In praise of one-game playoffs

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In a lot of ways life is a battle between what is right and what feels good.

Indeed, you could make the argument that it’s the very basis of civilization, with the “feels good” thing being “hitting the neolithic gatherer next door over the head with your club and taking his grinding stones” and the “what is right” thing being, well, not doing that and, eventually, forming city councils and stuff.

Religion is all about that too, right? At least the religions that are not based on dressing up like goats, playing flutes around the fire and drinking all of the wine. Those are the opposite. The more popular religions, however, are all about doing the right thing in favor of the thing that feels really, really great in the moment.

Baseball, which has a similar importance to civilization and religion, has this same struggle.

When the playoffs come the theoretically right thing to do is to make each series as long as it can reasonably be so as to make each series as good a test as possible of the strength of each team. Sure, there are limits. We can’t play until next January and, at some point, the announcers run out of anecdotes to tell about each player as he steps out of the batters box and exhales. But the very point of a seven-game series is to, at the very least, make a team go through its rotation a bit and to take away some of the randomness that can occur in any one baseball game. Is it perfect? Oh, hell no, but that’s the idea.

All of that is thrown out the window for the Wild Card Games. One-and-done, baby. That’s it. Your slugger having an off night? Sorry. Your ace starting pitcher got some bad sushi the night before? Tough. The home plate umpire has a stiff back which keeps him from being able to see the bottom half of the strikezone with anything approaching accuracy? Hey, them’s the breaks. You get one damn game, fellas, and if everything doesn’t go just right, you’re going home. Even if you won 98 games this year.

Which is to say that the Wild Card Game is not fair. Not fair at all. It doesn’t tell you who the better baseball team is in any reasonable way. It doesn’t measure the sorts of things which make a good baseball team good over the course of the previous six months. It gives purchase to the forces of chaos, randomness, and luck in ways that even five and seven-game series don’t and turns baseball, for two nights, into complete and utter crapshoots.

Good. This is a good thing.

I haven’t always felt that way. As recently as a year or two ago I am sure I wrote some long and thought-out thing about how the Wild Card Game is bad for the very reasons I stated above. And, intellectually, I continue to believe that tossing 162 games over the side in favor of a three-hour sphincter-clench is really messed up. But I’ve decided that, even though the Wild Card Game is not the best measure of baseball supremacy, it’s so much damn fun that we shouldn’t really care too much.

Life very often isn’t fair. Even when we establish structures in order to make it so. That city council that resulted, eventually, from our desire to keep people from beating their neighbors over the head works all kinds of injustices on people. That religion which was designed to save us from our baser instincts and work toward something more meaningful is corrupted so often that we barely bat an eye. Seven game series that, theoretically, tell us who the best team in baseball is often give us a champion that, really, wasn’t the best team in baseball as much as they were the best team for a ten-day period in late October.

So, if we’re not eschewing anything perfect, why not indulge in something less-than-perfect but super fun, at least for two nights? Why not put on some goat skins, fill our gourds with wine and dance around a fire while the Yankees, Astros, Pirates and Cubs squirm uncomfortably for our enjoyment? They’re big boys. No one is dying here. The guys who lose the Wild Card Games will be in nice big houses with their beautiful families this time come Friday. And we’ll have had a couple night worth of serious excitement.

What feels good and what’s right isn’t always the same thing. Once in a while, it’s good to just do what feels good. Now, where’s my flute?

Satyr

Blue Jays clinch 1st playoff spot since 2016, beat Yanks 4-1

Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports
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BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) Barred from playing in their own ballpark this year because of COVID-19, the vagabond Toronto Blue Jays have found a home in the playoffs.

The slumping New York Yankees, meanwhile, look likely to play on the road in the postseason, where they’ve struggled all year.

Hyun Jin Ryu pitched seven shutout innings and the Blue Jays clinched their first postseason spot since 2016, beating the Yankees 4-1 Thursday night and further damaging New York’s chances of hosting a first-round series.

New York lost for the fourth time in five games following a 10-game winning stretch and remained two games behind the slumping White Sox for the fourth seed. Chicago lost 5-4 at Cleveland, its fifth straight defeat.

“We’ve got to get it rolling again, obviously, if we’re going to get to where we want to go,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. “I’m confident we can do it.

