History was going to be made Friday night, that much was certain. Never before had baseball's postseason put on a Wild Card Friday, a two-league doubleheader with winners going on and losers going home.Oh, it was wild, all right. And history, as always, proved unpredictable. There was the most famous infield-fly call in postseason annals, followed by utter chaos in Atlanta. There was a two-time league champion going down to defeat before a restless home crowd in Texas.
By the time it was over, one had to wonder: What does the first Wild Card Friday tell us about what the rest of the 2012 postseason has to offer?With Friday night's events and lower-seeded teams starting at home in a 2-3 format for this year only as Division Series play begins this weekend, this debut of a 10-team October definitely has a different ring to it already. When it starts out like it did Friday night, it's apparent this road to the World Series might be unlike anything traveled before. History will show that the St. Louis Cardinals and the Baltimore Orioles became the first Wild Card Playoff victors, both on the road and both with late-innings moxie, and now we're down to eight teams hoping to win World Series rings. Not to be lost in the fog of other extraordinary events, each of those teams did what it took to not only enter their names in the books, but keep their October stories unfolding.
"I thought our guys did a terrific job of just walking in there, ready to play a baseball game, and do it at a high caliber [with] high intensity, and they pulled it off," Cardinals first-year manager Mike Matheny said after his team's 6-3 win over the Braves.Said Orioles manager Buck Showalter following a 5-1 defeat of the Rangers: "Our guys approached it and we talked about it being sudden life instead of sudden death, and we played that way. You've got to seize the opportunity. We don't get many." One thing's for sure after Friday night: The teams that won their divisions -- and therefore avoided the one-game tests to continue their October quests -- were glad they weren't playing. They know they could have been like the Braves, playing at home and staging an eighth-inning rally before an umpire's call helped derail their comeback and contribute to a postseason quickly cut short.
Or they could have been like the Rangers, who hadn't lost three games in a row all season before they lost the last three on the road to the A's for the AL West and then one at home to the O's for the AL Wild Card.In Atlanta, the night was set up as an emotional one already, with Braves icon Chipper Jones on the field, as it turned out, for the last time. But that emotion took an unfortunate turn in the eighth. It was on a blooper to left by Andrelton Simmons that it all came unraveled for the Braves, because left-field umpire Sam Holbrook called an infield fly on a ball Cardinals shortstop Pete Kozma ran well into the outfield before giving up to left fielder Matt Holliday. With Holliday seeing Holbrook's signal and holding up, the play was dead, the out was called and it got ugly at Turner Field. Fans showered the field with garbage after the call and the ensuing arguments and confusion. Sure enough, the rally was doused by Jason Motte's fire, and the Braves couldn't muster another one. A protest over the call was heard and denied, and the Cardinals moved on to face the Washington Nationals, starting Sunday.
"Ultimately, I think that when we look back on this loss, we need to look at ourselves in the mirror," Jones said once the dust from his final game had settled. "We put ourselves in that predicament, down 6-2. You know, that call right there is kind of a gray area. I don't know. But I'm not willing to say that that particular call cost us the ballgame. Ultimately, three errors cost us the ballgame, mine probably being the biggest."In Texas, the Rangers came up short in their quest to become the first team to reach a third consecutive World Series since the 1998-2001 Yankees. The Orioles methodically wore Texas down with effective pitching and timely hitting, claiming a 5-1 victory that sets up the O's with a Division Series meeting with a Yankees team that just edged them out for the AL East crown. It was a stunning blow for a talent-laden Texas team with so much accomplished the last two years short of the ultimate goal. This, too, included fans showing their displeasure, although in this case it wasn't the guys in blue getting the grief, but five-time All-Star and 2010 MVP Josh Hamilton, who had a rough night on top of a rocky couple of weeks both in the field and at the plate. "I think Hamilton has done a great job for this organization," Rangers manager Ron Washington said. "I can't feel for the fans. That's something they have to deal with. Baseball is strange. When you're doing well, they love you. When you're not doing well, they show their disappreciation of you. So I guess tonight that's what they were doing." A great irony of the AL Wild Card playoff was that it would have been played anyway, even under the previous format. The two teams finished with identical records in the regular season, so only one of them was going to survive to the Division Series round anyway. Don't tell that to the Braves, who finished six games ahead of the Cardinals and wouldn't have had to bother with Wild Card Friday before the rules changed. The flip side of the new order: The defending World Series champions, who took the Wild Card all the way a year ago, remain alive as a decidedly different postseason continues. Now that the first Wild Card Friday veered toward the unpredictable, bordering on the unbelievable, there's no telling what else the 2012 postseason has in store.
John Schlegel is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.