Nick Markakis lined out to first. Wasted. Eduardo Nunez grounded out to third. Wasted. Billy Butler grounded out to second. Wasted.
The Baltimore Orioles, New York Yankees, and Kansas City Royals were eliminated about as ordinary as any team could have – after weeks of excitement, weeks that only led to postseason chances wasted.
Besides a young offense missing the show, a retirement party cut short, and West Missouri writing the number 28 next to a frown in notes, the American League Wild Card race, despite all its wonder, despite all its grittiness, despite all its closeness, was shaved down to the boring, ordinary, mundane – bleh! – three-team race. Only the Tampa Bay Rays, the Cleveland Indians, and the Texas Rangers were still in the hunt for the Wild Card spots. The big party that raged for weeks instantly met an expected-but-sad end a few days ago, killing the dream of six teams tied for the Wild Cards after Game 162.
But it is not the general gloom for Major League Baseball fans that is worth noting; it’s the fact that it did end. One of the substantial stories of the 2013 American League season is, so many teams wasted golden opportunities to win the Wild Cards.
It started eons ago, really. At least two of these three Orioles, Yankees, and Royals clubs have been within five games of a Wild Card spot for months. The fact that the trio stayed in the race until a week ago means they were at least close to playoff-ready (hint: only one really was). There were scares in New York and Kansas City, but neither fell into the double-digit land of irrelevance; they stayed close enough to peck away and get their feet moving.
And then it was September 11, and New York, Baltimore, and Kansas City were within two games of a postseason berth.
None of the three would get closer than a game behind after that.
It was then 1 game back for New York, 2.5 for Baltimore, 2.5 for Kansas City; then 2, 2.5, 3.5; 3, 3.5, 3.5; and so on until the eliminations happened back-to-back days, September 24 and September 25.
But it was the numbers – the dreaded numbers – that showed how they squandered opportunities to look so much better. Even if they couldn’t puncture the one game deficit after the 11th, they were still within closing distance for days upon days after that. They didn’t fall further than three games behind the second Wild Card until September 21. September 21! Even as late as eight days before the end of the regular season, six teams could have won two postseason berths.
The Baltimore Orioles were the first to waste that opportunity. Probably the most ironic of the trio because their success was more full proof this season than it was in 2012, the O’s were in it in it for the longest time of the failures. From the beginning of the season, Baltimore was in prime position to move into first for a playoff position – and in fact, they were in first place in a Wild Card spot more than once in 2013. The team that was close from practically Day One and was 1.5 back of October on September 11? That’s just a big tease.
But they certainly were felled in a classic, failing manner. The O’s lost 10 of 14 games from mid- to late-September, including six in a row while they were crashing out of the race, and a sweep by the hands of the Wild Card-leading Tampa Bay Rays when Baltimore were 2.5 games behind a Wild Card. It’s hard to see them as complete failures, though, when they lost that four-game series to Tampa Bay by a combined total of only eight runs, and were beaten in an 18-inning game on a walk-off. But even so, who told the Orioles to not make moves for more starting pitching before the trade deadline? Baltimore may have had the Yankees and Indians as some of their competition back then, two teams arguably worse than them, but Baltimore knew from the beginning of the season that their lasso was starting pitching. A postseason team needs a good rotation, and the O’s simply weren’t that potent (no starter had an ERA+ higher than 116, despite the O’s having an Ultimate Zone Rating of 46.2). When battling Tampa Bay’s, Oakland’s, and Kansas City’s rotations over the course of more than half a year, a starting five that can keep pace might be a wise idea, especially when two of those opposing teams can hit too. That would have made the trade deadline a little bit more of a useful resource. Instead, the 1.413 Walks-Plus-Hits-Per-Innings-Pitched Bud Norris was the crown achievement? Sure, that’s taking advantage of meaningful late-season baseball.
