The Rays season just got wilder. With the Rays' ongoing poor play and the Red Sox's continued success putting the American League East title seemingly out of reach, the wild card is now going to be a prime topic of conversation. Can the Rays reverse their slide and catch the Rangers or A's for the first wild card and get to host the one-game playoff on Oct. 2? (And would the Trop be sold out, you know, on a Wednesday night with the kids in school?) Can they hold off the Orioles, Yankees and Scott Kazmir's Indians, who have a remarkably easy remaining schedule, for the second wild card? Or, wildest of all given how well they played midseason, can they possibly end up not among the five AL playoff teams? The Rays typically don't talk much about the wild card, focusing on winning the division, relishing the accomplishment given the degree of difficulty and now the rewards of baseball's revised format, which forces the two wild cards into a one-game showdown. The winner gets rushed into Division Series play, playing the first two, and potentially last, of the best-of-five series on the road. But that's better than the loser, which wrestles with the empty feeling of whether it really even made the playoffs given how wham-bam the experience was. "It's a tough position to be in," manager Joe Maddon said. "But it's better than not being in it at all."
Maddon's view of the subject is — candidly — relative to perspective.
"Your feelings about it are going to change constantly," he said last week. "Of course you want to win the division — that's still our goal. Then again if you're kicking butt and you're the first wild-card team, you hate the thought of the second team. And when you're in the position we're in right now, you think it's the greatest idea in the world. …
"And beyond all that, the one-game playoff sounds terrible — unless you win that game. Otherwise, you want two out of three. So your thoughts jump all over the place with this all the time. I've liked the idea from the start of another wild-card team to keep more teams engaged, to keep more fan bases engaged. I thought that was a great idea for our game. Beyond that, I've never been a proponent of just one-and-done. I think it should be two out of three from the beginning."
Been there, done that
Last season was the first of the two wild-card format, as the Orioles and Cardinals advanced, beating the … um … uh … check online … Rangers and Braves. (See what we meant about whether the losers really made the playoffs?)
The inspiration for the format was the excitement and drama — and TV ratings — of previous one-game playoffs. And according to several Rays who've been involved in one, it's quite the experience.
Maddon was a coach and TV analyst Brian Anderson a pitcher on the 1995 Angels team that lost a one-game playoff to the Mariners. DH Delmon Young and RHP Jesse Crain were members of the Twins that lost a Game 163 to the White Sox in 2008 and beat the Tigers in 2009.
"Basically it's a Game 5 or a Game 7 because any mistake or anything you do can lead to the game being decided," Young said.
Actually, Crain said, it's worse.
"It's not like a series where if you get to a Game 7, yeah, it comes down to one game but you had a whole series to play," he said. "When it comes down to one game like this, it's a lot of pressure. … You never want to play a whole season and have it come down to one game."
Been there, done that — kinda
Maddon said he feels as if the Rays have already been through the one-game experience when they had to win the last game of the 2011 season to get the wild card — though it was dependent on the Red Sox losing and there was also the potential for a tie-breaker. "We kind of were in that position unknowingly when we won that Game 162 and all of a sudden you are in the playoffs," he said. "That was kind of the same gig. It wasn't with the same kind of mental notion going into that game, but it turned out to be the exact same thing."
LHP David Price suggested that the wild-card winner actually could have an advantage vs. a Division Series opponent that will have had four days off. "The wild card is not a bad thing," Price said. "You go out there and obviously your backs are against the wall, so you have to win that one-game playoff. And once you do, you have more momentum than the team you're playing against the next round because you played a postseason game already and you've won one. You've been in that atmosphere, you've felt that adrenaline. Those other guys are still hanging out on the edge of pool. We've already been in there. Getting to the playoffs is the biggest thing."
All 11 of the Rays' remaining home games are against contenders with playoff implications: Boston, Texas and Baltimore. How many — if any — will sell out? (Over/under, two.) Top 20,000? (Six?) … The Rays sent invoices to season-ticket holders for the postseason, billing for 13 potential home games — a tiebreaker, a wild card, three Division Series, four ALCS, four World Series. … Ducky's Sports Lounge, owned in part by Evan Longoria, has had a few construction delays at its Tampa site and is now aiming for an early October opening. … LHP David Price set the over/under at 86.5 mph for OF Sam Fuld's pitching debut and was in the minority among the Rays in (correctly) taking the over. … 2B Ben Zobrist is among a dozen players featured in an mlb.com video about fatherhood called Big League Dads.
A quick look at the remaining schedules for the wild-card contenders:
RAYS (21 games): at M's, 3 vs. Red Sox, 3 at Twins, 4 vs. Rangers, 4 vs. O's, 3 at Yankees, 3 at Jays
Rangers (21): at Angels, 3 vs. Pirates, 3 vs. A's, 4 at RAYS, 3 at Royals, 3 vs. Astros, 4 vs. Angels
A's (20): vs. Astros, 3 at Twins, 3 at Rangers, 3 vs. Angels, 4 vs. Twins, 3 at Angels, 3 at M's
O's (21): vs. White Sox, 4 vs. Yankees, 3 at Jays, 3 at Red Sox, 4 at RAYS, 3 vs. Jays, 3 vs. Red Sox
Indians (21): vs. Mets, 3 vs. Royals, 4 at White Sox, 3 at Royals, 4 vs. Astros, 2 vs. White Sox, 4 at Twins
Yankees (20): vs. Red Sox, 4 at O's, 3 at Red Sox, 3 at Jays, 3 vs. Giants, 3 vs. RAYS, 3 at Astros
Royals (20): vs. Tigers, 3 at Indians, 3 at Tigers, 3 vs. Indians, 3 vs. Rangers, 3 at M's, 4 at White Sox
Got a minute? with Delmon Young
Best meal you can make?
I can warm up oatmeal.
Family Guy or Spartacus.
Band/singer you'd want to be on stage with?
Right now, probably (rapper) Juicy J.
All-time favorite movie?
It switches all the time. But I have an Instagram crush — Nicole Mejia.