After clinching a playoff spot, the Atlanta Braves rushed the field. But it wasn't a spontaneous celebration that erupted with Wild Card fever and fervor. They rushed the field because Freddie Freeman hit a two-run walk-off homer. If it wasn't a walk-off, there probably wouldn't have been anything different about the post-game celebration. There were never going to be bottles of champagne or locker-room interviews just for clinching one of the two Wild Card spots.
The Braves don't get to celebrate anything this year. At least, nothing in the regular season. They're in a weird spot -- good enough to run away with the first Wild Card, not good enough to win the division. They're officially the first "Whoop-di-freaking-do, we won a Wild Card" team of the new era.
The American League is filled with teams that currently have some serious tunnel vision, scratching and clawing for one of the available Wild Cards. The Orioles and A's have the inside track, but the Angels and Rays are charging back, and the A's have a tough schedule, while the Orioles and Rays finish out the season playing head-to-head, which gives everyone that much more of a chance, and the last week is going to be nuts, seriously nuts, with the ups and the downs and the lefts and the rights …
But they're all playing for the right to a single game. A one-game playoff, after which one of the teams will look up and say, wait, what just happened? One-hundred-and-sixty-two games for this? They don't have time to think about that right now.
The Braves get it. They're waiting around for a game. Anything can happen in a game. Mark Whiten can hit four homers in one game. Bengie Molina can hit for the cycle. A good pitch, down in the zone, can get ripped for a bases-clearing double. The worst team in baseball can score three runs against the best reliever in baseball. Every individual game has high potential for complete nonsense to occur. There's no safety net.
If there's a franchise that can't get too upset about being the first "Whoop-di-freaking-do, we won a Wild Card" team, it's the Braves, who kept a 103-win team out of the playoffs in the pre-Wild Card era. At least they'll get the chance to advance deep into the playoffs, which is something that teams in their position -- the team with the fifth-best record in the league -- didn't have for a century.
This is a new paradigm, though. And it used to be that a Wild Card berth was worth celebrating because it was a free ride to the playoffs. Over a couple of decades, we got used to that idea. It's weird that a team as talented as the Braves, who have had a playoff spot locked up for close to a month, doesn't get to look forward to a normal playoff berth. The Braves are the first team to taste the bittersweet potential of the new format.
Even before the first Wild Card play-in game, I'm pretty sure I like it. I'm not wild about teams flailing around all season and then getting back into the race with a hot month, but it's hard to argue against the sudden interest and enjoyment that Phillies fans and Brewers fans had in September. Angels fans still have a reason to care. And that Orioles/Rays series might be amazing.
That's all nice. But while I almost feel bad that the Braves have a playoff spot sewn up and little to celebrate -- that's "almost," Royals fans; don't throw things at me -- the best part of the new format is the death of the "Whoop-di-freaking-do, we won the division" team. Those used to exist, you know. "Cool, we won the division. Looks like an extra home game in the playoffs for us! Maybe."
The Braves have had an excellent season, but the Nationals have been even better. Their reward? Their long, long, six-month trudge isn't going to hinge on the vagaries of a single game. They'll still have to play a short series, and all manner of weird things can still happen, but it's not wholly dependent on one starting pitcher not having his best stuff, or a normally sure-handed third baseman booting a ball at exactly the wrong time.
It's a weird, almost-hollow feeling for a team like the Braves, that probably feels like they should have something to celebrate. But the divisional races are back, and they mean far, far more than they used to, which is a tradeoff that most of us will take. It used to be that a division crown was worth something only to teams that weren't good enough to qualify for the Wild Card if they lost -- sort of like the White Sox and Tigers this year.
Instead, it's the Nationals feeling a little comfortable with their preparations for the playoffs, and the Braves feeling a little uncomfortable. It's not how it used to be, but it's almost certainly better. I wanted to hate the second Wild Card. But it's won me over, even before the first play-in game. It took a team not getting especially excited over a guaranteed Wild Card spot to make me realize it.