Five Things We Learned from the Wild Card Series

Road teams rule Wild Card Series in MLB's new postseason format.

MLB’s new postseason format kicked off this weekend with the Wild Card Series, a best-of-three held at the higher-seeded team’s stadium. No more of the one-and-done wild-card game, which did bring about an NCAA Tournament feel to MLB. While only one of the four series went the distance, there was plenty to take away from the first three days of postseason action.

As we get ready for the Division Series, which begin Tuesday, let’s take a look back at five key takeaways from the Wild Card Series (spoiler alert: no ear checks).

 

No Home-Field Advantage

 

The four teams that played host this weekend — the New York Mets, St. Louis Cardinals, Cleveland Guardians and Toronto Blue Jays — combined to win 61.7% of their home games during the regular season. That certainly did not carry over to the Wild Card Series.

While some thought the lower-seeded team was at a disadvantage by not even hosting one game, it turned out that have home-field advantage in the new format meant diddly squat. Only the Guardians, seeded third in the American League, defended their home turf by sweeping the sixth-seeded Tampa Bay Rays 2-1 and 1-0. Game 2 was the only walk-off, with rookie right fielder Oscar Gonzalez delivering a no-doubt homer in the bottom of the 15th inning following an epic duel between the two pitching staffs.

The Guardians’ two wins were twice as many as the other three home teams had combined, with the Mets’ 7-3 triumph in Game 2 over the San Diego Padres (in the NL’s No. 3 vs. No. 6 battle) the others. Yes, that means two road teams Philadelphia Phillies, seeded sixth in the National League, and the Seattle Mariners, seeded fifth in the AL, swept their respective foes, the third-seeded Cardinals and the fourth-seeded Jays.

The fact that three road teams won becomes even more startling when you consider the two NL hosts won 54 (Cardinals) and 53 (Mets) games at home, a winning percentage of more than .650. The format for the Division Series is 2-2-1, so home field is a little bit less of a factor in determining outcomes. Even so, following the Padres’ 6-0 victory over the Mets in Game 3 on Sunday, home teams are only 61-63 in winner-take-all scenarios.

All of this also means that 11 of the 12 teams in the postseason field will host at least one game (only the Rays won’t).

 

Starters Take Center Stage

 

Everyone has their opinion on the effect of statistical analysis and its impact on keeping starting pitchers in a game. But if there was one thing on display in the Wild Card Series, the eye test can overrule the percentages and be a winning play.

Already this postseason, there have been five starting pitchers to go at least seven innings. This after only four such occurrences happened a year ago. Two happened in the very first game of this postseason, when Cleveland’s Shane Bieber (7 ⅔ innings) and Tampa Bay’s Shane McClanahan (7 innings) each hit the mark and may have set the tone for the rest of this show.

Relatively speaking, starters put on a pretty good display in the Wild Card Series, with a 2.82 ERA. That includes a rather shocking 7.36 from the Mets’ vaunted trio of Max Scherzer, Jacob deGrom and Chris Bassitt (12 runs in 14 ⅔ innings). Conversely, the Phillies were the most surprising, with Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola combining for 13 scoreless innings. In the regular season, Phillies starters ranked 14th with a 3.80 ERA, with Nola having two complete games, which would have tied him for sixth in MLB as a team.

Individually, Padres right-hander Joe Musgrove had the best outing, allowing just one hit with one walk and five strikeouts over seven innings in the Game 3 clincher. With the bullpen not allowing a hit in the final two innings, San Diego allowed the fewest hits in a winner-take-all game.

Guardians right-hander Triston McKenzie announced his presence to a national audience that might not have known much about him. The 25-year-old, who was a first-round competitive-balance pick in the 2015 draft out of high school, dazzled with six scoreless innings in Game 2, walking two and striking out eight. His performance came after posting an 11-11 record with a 2.96 ERA, 44 walks and 190 strikeouts in 191⅓ innings.

