The winner of this year’s high-stakes Dodgers-Giants pennant race will enter next month’s MLB playoffs as the National League’s top seed.
The loser’s consolation prize might be an unwanted place in the record books.
Whichever team settles for second place in the NL West could finish with the most victories of any non-division winner in MLB history. Only 10 second-place teams have won 100-plus games. Only the 1909 Chicago Cubs and 1942 Brooklyn Dodgers have won as many as 104.
This year’s Giants and Dodgers both appear poised to blow past the 100-win mark and maybe surpass 104. Impossibly deep, unfailingly resilient San Francisco (95-50) has reeled off a season-high nine wins in a row to maintain a 2.5-game division lead over its longtime rival. The Giants are on pace to go 106-56 and need only to finish above .500 in their final 17 games to amass 104 wins.
Talent-laden, playoff-proven Los Angeles (93-53) has won 30 of 40 since the trade deadline … and has picked up a whopping half game on the Giants. The reigning World Series champs are on pace to go 103-59 and would need to close with 11 victories in their final 16 games to finish with 104 wins.
While the sprint to the finish isn’t do-or-die like pre-wild-card pennant races were, Major League Baseball’s playoff format gives the Giants and Dodgers incentive to prioritize winning the division. The loser will have to survive a winner-take-all play-in game, likely against the Cardinals, Padres or Reds. In other words, for either the Giants or Dodgers, a brilliant six-month season will come down to nine innings of randomness against an underwhelming 80-something win team.
Should either the Giants or Dodgers lose that play-in game, the outcry will be inescapable.
You’ll hear that the wild-card game is a blatant money grab.
You’ll hear that the single-elimination format is unjust.
You’ll hear that a best-of-three, at minimum, would be fairer so that a juggernaut team’s 100-win season doesn’t unravel because of a single questionable call or unlucky bounce.
All that is correct, of course. And yet, it overlooks the many, many positives of the playoff format that MLB adopted nine years ago.
The single-elimination wild-card showdowns have brought an instant jolt of energy to a sport in desperate need of ways to attract new fans and larger national TV audiences. The later rounds of the MLB postseason can dazzle or sputter from year to year, but the wild-card game has consistently produced compelling moments.
Who can forget this A’s-Royals 12-inning epic? Or little-known Conor Gillaspie extending the Giants’ even-year magic? Or the PNC Park crowd chanting “Cueeeeto, Cueeeeto,” leaving the Reds ace visibly rattled?
Even in years when the wild-card games have been duds, their existence has been a boost for the sport. Expanding the postseason with the second wild card has kept more teams playoff-relevant deep into the summer. And the threat of having to survive the play-in round has reinvigorated division races that otherwise would have been meaningless if there were only one wild card per league and that team automatically advanced to the division series.
The 104-win Dodgers or Giants facing the 84-win Cardinals or Reds will feel a little wrong, but so far that scenario is an anomaly, not the norm. Only once has a 100-win team appeared in a wild-card game — the 2018 Yankees dispatched of the 97-win A’s with little trouble. Until this season, the biggest gap in the standings between wild-card opponents has been a modest six games.
Neither the Giants nor Dodgers want their season to rest on the outcome of one game, but one pitching staff seems better suited to handle the single-elimination format than the other.
The Dodgers can line up their rotation to have Cy Young contender Max Scherzer pitch a do-or-die game. Since joining the Dodgers at the trade deadline, Scherzer has won six of eight starts and has an ERA of 0.88. The Giants’ best option may be 24-year-old Logan Webb, who has been brilliant since the All-Star break but has never pitched in the playoffs before. Unflappable as Webb has been, the Giants’ depth might shine more in a seven-game series than in a single must-win showdown.
Regardless, the stakes are high for both clubs and the pressure to win grows by the day.
Never before has a team won 105 games without claiming a division title. The way the Giants and Dodgers keep piling up wins during this captivating pennant race, one of them may soon be the first.