Major League Baseball introduced the second Wild Card team in 2012 to a mixed crowd. However, it was soon apparent that a one-game playoff held a lot of excitement that the casual fan could not find in a five or seven-game series. It was not too long ago that baseball purists scoffed at the idea of a Wild Card winner in the first place.
The Wild Card was introduced in 1995 after the labor strike of 1994 removed the end of the 1994 season and the start of the 1995 campaign. The New York Yankees and Colorado Rockies were the first Wild Card winners, and while both teams lost in the first round, the series between the Yankees and Seattle Mariners is something few baseball fans can forget. The Yankees were up two games-to-none in the five-game set, only to have the Mariners win games three, four, and five. In Game Five, the Yankees took a one-run lead in the 11th inning, but the Mariners scored two in the bottom half to snatch the series. Recently, Game Five was rated as the 15th “greatest game” in baseball history on the MLB Network. Of course, without a Wild Card it never would have happened.
With the introduction of the second Wild Card, Baseball Magazine wanted to look back from that 1995 season to 2011 to see what teams would have really benefited from getting a chance as the second Wild Card and possibly change baseball history with a run deep into October. Here is a look at the teams that have been long forgotten, but perhaps should not have been.
The 1999 Cincinnati Reds – Honorable Mention
Do you remember when it was common place for multiple teams to win over 100 games each year? The Cincinnati Reds sure do. In 1999, the Reds went 96-67 and completely missed the playoffs. The New York Mets won their final four games of the season and forced a one-game playoff with the Reds for the right to the only Wild Card spot. Realistically, this game was a perfect preview of the Two Wild Card system. The Mets won the game 5-0 behind a complete game shutout from Al Leiter and home runs from Rickey Henderson and Edgardo Alfonzo. Of course, this Reds team only receives the honorable mention because they actually had a one-game playoff chance, unlike the others on this list.
The 2000 Cleveland Indians
The 2000 Indians went 90-72, finishing one game behind the Mariners for the Wild Card. Unlike many teams during this era that missed the Wild Card by faltering down the stretch, the Indians had a surge to end the season. The Indians won five of their final six games and went 19-12 after August 31st. Unfortunately for the Indians, the Mariners pulled off a stretch in September winning ten of eleven games. The Indians were stacked offensively, featuring Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, Roberto Alomar, Travis Fryman, and David Justice. While they didn’t have the pitching to match, they definitely could have given the Mariners a run for their money in a one game playoff with a 27-year old Bartolo Colon on the hill and this offense. Instead, the Mariners swept the Chicago White Sox out of the playoffs before being eliminated by the Yankees.
The 2004 Oakland Athletics
No list compiling near misses in the playoffs is complete without the Oakland Athletics. In 2004 the A’s went 91-71. While the Red Sox took the Wild Card easily with 98 wins, the A’s lost their division by one game to the Anaheim Angels. They controlled their own destiny, as their final three-game set of the year was against the Angels. They lost two of the final three to give the division to the Angels. However, if they had one shot against the Red Sox, they may have had a great chance to move on.
This was the tail end of the Mark Mulder–Tim Hudson era. Hudson had two complete game shutouts that season, but Mulder had success against Boston that season, pitching in a 15-2 Oakland victory. He actually walked seven that day, his highest total of the season, but kept the damage to a minimum. Between Mulder and Hudson, Oakland could have kept a one-game playoff close enough for their low budget offense to muster the runs to put the A’s into the next round.
There are a number of teams that just missed the Wild Card from 1995-2011. That does not necessarily mean that those are the teams that had the best chance to make noise in the playoffs. For instance, the 2011 Atlanta Braves lost the final five games of the season to finish one game out of the Wild Card to the eventual World Series-winning St. Louis Cardinals.
Many of the near miss teams would have had the future of their teams changed with playoff appearances. We can see today that teams buy in July hoping for a second Wild Card push. A decade ago, those same teams would be selling off pieces to rebuild. For what it is worth, The Red Sox, Mariners, and Giants would have won the second Wild Card, or at least tied for it, four times in those 17 years. The Red Sox and Giants eventually found playoff success, but who knows where the Mariners would be today if they had those four extra shots in the playoffs? Lastly, the Yankees dynasty from 1996-2000 could have been drastically different with a second Wild Card.