Well, it had to come down to this. Because baseball’s postseason is more about making money than fair play, the teams with the second- and third-best records in baseball played a one-game series on Tuesday night. And the team with the second-best record lost.
In a just world, the Pirates and Cubs would have opened a seven-game NLDS tonight. Not that seven games really tells us who the best team is, either, but it’s certainly more illustrative than one game. In the last two years, the wild card Pirates have gone up against Madison Bumgarner and Jake Arrieta in games with no margin for error. They went down quietly in each, but that’s the kind of thing that happens when Cy Young contenders are at the top of their games.
Baseball isn’t about to eliminate its divisions, so this is the kind of thing that’s going to happen all too often. Unfortunately, good teams are doubly punished for playing in strong divisions. They deal with tougher schedules during the regular season, and they often deal with harsher seeding when it comes to the postseason.
Make no mistake, the Cardinals, Pirates and Cubs didn’t simply rack up their strong records this year by beating up on a pair of also-rans in the Brewers and Reds. The NL Central was 99-62 against the NL East and 89-76 against the NL West (the big three were 66-33 against the NL East and 69-30 against the NL West). The 97-win Cubs had five wins on the Dodgers for the NL’s third-best record. Maybe the margin wouldn’t have been that significant if the Dodgers had something to play for in September, but they did go 17-13 in their final 30 games, giving them a practically identical winning percentage to their 92-70 full-season mark.
But, again, baseball isn’t getting rid of it’s divisions. And it probably won’t follow the NBA’s lead in discounting divisional standings when playoff time comes around. Which doesn’t seem like very good news for the Pirates at all. The Cubs are looking like a future juggernaut, and the Cardinals show few signs of slowing down. The Pirates have quite a bit going for them, too, but they’ll be the third favorite in the NL Central next year and just getting to another winner-take-all wild card will again be an accomplishment.