Wednesday, October 2, 2013
What a Difference a Day Makes
The Boston Red Sox won 28 more games in 2013 than they did in 2012, the best improvement in baseball. Their 97 wins were tied for tops in the Majors, and that will ensure them home field advantage for as long as they play this autumn. It also gets them four full days of rest, and for a team and fan base who complain as much as they do about the demands of the MLB schedule, you'd think that would be welcomed news. Apparently not. It seems they only wanted three.
With last year's introduction of a second wild card team in each league, MLB also restored some rewards to divisional winners. Finishing first is the only way to avert Bud Selig's newest revenue-generating monster, the winner-take-all play-in, where the Cincinnati Reds just saw their 162-game body of work wiped out over the course of nine innings last night.
The St. Louis Cardinals will now host the Pittsburgh Pirates to open the NLDS on Thursday, while Boston doesn't start with their wild card opponent until Friday. They won't even know who it is until tonight, leaving a bastion of ingrates within Beantown calling the long layoff that accompanies the top American League seed an unfair burden. As it happens, they have some history on their side.
Take last year. The Detroit Tigers went into the 2012 World Series with five days' rest by virtue of having swept the New York Yankees. On the other hand, their National League opponent, the San Francisco Giants, had only one day off. The Tigers must have spent all their time on the golf course. After hitting .271 and slugging .399 through a combined 7-2 ALDS and ALCS schedule, they fell off to .159 and .246, respectively, and were swept by the Giants.
Colorado may own the longest and most devastating postseason layover in the history of the game. They entered the 2007 World Series on a 21-1 run, largely on the strength of a pitching staff that posted a composite 2.08 ERA through the NLDS and NLCS, but those arms rusted considerably after nine days off. The Rockies were swept by the Red Sox, who, playing on only two days' rest, put up 29 runs — all earned &mdash in four games.
And in 2006, the Tigers hit .297 on a 7-1 ride to the World Series, but after a six-day break, they fell below the Mendoza line at .199 and were dispensed in five games by a Cardinals team that had only one day to prepare for them.
Baseball is not physically grueling like other major sports, including Major League Soccer. Unlike football or basketball, you can play it every day. Even twice a day. It is more akin to a game of skill that requires daily repetition to maintain a sharp edge.
In baseball, first-round byes and long rests are a hindrance. And while the other ALDS matchup between the Tigers and Oakland A's does not open until Friday either, both teams will be coming off identical four-day rests. The Red Sox, on the other hand, will be sitting in idle trying to keep its engine revved with intra-squad games while its yet-to-be-determined opponent is playing meaningful games. What's more, if Tampa Bay survives, they'll ll come into Boston on a crest that has required them to win on both Saturday and Sunday to force a wild card tie, then in Texas on Monday night, and again in Cleveland tonight. Talk about battle-tested.
Monday's tie-breaker was not the fly in Boston's pennant ointment since it was played on a planned travel day. The deliberate pace of this year's schedule owes more to baseball greed. Selig & Company realized long ago the considerable fortune that could be reaped by slicing up baseball into more divisions and expanding its October guest list. They weren't about to leave a nickel on the table by scheduling concurrent postseason games carried on competing networks who would discount their broadcasting rights bids to reflect a shared market. Last year, both wild card games were played on the same day. This year, they've been spread over two.
Other than the MLB coffers, the biggest winner of this subtle addition of an extra day may well be tonight's winner. Cleveland can start ace Ubaldo Jiminez (13-9, 3.30 ERA) in both ALDS Games 1 and 5 on normal rest, while Tampa Bay will have their southpaw duo of Matt Moore (17-4, 3,29) and reigning Cy Young Award winner David Price (10-8, 3.33) lined up for Games 1 and 2, with either ready for Game 5 duty. This is particularly advantageous against the Red Sox, given Boston's perennial problems against lefties.
If all this hyperbole about an extra day on the schedule tells us anything, it's that baseball is by far the most hyper-analyzed of any major sport. Look, it's the postseason. By virtue of its selective nature, there are only supposed to be good teams with good players still remaining. If the Red Sox and their fans don't want to take on the best, they've been there and done that enough in the last four seasons. Time to try something new.
If we're going to lobby for any change, it should be for a cessation of the nit-picking over trivialities and inconveniences, especially from teams and fans that have never been here before ... or, in any event, in a very long time.