Tracy Ringolsby

Giants' sights set above uncertain Wild Card

Division title greatly preferred to spot in win-or-go-home game

Giants' sights set above uncertain Wild Card

DENVER -- San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy isn't wild about the Wild Card. After the 2011 season, Major League Baseball decided to tweak the Wild Card. It added a second one from each league to add to the in-season interest, which it has. It created a one-game, win-or-go-home matchup of the two Wild Cards in each league to make it more challenging for the non-division champions, and it did.

Great for the fans. Not so good for the Wild Cards. The road to a championship became more challenging.

That's why having the Giants sitting atop the National League Wild Card race -- two games in front of the Brewers -- isn't even on Bochy's radar screen. The only team he's watching is the Dodgers, the one ahead of the Giants in the NL West.

And it's that adjustment to the rules two years ago, creating the one-game play-in, that Bochy admits "without a question" is going to keep any team from feeling like it has accomplished something by earning a Wild Card berth to get into the postseason.

Even if the Wild Card was not allowed the home-field advantage in the past, "you're better off in a best-of-five to advance [from the Division Series] to the [League Championship Series], where you have a chance to overcome a bad day, rather than a one-game, winner-take-all to get into the Division Series."

And even good teams can have bad days. The Giants, for example, just lost two out of three to the Rockies, who have the worst record in the NL.

In addition to the challenge of winning that one game, there is also the fact that a team has to turn to its best available pitcher for that one-game showdown, effectively meaning he won't be available until a Game 3, at the earliest, in the NLDS, which would limit him to one start out of those five games.

"Any club, any manager will tell you that you will do anything you can to stay away from the Wild Card," said Bochy.

The brief history supports Bochy.

A year ago, Pittsburgh, which beat Cincinnati in the NL Wild Card Game, and Tampa Bay, which beat Cleveland in the American League Wild Card Game, were both eliminated in the Division Series. In 2012, Baltimore beat Texas in the Wild Card matchup but was eliminated by the Yankees in the ALDS, although St. Louis, the NL Wild Card that advanced, did get to the NLCS before being eliminated by San Francisco.

That's a far cry from the success the Wild Card had enjoyed in the last 10 years of the original format. While the 1997 World Series champion Marlins were one of only two Wild Card teams to get to the World Series -- much less win it -- the first seven years of the Wild Card, there were eight Wild Cards that advanced to the World Series from 2002-11, including four that won championships.

The Angels beat the Giants in a World Series battle of the Wild Cards in 2002. The Marlins won for a second time in '03. Boston followed the Wild Card route in '04 when it ended an 88-year championship drought. The Cardinals advanced as the Wild Card en route to the '11 title.

And as well as the 2002 Giants, Wild Card teams that lost in the World Series were the Astros in '05, Tigers in '06 and Rockies in '07.

There, however, is little question that life was easier without being faced with a win-or-go-home game to open the postseason, but there wasn't as much fan interest generated by having only one Wild Card in each league.

At the start of Wednesday, there were nine teams -- five in the AL (the A's, Tigers, Mariners, Indians and Yankees) and four in the NL (the Giants, Brewers, Braves and Pirates) -- within five games of a Wild Card. There were eight on Sept. 3, 2013, within five games and nine in 2012, the first year of the two Wild Card format.

By comparison, only three times in the previous 10 years were there as many as eight teams with Wild Card hopes as late as Sept. 3 -- 2003, '05 and '06 -- and four times there were four or fewer, including 2011, when the Wild Card leader in both the AL and NL had more than a five-game edge on the closest Wild Card competitor.

"The new system rewards the team that wins its division," said Bochy. "It should be more difficult for teams that don't [win the division]."

That is what baseball wanted when it made the format change.

And that's what baseball got -- expanded interest in September but a more difficult challenge in October, at least for the Wild Card.

Tracy Ringolsby is a national columnist for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.