Many, if not most, baseball fans have a partisan interest in the wild-card race, whether they like the Cardinals, hate the Mets, or get weirded out by Félix Hernández’s neck tattoo. But what are those few leftover neutral fans to do? Exactly what I tell them. Here’s a ranking of the seven teams within two games of a wild-card spot going into Thursday’s action, in order of how entertaining they are.
7. St. Louis Cardinals
There’s not really a bad option among the surviving teams, for good or ill. The Cardinals don’t really give me the caffeine shakes, but they’ve still got some fun, young pitchers in Carlos Martínez and Alex Reyes, Old Man Wainwright’s Last Ride, an absolute circus of a bullpen (I said “entertaining,” not “good”), an unpredictable manager, and the potential for Aledmys Díaz — who grew up with José Fernández and left the team briefly to attend Fernández’s private memorial — to deliver a moment on par with his grand slam after returning from Miami.
Still, it’s fun to see new faces in the playoffs, and it seems like we see the Cardinals every October. OK, not literally every October, but they’ve made the playoffs five years in a row, and 12 times since 2000, winning four pennants and two World Series since the turn of the century. They can sit this one out and let someone else have a turn.
6. Detroit Tigers
It’s weird how one run of success can all blend together for a franchise, even if the entire roster turns over in the meantime. On some level, this year’s Tigers feel like an extension of the team that went to the World Series in 2006, even though Justin Verlander is the only holdover. The Tigers need to make a deep run to really get fun, because otherwise they’re just a bunch of really good but kind of old players. There’s nothing new and exciting about Miguel Cabrera or Ian Kinsler anymore.
But if the Tigers make a deep run, say, to the LCS, then things get interesting. Then we can start to talk about avenging World Series no-shows in 2006 and 2012 and about getting a ring for Verlander, Kinsler, Víctor Martínez, and all those other vets. We can start looking forward to a World Series victory that would allow Tigers owner Mike Ilitch, the Mason Verger of baseball, to achieve sweet release from the occult magic that forces him to remain in his corporeal prison. Shit could get real, in other words.
5. San Francisco Giants
If anything, we should be even more sick of the Giants than the Cardinals, so if fatigue is a factor, why are the Giants two spots higher?
Three reasons: First, no single Cardinal is more likely to provoke a fight than the Giants’ Madison Bumgarner is.
Second, a Giants World Series win means we’re getting a new Taylor Swift album.
Third, right now, the concept of Even Year Bullshit is in a weird place. In 2010, there wasn’t a pattern, and in 2012, it was a total joke. Now that iffy Giants teams have caught fire three even years in a row, without so much as making the playoffs in 2011 or 2013, it’s starting to become a joking-but-not-really-joking thing. Like, if this is a movie about ghosts, we’re starting to hear weird bumps and rattles in the attic, but nobody’s taking it too seriously. If the Giants win it all again this year, that’s the equivalent of opening the bathroom door and making eye contact with Moaning Myrtle.
4. Seattle Mariners
In each of the past three seasons, we saw a postseason drought of 20 years or more broken, and each time the home crowd responded to the return of playoff baseball like a doomsday cult at the verge of the end times.
• Pittsburgh, 2013:
- Kansas City, 2014:
- Toronto, 2015:
Maybe Seattleites are a little less aggro than people who live in cities that are a little lighter on weed and gentrification, but they also haven’t seen the Mariners in the playoffs since 2001, which is now the longest drought in baseball. José Paniagua was the last Mariner to throw a pitch in a playoff game; he retired in 2003. While Kyle Seager’s fun, and it’d be great to see Félix Hernández take a run at a ring or to have Nelson Cruz avenge his bad fielding in the 2011 playoffs, the potential for a batshit crowd is the big draw.
3. New York Mets
The fans are also a big draw for the Mets, a team that’s given its supporters no emotional baggage whatsoever, no sir. Over the past few weeks, I’ve found myself actively avoiding watching Mets games, instead following along by keeping tabs on the Mets fans I follow on Twitter. It’s way more fun than actual baseball.
Beyond that, this was a really fun team to watch during last year’s World Series run, between Yoenis Céspedes, Bartolo Colón, and the army of hard-throwing youngsters who got them there. Somehow Colón still doesn’t have a ring, nor does David Wright, but that’s just as well because World Series rings are heavy and he’d probably throw out his back trying to pick his up.
That’s what really makes this fun. The Mets have been absolutely devastated by injuries this year, which means that they can pull off the odd trick of having a fun, novel team make the World Series, and while not getting rid of anyone important, rolling back a completely different team for the following year’s playoffs. But that’s not all. Manager Terry Collins has conspicuously not done a very good job of piecing together his team’s broken pieces, like forgetting to run for the lead-footed Wilmer Flores late in a tie game, only to see Flores get thrown out at the plate and hurt himself in the process. Or when he appeared to just misplace one of the best hitters from that World Series team. Was Humpty Dumpty really irreparably broken? Or did he just look that way because Collins was in charge of all the king’s horses and all the king’s men? But in spite of the injuries and the puzzling tactical decisions, the Mets keep winning anyway. It’s great. I can’t get enough of it.
2. Baltimore Orioles
First of all, the Orioles look great on TV. Camden Yards at night is gorgeous, as are Baltimore’s uniforms. This is important: On one level, I’m sick of watching the Cardinals and Dodgers play in the playoffs every year, but I keep tuning in partially because their uniforms look so good on TV together.
Second, the Orioles have a few big stars — Manny Machado, Chris Davis, Adam Jones — but this team is heavy on relative unknowns. This could be America’s first extended look at Kevin Gausman or a grown-up Jonathan Schoop.
Third, Manny Machado was one of the stars of Baltimore’s playoff run in 2012, but since then he’s been almost underexposed. Machado is a godlike baseball player, deserving of universal adoration, and the more time he spends on national TV, the better.
Fourth, the Orioles have two good starting pitchers — Gausman and Chris Tillman, who might be hurt. Just like I want to see what the hell Collins does with three of his four best pitchers passing around old copies of MotorWeek in an orthopedist’s waiting room, I want to see Buck Showalter try to white-knuckle this pitching staff over the line.
1. Toronto Blue Jays
The seventh inning of Game 5 of last year’s ALDS between the Blue Jays and Rangers might be my favorite inning in baseball history.
I have spent the past 351 days in unspeakable psychological and emotional turmoil because I can’t go back and live there forever. It’s like how in Star Trek: Generations, Malcolm McDowell was in the Nexus for like 10 minutes and then spent the next 80 years in the single-minded pursuit of anything that would help him return. He was willing to destroy a star and kill hundreds of millions of people to get back, and that’s basically how I feel about a Blue Jays–Rangers playoff series.
If the AL standings hold and the Blue Jays win the play-in game, we’re going to get Round 2. We’re so close that I’m breaking out in a rash thinking about it. I want it more than my next breath.