their spare time to experiment a bit, including putting young first baseman Brandon Belt in the outfield for a day game to see how well, at this stage of his development, he could cope with the change.
Baseball people will usually tell the media whether they have invented a narrative that has no basis in reality. They don’t say that when asked about the threat of post-clinch doldrums. They treat the question as a nuisance and try to ignore it, because they are conditioned not to acknowledge vulnerabilities. But even if they don’t fear the lull, they respect its power.
It staged its most prominent attack in the middle of the 2007 playoffs, not immediately after the regular season. The Rockies tore through the end of the season, winning 21 of 22 games, including sweeps of the Phillies and Diamondbacks in the National League playoffs. Then they waited for the Red Sox to finish off Cleveland in a seven-game ALCS. They played intrasquad games as they waited, insisting that the eight-day break, the longest in MLB history, would not undermine them.
“We didn’t want to talk about it and make it an excuse for us,” starting pitcher Jeff Francis said recently. “But we had all that momentum and then …”
Even now, he doesn’t want to say it. But the Red Sox took them apart. Francis said he couldn’t imagine what the Rockies might have done to keep the wins flowing. “When you’re winning,” Francis said, “nobody calls a meeting to figure out why.”
Since the Rockies’ layoff included no true competition, it merely hints at the hazards of lulls at the transition from regular season to playoffs. That team comes closer to proving an entirely different point. Burnout should not be a concern for a team that blazes its way into the playoffs, especially not a young one. The Rockies had to play a 163rd tiebreaker game with the Padres. It lasted 13 innings over four hours and 40 minutes. At that point, though, nothing could grind them down. They boarded a plane to Philadelphia to start carving up their first-round opponents.
If the current format had been in effect, the Padres game would have been a long-planned wild-card play-in, and the Rockies would have been able to stay home for their first two games of the NLDS. (Note: They would actually have played Arizona in the current format.) When they swept their opponents, no one would have known that the Rockies could have gotten the same result while opening on the road.
The 2-3 format, with the higher seed, existed in the first three seasons of the original wild-card expansion, from 1995-97. The initial eight-team playoffs yielded a rarity. The top two seeded teams, Atlanta and Cleveland, ended up in the World Series.
But in 1996, the 99-win Indians opened on the road against the 88-win Orioles and lost. The Cardinals also swept the higher-seeded Padres, and the wild-card Yankees got past division-winning Texas. In ’97, the wild-card Marlins ousted the NL West champion Giants in the first round and then won the World Series.
The 2-3 format was discarded in 1998 in favor of a logistically burdensome 2-2-1 travel plan, starting in the higher seed’s town. Somehow, the likelihood of regular-season dominators yielding to late-arriving contenders has not declined. In 2002, all four top seeds were bounced in the first round, including Atlanta with 101 wins and the Yankees and “Moneyball’’ A’s with 103. Two wild cards, Anaheim and San Francisco, ended up in the World Series.
In 2010, the Giants followed the path similar to that of the 2011 Cardinals, clinching their berth on the final day of the season, and having to begin a series in Philadelphia’s daunting park to reach the World Series. The Giants and Cardinals had great pitching, the linchpin of playoff success, but so did the Phillies. They had the Murderers’ Row of starting pitchers in 2011, for all the good it did them.
The Phillies of 2008-‘11 followed a pattern that should seem strange. They won the World Series in 2008 after a 92-win regular season. In each subsequent season, they won more games from April to October, with progressively worse results in the playoffs.
That doesn’t seem strange at all, though. As hackneyed as it sounds, the playoffs really are a new season. The 2-3 format, a temporary solution to the problem of squeezing an extra date into an established schedule, shouldn’t have happened. But hold the pity for any high seed that falters under this abnormal scheme. They won’t be aberrations. They’ll have plenty of company that lacks scheduling excuses.