The new playoff format was supposed to prevent this.
Remember what so many of us said? Because of the new wild-card game, the top seeds in each league would face a weakened opponent in the first round and thus enjoy an easier route to the World Series.
In Year 1, the Fall Classic will feature a pair of No. 3 seeds, Detroit and San Francisco.
To put it another way, the Tigers and Giants had the lowest win totals among the division champions in each league.
If the brackets had held, we would be at Nationals Park right now, anticipating the first Washington-New York World Series since 1933. Instead, the Orioles (as the No. 2 wild card) bloodied the Yankees in a division series that included 12- and 13-inning games, leaving New York vulnerable to Detroit’s sweep in the ALCS. The Nationals — with the best record in baseball — didn’t survive a five-game encounter with St. Louis, the other No. 2 wild card.
That noise you hear in the distance is laughter from the baseball gods. They knew long ago what we just relearned: No amount of postseason restructuring will change the fact that October belongs to the hottest teams, not necessarily the most talented ones.
According to STATS LLC, only three of the last 22 teams to finish with the best record in baseball went on to win the World Series: the ’09 Yankees, ’07 Red Sox and ’98 Yankees. This year will make it three out of 23 — or barely more than 13 percent.
“It’s not always the highest-paid team, or the best team in baseball — whatever they call it,” observed Detroit reliever Joaquin Benoit. “(These are) the hottest teams in baseball right now, the best teams in baseball right now. Three months ago, probably, nobody would pick us. But now we’re here. We have to prove it on the field.”
In noting the absence of the top seeds, San Francisco lefty Javier Lopez said, “There’s a lot of parity. That’s what it speaks to me. Regardless of payrolls, ultimately it’s what you’ve got to do on the field. As far as the records are concerned, you can throw those out the window. You’re always told in these situations, when you go into a five-game or seven-game series, the best team is going to win — regardless of payroll. The best team wins.”
The Giants and Tigers have been in business for 242 combined seasons. While this is the first time they’ve played one another in the World Series, they have several things in common: excellent managers (Bruce Bochy and Jim Leyland), popular Venezuelan third basemen (Pablo Sandoval and Miguel Cabrera), and aces who started this year’s All-Star Game (Matt Cain and Justin Verlander).
And one more thing: At different times this year, it seemed virtually certain they wouldn’t make it this far. The way each responded revealed a lot about its character — and clubhouse.
The Tigers have been the most impressive team in baseball during this postseason, with a 7-2 record and a convincing victory (behind Verlander’s shutout) in their lone elimination game, at Oakland’s raucous Coliseum during the first round. Their most trying moment came well before the postseason began, after a Sept. 17 loss in Chicago dropped them three games behind the division-leading White Sox with barely more than two weeks left in the season.
With the $140 million team plummeting toward underachievement, his contractual status unresolved beyond the year and the fans in the early stages of a mutiny, Leyland did …
“Nothing, really,” Verlander said recently.
“That’s the funny thing,” Verlander continued. “That’s what it took to get us going. (He) never pressed, never had a big team meeting, a rah-rah speech. He just trusted in his guys like we trusted in ourselves. The biggest thing this team needed was for our manager and players not to freak out, and say, ‘Oh my God, we’ve got to win.’ Just go out there and play the game. If you’re in first at the end of 162, that’s where you’re supposed to be.”
It worked. Detroit went 11-5 after the loss in Chicago and became the first AL team to clinch a division title.
Did it help that the Tigers play in perhaps the worst division in baseball? Sure. But they also have a roster that includes three of the best players in the sport — Cabrera, Verlander and Prince Fielder — and an elite rotation that simply took time to reveal its full capability. Their division title offered the same rights and privileges as everyone else’s, and it came with limited close-the-doors-and-listen-here intervention from the manager.
“It’s quick — I like it,” Fielder said of Leyland’s remarks to the team. “His team meetings are in and out. It’s like, ‘What?’ It’s inspiring, but you’ve got to think about it for a second.”
Contrast that with the Giants, for whom Hunter Pence’s impassioned speech before Game 3 of the National League Division Series — down 0-2 to Cincinnati, three road games ahead — has become the stuff of Lombardi-esque legend.
The genesis of Pence’s oration was a quiet conversation in the clubhouse kitchen between Lopez and soon-to-be postseason legend Marco Scutaro — a brainstorm, as Lopez called it, about ways to refocus and energize the Giants after two bad losses at home. Then Pence joined them. So after Bochy called a team meeting, Pence said he had a few words to offer — and, according to infielder Ryan Theriot, promptly channeled the halftime rapture of the fictional high-school quarterback Johnny Moxon from “Varsity Blues.”
“We needed that,” Lopez said. “It’s not something you can do all the time. It works in football. You’ve got 16 games. You can do it 16 times and it’s not a big deal. But you’re playing 162 games. If you’re rally crying every night, after a while people would tune out. It was the right time for it.
“Team speeches really resonate when you have an everyday player give the speech — when it’s a guy that’s out there grinding. We have a lot of veterans on this team, but a lot of them are on the pitching side. Not that the words coming out of Matt Cain’s mouth would be any different, but, as a position player, when you’re out there all day long, when it comes from a guy like that, it’s like, ‘OK, this guy really wants it. This guy’s all in. Get on board. Let’s get going.’ ”
What did Pence say, exactly?
“The one thing that really stuck out was doing it for the guy next to you,” Lopez said. “If you’re struggling with motivation and things like that, you do it for the guy next to you. When he said that he’d die on this field, giving it all he had — when he said it, the way he said it, it was pretty passionate.”
Scutaro followed Pence, rousing his teammates with a few more shouts. Apparently, the Giants listened. They won three straight and took the series. Facing a 3-1 deficit against St. Louis in the NLCS, they did the same and won the pennant.
All told, the Giants are 6-0 when facing elimination in this postseason. And to hear those in the clubhouse talk about it, Pence’s speech — precisely the sort of thing the Tigers didn’t do when they were in peril — was a turning point.
“We were like the Tigers last year in St. Louis,” said Theriot, who played second base during the Cardinals’ title run. “We were down 10 1/2 (games) with a month to play. No meetings. Zero. ‘Don’t embarrass yourself. Go out there, play hard. The fans are showing up for you. You’ve got a family to make proud.’ It was one of those deals. The next thing you know, we’re knocking on the door and we’ve got action.
“Every team is different in that regard.”
Yet, in the end, only one team can say it discovered the right blend of emotion, execution and opportunism. We’re about to find out whether that will be the Tigers or Giants in 2012.