I'm not quite sure how the math works out on this, but even though I hate the wild card, I'm enjoying the snot out of this postseason, a postseason that's produced the first all-wild card World Series.
Since baseball began letting second-place teams into the playoffs in 1995, two wild cards have made it to the Series, the '97 Florida Marlins, who won, and the 2000 New York Mets, who lost. I must confess that my wild card hatred has suddenly gone so lax that the all-wild card angle didn't even occur to me until the Anaheim Angels had already beaten the Minnesota Twins in five games for the American League pennant Sunday, and the San Francisco Giants were in the process of going up on the St. Louis Cardinals three games to one. The Giants eliminated St. Louis with a dramatic 2-1 win in Game 5 Monday night. The World Series begins in Anaheim Saturday.
I know I've always said that teams that don't win a division in the regular season shouldn't be in the playoffs, but is there a more entertaining team around than the Angels? Have you ever seen such a thing as that Game 5 win over the Twins? Three home runs by Adam Kennedy, a perfectly fine ballplayer but not exactly Babe Ruth or Reggie Jackson or George Brett, and maybe not even Bob Robertson -- and that's all the people who have ever hit three home runs in a postseason game. Ten runs in the bottom of the seventh inning, after having coughed up the lead in the top half, and against a bullpen that was so good it practically got its own movie deal.
The Twins were a nice story all year, having survived the contraction scare, but the fact is they fattened up their record against weak Central Division opponents, and they didn't even get it all that fat. I'm kind of glad they're gone, ironic and heroic and downright likable as they were, because frankly they weren't a very good team, by playoff standards, and I hate to see the World Series played in their postmodern nightmare of a building.
And yeah, the Cardinals had a great story line too, trying to win one for poor Darryl Kile and everything, but were you really rooting to deny yourself a chance to watch Barry Bonds play in his first World Series?
Maybe I'm becoming more easygoing in my old age. After all, it was way back last month when I was ranting about how the wild-card system robs us of real pennant races and forces us to watch mediocre teams battling it out for the last playoff spot. I've matured a lot since then.
On the other hand, I just might have to admit that while the wild card spoils the fun of September, it doesn't spoil the fun of October. With eight teams in the playoffs, they do go on a bit -- Halloween week seems a tad late to be playing baseball -- and the chances of the best team in the land not winning the championship are greater than when there were four teams, when the chances were in turn greater than when there were two teams.
But you know what? So what. That Angels-New York Yankees series was terrific, with the two teams whipping on each other like lucha libre wrestlers, scoring 237 runs (OK, 56) in four games. And each of the other three first-round series had at least one great contest, including that wild finish of the Twins-Oakland A's Game 5.
So the first round adds a week to the season, and so it cheapens things a little. It's also 12 to 20 more games that mean something, and even the worst playoff team is at least reasonably good, unlike in basketball or hockey, where horrible teams make the playoffs. I say bring it on.
Another thing that might explain my softening on the wild card issue is that neither the Angels nor the Giants seems quite like a wild card team. One could make the argument -- and I'm just going to go ahead and make it -- that these were the two best teams in baseball when the postseason began.
The Angels started the season 6-14, then outplayed everyone else in the league, by a lot, for the rest of the year. They played .655 baseball for 23 weeks, and it still wasn't enough to overcome those rotten first 20 games. You know how baseball talking head types are always talking on the TV about how important it is to get off to a good start? Well shoot, even baseball talking head types are right sometimes.
If the Angels had even gone a modest 11-9 in those first 20, they'd have finished with the best record in baseball, won the Western Division and had home field advantage throughout the playoffs. And not only that, we'd have viewed them not as a spunky little underdog, but as a near wire-to-wire juggernaut, something like the 1988 A's. Those A's made a 23-game improvement over their '87 selves and went into the playoffs looking like monsters. Nobody thought of them as cute overachievers. The Angels improved by 24 games over last year. Their stumbling out of the box colored our picture of them all season.
The Giants, meanwhile, made what looked like a nice little move at the trading deadline, picking up Kenny Lofton from the Chicago White Sox and finally solving the leadoff problem they'd had for years. At the time they were muddling along on their way to an undistinguished but not horrible season, something like the one the White Sox were on their way to. Who knew the deal would win them the pennant?
It did, and not just because Lofton drove in the winning run with a ninth-inning base hit Monday. From the day Lofton joined the team, the Giants, who had played .500 ball over their previous 72 games, went 37-19. Before Lofton, the Giants were scoring 4.6 runs a game. From his first game on, they scored 5.2 a game. They were only hot for the last third of the season, not the last seven-eighths of it like Anaheim, but nobody was better over the last two months -- except the A's, but they don't count because they always do that, wait till August and then go bananas.
It sounds strange to say that Kenny Lofton won the Giants the pennant when the Giants have Barry Bonds putting up numbers out of science fiction. And it's true that without Bonds the Giants wouldn't be very formidable. But the fact is that the Giants rise and fall not on what Bonds does, but on what everybody else in their lineup does. That's because we already know what Bonds is going to do. For the most part, he's going to walk.
Except when they're loco with some kind of macho thing, as the Cardinals were in Game 3 of the NLCS when they let him tie the game with a three-run homer, opponents rightly refuse to pitch to Bonds in situations where he can possibly hurt them. That means that while Bonds is going to get on base just about every time he comes up, he's not going to be the guy who gets the big hit. Other guys have to drive in the runs. (This is why I think it's a mistake to have Bonds hitting behind Jeff Kent, or anybody else, for that matter, but that's another column.)
The Angels will play the odds, as the Cardinals did once they learned their lesson, and pitch to the guys behind Bonds -- Benito Santiago, Reggie Sanders, J.T. Snow and David Bell -- rather than face the slugger. If those guys are hitting -- which they weren't for much of the season, but they have been in the playoffs, Sanders excepted -- the Giants are pretty damn tough. If those guys aren't hitting, cue the Rally Monkey, and hurry up because it's going to be a short series.
The all-California World Series means nothing but 5 p.m. start times. That's a lot of twilight baseball, when it's tough for hitters to see, and runs will likely be at a premium, especially in the first five or six innings. The two teams are fairly comparable. Both have high-scoring offenses, competent starting pitching and good bullpens and defense. But the Giants get an extra three or four base runners per game because of Bonds' walks. With any life at all in the bats behind him, that should make the difference.
Putting my 1-5 record on the line in predicting this postseason's series (I got the Giants' win over the Atlanta Braves right), I'll say those bats behind Bonds will do just enough. Three predictions here: Giants in seven, the Series will be a humdinger, and those of us who don't like the wild card will have to account for this month in our future arguments.