Baseball is all about getting hot at the right time. Three of the past four World Series winners have come not from the division winners, but from Wild Card teams.
The Anaheim Angels (now the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim on State College Boulevard in California), Florida Marlins and Boston Red Sox all played their best baseball late in the season and captured World Series titles.
This concept is not hard to fathom, as many division leaders rest their starters given the fact that they have jumped out to such large leads over their opponents. When the playoffs start, however, many players are rusty and have lost much of the momentum they gained during the regular season. Ask any member of the Atlanta Braves from 1991-2005 and I’m sure they can relate.
The Wild Card teams, on the other hand, are practically starting ‘postseason play’ in September because every game is critical for them to have any hope of making it to the playoffs.
Using this logic, how exactly are the Detroit Tigers and St. Louis Cardinals playing in the World Series?
The Tigers jumped out to the best record in baseball in the beginning of the year and were playing close to .700 baseball in June. They struggled mightily down the stretch, playing more like the Tigers of the past as they lost their final five games of the season and gave up a double-digit lead to the Minnesota Twins in the Central Division. Even though they are the Wild Card team in the American League, they are the antithesis of what it means to be a streaking team in the playoffs.
Somehow the Tigers got their act together and upset both the Yankees and Athletics.
The Cardinals were in a similar predicament. They were the darlings of the National League in the preseason and steadily held the NL Central Division lead. With an eight-and-a-half game lead over the Astros, the Cardinals lost seven consecutive games. It was not until the Astros lost their last game of the season that the Cardinals were guaranteed a spot in the playoffs.
If St. Louis had been overtaken by the Astros in the playoffs, it would have been the second biggest collapse for a Cardinals team in less than a month (See the Arizona Cardinals collapse against the Chicago Bears on Monday Night Football last week for the other notable choke job).
Once the postseason began, the Cardinals became a completely different team. Pitcher Jeff Weaver went from being replaced by his younger brother in Anaheim to being a postseason savior for the Cardinals. The Cardinals bullpen became lights out and everything was back to normal in St. Louis.
This trend is not likely to be replicated in the future, since Wild Card teams are still some of the best in baseball.
Baseball is one of the unique sports in which the Wild Card team can win the championship.
In basketball, the eighth-seed in the conference has little chance of winning the championship, let alone advancing far into the playoffs. Mostly, it will be the top four seeds from each conference battling it out for the title.
In football, even though the Pittsburgh Steelers won the Super Bowl last year as a Wild Card, it is almost impossible for teams to accomplish what the Steelers did. For a Wild Card to win the Super Bowl, they would have to win three playoff road games
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