 

Mariners Magic

 

The Mariners are back in the postseason after a 20-year absence. Part of their calling card this season was dramatic victories, including walk-offs, but nothing matched what happened in Game 2. Trailing the Jays 8-1 entering the sixth inning, the M’s pulled off a comeback for the ages, scoring four in the sixth, four in the eighth and the decisive run in the ninth for a 10-9 triumph that sucked the life out of Rogers Centre well, every place but the winning clubhouse.

The erasure of the seven-run deficit matched the second-largest in MLB history, tying the Boston Red Sox in Game 5 of the 2008 AL Championship Series (beating Tampa Bay 8-7) and only behind the eight-run rally by the Philadelphia A’s in Game 4 of the 1929 World Series (beating the Chicago Cubs 10-8).

Seattle’s one-run win echoed a pattern from the regular season, when the Mariners led MLB with 34 victories by that narrow margin (they also led all teams in 2021 with 33). More of that magic will be needed in the Division Series, where the Mariners will face the AL’s No. 1 seed, the Houston Astros.

 

All About Momentum

 

The Phillies, Padres, Mariners and Rays were the last four teams to punch their postseason tickets. The Rays (as well as the Blue Jays) had known for a while that their spot was likely as the AL wild-card chase lost steam down the stretch (despite a valiant effort by the Baltimore Orioles).

So can it really be a surprise that the Phillies, Padres and Mariners — all wild-card teams — knocked off the Cardinals, Mets and Blue Jays? It shouldn’t. Wild-card teams have typically had success in the postseason, thanks to their late-season push to first qualify and then stave off elimination in the one-game duel with the other wild-card team from their league.

But now with three wild cards on each side of the bracket, division champs can find themselves facing early ousters. The Cardinals, who pulled away as the Milwaukee Brewers faltered in September to comfortably win the NL Central, felt that sharp stick in the eye thanks to the Phillies, while the AL Central champion Guardians did not.

Now the question is: How does that translate to the Division Series? While the top two seeds in each league (Los Angeles Dodgers, Atlanta Braves, Houston Astros, New York Yankees) have been off since the regular season ended Wednesday, it wasn’t too long of a break to accumulate rust. But only the Braves, who were batting the Mets for the NL East title until securing it Tuesday, were playing meaningful games in the final weeks of the season. The edge those four teams have is they have their rotations set up how they want them to, while the teams from the Wild Card Series might not be able to use their aces until Game 2 of the Division Series. All of the bullpens, including the Guardians following their 15-inning battle Saturday, should be at full strength by Tuesday.

 

Clean Slate

 

The great thing about statistics are they tell what has happened over a period of time. So when the postseason begins, everyone’s batting average or ERA start from scratch, giving each player a chance to write a new chapter.

Look no further than Padres center fielder Trent Grisham as one who has seized upon the opportunity to erase the previous six months, where he put up a miserable .184 batting average. One thing he did do well, aside from his stellar defense that kept him in the lineup, was hit the long ball, putting up a career-high 17 homers.

That trait was on full display against the Mets, as he took Max Scherzer deep in Game 1, then Jacob deGrom in Game 2. Two homers against the Mets’ two best pitchers on two straight nights. According to Elias, Grisham now holds the distinction of being the player to have the lowest batting average and homer in the first two postseason games of that same year (previous was Yasmani Grandal’s .230 in 2020 with the Chicago White Sox). Grisham and Grandal were teammates in 2019 on Brewers. Grisham finished the Wild Card Series 4-for-8. Another Padre with a similar story is Josh Bell, who had just three homers in 53 games since coming over with Juan Soto from the Washington Nationals at the trade deadline but homered in Game 1, also off Scherzer.

Photo by Frank Jansky & Larry Placido/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Drew Wheeler (@drewisokay on Twitter)

Steve Drumwright

Steve Drumwright is a lifelong baseball fan who retired as a player before he had the chance to be cut from the freshman team in high school. He recovered to become a sportswriter and have a successful journalism career at newspapers in Wisconsin and California. Follow him on Twitter @DrummerWrites.

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