Then there are the Yankees. The portrayal of an absurd season via money, the Yankees are the biggest disappointments of them all. They utterly tossed a golden opportunity to give meaning to their circus of a season. They were a team mired in A-Rod problems, injuries, players retiring, and contract issues – not to mention their offense and pitching was lackluster most of the season. Yet, they could have ended up in the postseason, just a game back of a spot on the 11th of September. Understandably, the Boston Red Sox series pushed them back in the standings; there may be no better team in baseball than John Farrell’s team, especially when they throttled the Yanks 56-32 in their last seven meetings. But New York was still close to the playoffs. They were a little sparrow rising from the egg – yes, you couldn’t do much, New York Yankees, but you nearly cracked the shell. And how could they not shatter the shell that belonged to the saddest bird of them all, the Toronto Blue Jays? Instead, they lost that September 17-to-September 19 series to the team with the worst record in the division, a club with abysmal pitching, a group with 20 mocking years sounding louder than ever. It’s not always so easy for everyone on the planet to be able to identify what destroyed a team’s season; that’s how notable the series loss was for the Yankees, leading them into four losses in six games with 10 days to go, after coming in to the Rogers Centre only 3.5 games back, and no hope of salvaging one last October appearance for Mariano Rivera.
Don’t think we forgot about you, Kansas City! A failure nearly as bad as the Yankees’ wasted chance for celebratory champagne, the Royals on paper deserved to be vilified the worst. Despite how awful Wade Davis was this season, the Royals’ pitching was stellar. Between the rotation, bullpen, and defense, the Royals were among the best in the league in preventing runners from touching home plate. James Shields and Ervin Santana were on the right side of consistent this year, both posting earned run averages under 3.30, giving up fewer hits than innings pitched, and both having strikeout-to-walk ratios of at least 2.8. Greg Holland was out of this world in 2013, relinquishing fewer hits and walks than his 66 innings pitched, making Luke Hochevar (1.95 ERA) look like tuna fish next to salmon. And when a team has defense levels ahead everyone else, they make their starters and relievers look even prettier.
And yet, the Royals didn’t make the postseason. A team that was deadly at preventing the run from scoring, and worlds better at hitting than they were early in the season, was the most bounced-around of the three failing teams, fluctuating from too far back in the standings to right on the heels of the Rays and others. Rotation, bullpen, and defense – they had the three most important categories for the playoffs, but couldn’t get over themselves. They had no room for error, but ended up losing nine games in September. If this team entered the playoffs, they would have made noise; not a bedlam, but noise nonetheless, even with some rotation depth issues.
But there’s another: If they fail to win a playoff ticket, the Texas Rangers actually join their Wild Card contemporaries as wasters. Let’s forget that they started the campaign 34-20. The Rangers have a good amount of postseason experience, more so than the Orioles and Royals, and have a number of starters who any team needs to watch out for. Yu Darvish, Derek Holland, Alexi Ogando – all have good control, with WHIPs under 1.3. The bullpen, too, is strong with Neal Cotts, Tanner Scheppers, Joe Nathan, and more. It’s an entire pitching staff and defense that has surrendered only 3.91 runs a game. They were either in the division lead or in front for a Wild Card for weeks late in the season – before losing both to the Oakland Athletics and Cleveland Indians, respectively. Overall, the Rangers played 41-37 baseball in the final three months of the season, including playing five games under .500 in September. However powerful the pitching may be, the hot-and-cold nature of the club, not unlike other Wild Card-fighting squads, is the only reason Texas is shuddering heading into the final weekend of September. The team that dominated most of baseball two years ago looks dangerously wobbly, going from 2.5 games up in the division to six games behind in less than a month.
An argument could be made that the Yankees, Orioles, and Royals would have been lucky to have made the postseason. Indeed, the Yankees have many flaws – hitting, defense, rotation – and are so overall thin in numerous departments that they never should have even been as close to October as they were; the Orioles lack starting pitching to put them over the edge of many other teams; and the Royals suffer from a perceived lack of hitting, making their starters work on thin ice, which is much more evident since the Rays can hit and pitch. However, all of these teams – with the exception of the Yankees – are better than the Cleveland Indians, who are a Wild Card team. What does that tell you about luck’s luck?
Every year in every Major League Baseball season, there are teams that waste opportunities to make their seasons worthwhile. Going cold in the second half, not capitalizing on a powerful team starting slow, having players undervalued – as unfair as MLB is, any team can make the postseason. A war of attrition is tiring; not even the best clubs can always survive it. But when you have openings to advance practically every week – chances to just make the postseason even when you don’t deserve to be there – then you’re letting potential hot runs to the World Series slip into dust. Wasted, wasted, wasted; you can place the label on these American League teams on more than one occasion. You can tape it on dozens of more times. Because that’s how often the Orioles, Yankees, Royals, and maybe the Rangers, could have made a push, started a surge to get into first place like the Indians did. It could have been a wild final days of September. Instead, the absurd AL Wild Card race was downgraded to exciting, all in the span of days. Wasted.