The winner of this year’s high-stakes Dodgers-Giants pennant race enters next month’s MLB playoffs as the National League’s best seed.
The loser’s consolation prize may be an unwanted place in the record books.
Whichever team decides on second place in the NL West, it could end up with the most wins of any non-division winner in MLB history. Only 10 teams in second place have won 100 plus matches. Only the Chicago Cubs from 1909 and the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1942 have won 104.
This year’s Giants and Dodgers both appear to be blowing past the 100-win mark and perhaps surpassing 104. Incredibly deep, infallibly resistant San Francisco (95-50) has wheeled a season-high nine wins in a row to maintain a 2.5-game division lead over his longtime rival. The Giants are on the move to go 106-56 and only need to finish over .500 in their last 17 games to collect 104 wins.
Talented, playoff-proven Los Angeles (93-53) has won 30 of 40 since the trade deadline … and has picked up a giant half game at the Giants. The reigning World Series champions are on track for 103-59 and must close with 11 wins in their last 16 matches to finish with 104 wins.
Although the sprint to goal is not do-or-die like pennants before game cards, Major League Baseball’s playoff format was the Giants and Dodgers incentive to prioritize winning the division. The loser will have to survive a win-take-all play-in game, likely against the Cardinals, Padres or Reds. In other words, for either the Giants or the Dodgers, a brilliant six-month season will come down to nine innings of chance against an overwhelming 80-something winning team.
Should either the Giants or the Dodgers lose that play-in game, the outcry will be inevitable.
You will hear that the wild-card game is an obvious money grab.
You will hear that the single elimination format is unfair.
You’ll hear that a best-of-three would at least be fairer so a juggernaut team’s 100-win season doesn’t run up because of a single questionable call or unlucky bounce.
All of that, of course, is correct. And yet it overlooks the many, many positive aspects of the playoff format that MLB adopted nine years ago.
The single-elimination wild-card showdowns have brought an instant energy shake to a sport in desperate need of ways to attract new fans and larger national TV audiences. The later rounds of the MLB postseason may dazzle or splash from year to year, but the wild-card game has consistently produced compelling moments.
Who can forget this A’s-Royals 12-inning epic? Or the little-known Conor Gillaspie, who extends the giants’ magical years? Or the PNC Park crowd singing “Cueeeeto, Cueeeeto” and leaving the red aces visibly rattled?
Even this year, when wild-card games have been duds, their existence has been a boost to the sport. Extending the off-season with the second wildcard has kept several teams playoff-relevant deep into the summer. And the threat of having to survive the play-in round has revived division races that would otherwise have been meaningless if there was only one wildcard per league, and that team automatically advanced to the division series.
The 104-win Dodgers or Giants facing the 84-win Cardinals or Reds will feel a little wrong, but so far this scenario is an anomaly, not the norm. Only once has a 100-win team appeared in a wild-card game-2018 The Yankees sent 97-win A’s with few problems. So far this season, the biggest gap in the standings between wild-card opponents has been a modest six games.
Neither the Giants nor the Dodgers want their season to rest on the outcome of one game, but one pitcher staff seems better suited to handle the single elimination format than the other.
The Dodgers can line up their rotation to get Cy Young candidate Max Scherzer to make a do-or-die game. Since joining the Dodgers by the trade deadline, Scherzer has won six of eight starts and has an ERA of 0.88. The Giants’ best option may be 24-year-old Logan Webb, who has been brilliant since the All-Star break but has never played in the playoffs before. Unflappable as Webb has been, the Giants’ depth may shine more in a seven-game series than in a single must-win showdown.
Either way, the stakes are high for both clubs, and the pressure to win is growing by the day.
Never before has a team won 105 matches without claiming a division title. The way the Giants and Dodgers keep piling up wins during this captivating pennant race, one of them may soon be the first.