New York went 21-7 at home this season but was 11-18 on the road. Boone said he’s not concerned about that split even as a potential road playoff series looms next week.

“We’ve got to get ourselves in order and start playing really good baseball if we’re going to give ourselves a chance,” Boone said.

Toronto secured at least an AL wild-card spot and ensured its eighth trip overall to the postseason. The Blue Jays had endured three losing campaigns since their previous playoff trip, going 67-95 last season.

“I’m just so proud of my club and everything we’ve gone through all year,” second-year manager Charlie Montoyo said.

Canada’s federal government refused to allow games at Toronto’s Rogers Centre this season, citing the closed Canada-U.S. border and the travel risk associated with the pandemic. Stuck on the road to start the season, the Blue Jays eventually ended up at their Triple-A ballpark, Sahlen Field in Buffalo, but didn’t gripe about their fate.

“They never complained,” Montoyo said. “They had their mind set on getting to this moment right now.”

Blue Jays players embraced after Rafael Dolis struck out Aaron Hicks to end it, donning blue T-shirts that said “Respect Toronto.”

“This is something we want to make an every year thing,” infielder Cavan Biggio said. “For us, we’re happy, we’re excited we’re able to put ourselves in this position, but this is only the start of hopefully something special for a long time.”

The Blue Jays trail the Yankees by two games for second place in the AL East. Both teams have three games remaining. Toronto hosts Baltimore in Buffalo this weekend while the Yankees host the Marlins.

New York failed to hit a homer for the fourth straight game, matching its longest streak since June 2016. It’s the first time the Yankees have failed to homer in a four-game series since doing so at Texas in July 2013.

“I’m concerned with the way we’ve played recently,” outfielder Brett Gardner said. “Any time you’re not playing your best baseball and the postseason is right around the corner, something needs to be corrected rather quickly.”

New York loaded the bases with two outs in the eighth, but pinch-hitter Gary Sanchez flied out to deep center, where Randal Grichuk made a leaping catch at the wall.

“It’s good to see him get a really good swing off in a big spot,” Boone said of Sanchez. “Just unfortunately, that short.”

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. homered for Toronto, his eighth.

Ryu (5-2) scattered five hits, walked two and struck out four. Luke Voit and Hicks hit back-to-back singles to begin the sixth but Ryu struck out Giancarlo Stanton, got Gleyber Torres to fly out, and retired Gio Urshela on a groundball.

“He’s an ace and he did what an ace does,” Montoyo said.

The left-hander lowered his ERA from 3.00 to 2.69.

Dolis got four outs for his fifth save in six chances.

Guerrero opened the scoring with a solo homer off left-hander Jordan Montgomery (2-3) in the second.

The Blue Jays extended their lead when Biggio and Bo Bichette hit back-to-back, two-out doubles in the third.

Toronto made it 4-0 in the sixth. Grichuk chased Montgomery with a single and Guerrero singled off Adam Ottavino before rookie Alejandro Kirk hit a two-out, two-run double.

Montgomery lost for the first time in four starts. He allowed three runs and six hits in 5 1/3 innings.

The Blue Jays finished 5-5 in their 10-game regular season series against the Yankees.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Blue Jays: RHP Nate Pearson (elbow) was activated off the injured list and RHP Wilmer Font was designated for assignment. . RHP Jordan Romano (strained right middle finger) will throw a second bullpen session Friday.

Yankees: Aaron Judge came on as a pinch-hitter but is expected to start all three remaining regular season games, Boone said.

SHARED DUTY

Boone said he expects to use both Sanchez and Kyle Higashioka at catcher in the postseason. Higashioka has hit well while working with ace Gerrit Cole, while Sanchez has struggled with both offense and his defense down the stretch.

SEVEN UP

Ryu became the first Blue Jays starting pitcher since Aug. 22, 2019, to pitch into the seventh. It had been an MLB-record 88 games since RHP Jacob Waguespack pitched into the seventh at Dodger Stadium last year.

UP NEXT

Yankees: LHP J.A. Happ (2-2, 3.25) starts Friday as New York returns home to begin a three-game series against Miami. RHP Sandy Alcantara (3-2, 3.12) starts for the Marlins.

Blue Jays: RHP Taijuan Walker (4-3, 2.86) starts Friday in the opener of a three-game series against Baltimore. The Orioles have not named a starter.