There is nothing like playoff baseball; no other sport rises to the occasion quite like baseball and it’s why the MLB playoffs remains must-see television. When the Browns made the playoffs a few years ago it was thrilling, and it was exciting to watch us beat the Steelers in the postseason (especially after decades of futility in the regular season). However, the game felt the same: postseason football and regular season football feel similar. Sure the moment feels bigger, and you get a pit in your stomach, but the game feels the same. How to quantify this difference? The answer is surprisingly simple.
Tournaments distort baseball. Major League Baseball plays 162 games for a reason: the owners are greedy…(kidding)...because it takes over 100 games to determine which team truly is the best. In a 162 game season basically anything can and will happen. The best team in 2022 was the Los Angeles Dodgers, they lost a 3 game series to the Washington Nationals and were eliminated by the 89 win Padres in the NLDS. The Guardians were swept by the Detroit Tigers. It’s part of the game.
Unlike football: there are no winless teams in baseball. The sheer length of the season shows the true talent difference between the best and worst teams, but also makes an individual loss feel insignificant. This is simply not true in football, but also basketball. In football an individual loss is enormous. It can wreck a season, it is almost a win or go home situation every week.Which makes regular season & postseason football pretty similar. The game is played similarly, the strategies do not shift much. The intensity increases, but I suspect the intensity is not that different from a crucial regular season game between rival teams (like the Browns & Steelers).
In baseball each postseason game crackles with energy. Every pitch matters more, every swing, every managerial call. It all takes on a life of its own and unlike football & basketball, where the best teams almost always win, postseason baseball remains stubbornly unpredictable. Which brings me to the Wild Card Series,
I’ll be honest: I hated it. Hated it with every fiber in my being. I felt, and in many ways still feel, that reducing the number of teams who enter the playoffs serves the game. Since tournaments distort the sport, baseball should allow the regular season prominence reign. But I loved watching the Wild Card Series, each series crackled with its own energy. Each series was playoff baseball, and the matchups were exhilarating! The matchups thrilled: Seattle v Toronto? San Diego v New York? Those teams never faced off in the playoffs before, and even Cleveland v Tampa & St. Louis v Philadelphia ever happened once.
The Cleveland v Tampa matchup offered us one of the crispest ball games in postseason memory. Both starters pitched quickly, worked through the lineup efficiently and only two home runs provided any offense. Game 2 followed the Game 1 model until it bogged down into a grueling bullpen matchup, but Oscar’s home run provided its own catharsis. I am sure everyone has waited for something to happen, like hiccups going away, but after a while you feel like they will never end. Then it does, and for a brief moment disbelief & reality clash and catharsis sets in. That was Oscar’s home run.
Now Cleveland finds itself up 2-1 over New York. Honestly I expected the Guardians to lose (although I expected us to put up a good fight). The Yankees, warts and all, remain the better team. Their lineup is deeper, and our pitching is roughly on par; and frankly Gerrit Cole is a more talented ace than Shane Bieber. Down 5-3 last night I sat in my seat not expecting much. Giddily I was wrong; this team persists and finds a way to win.
Walking back from the game across Hope Memorial Bridge almost brought tears to my eyes. Everyone was happy, adrenaline flowed, and I personally almost sprinted home forgetting, for a moment, how bad my knees hurt. Cars honked and cheered. I personally have not seen the city of Cleveland so happy after a game since the Cavaliers won the championship in 2016. Now we look forward to another game today, with a chance to close it out.
But I cannot stop thinking how different this game would feel in the regular season. Tito managed differently (there’s no way McKenzie is out after 5 innings even if he did struggle); Hentges likely gets pulled, and all those pinch hitters would not have happened. The anxiousness the stadium felt praying our bloops would drop for a hit wouldn’t exist, and the crowd would not be standing up nearly all game rooting for the Guardians to pull it out. Pandemonium would not have reigned after Oscar Gonzalez, the 6’ man who feels like a kid, somehow found a way to will a ball into the outfield. Amed Rosario would not have been right on Kwan’s heels. It was truly a thrilling sight.
Playoff baseball is best baseball. Thanks for reading! You can find this and other articles on my Substack