The 110th World Series, which begins Tuesday in Kansas City, is shaping up as a collision between two teams that are polar opposites.
Eight games ago, the Royals began the playoffs with virtually no postseason experience. Everything that distinguishes October baseball from the summer game — the hovering blimps, the hundreds of unfamiliar faces gathered in front of the dugout during batting practice, the ticket requests from relatives long unseen — was new to all but three players.
The San Francisco Giants, on the other hand, are girding for their third World Series in five years. Since 2010, the furrowed- brow face of manager Bruce Bochy has been seen more on the Fox Network than promotions for “Family Guy.”
Poised with a been-there, done-that attitude about the playoffs, they’re 8-2.
Yet the Royals and the Giants share something in common — something that appears to have been an essential component of their momentum: Both advanced to the World Series by way of the revised and theoretically improved wild card format.
Between 1995 and 2011, one second-place team from each league qualified for playoffs that included the three division winners. The system more or less worked, but it had a serious flaw.
The wild card berth was tantamount to a division title, sapping some pennant races of their suspense. If, say, the Yankees and Red Sox were separated by one game in the standings but both assured of playoff advancement, there was no urgency to their showdown series on the last weekend of the season.
Finishing second was the same as finishing first, a bothersome quirk that enabled the then- Florida Marlins to hold two World Series victory parades without ever having won a regular-season title.
Commissioner Bud Selig, with consent from the players association, assembled a 14-member task force to tweak the wild card playoff format in 2012. The committee’s solution was nothing short of inspired: Add a second wild card team — expand the playoffs — all while restoring the necessity of finishing first.
Instead of owning a berth in a best-of-five series against a division winner, the wild cards would face each other in a playoff game that literally became a “play-in” game because the loser was going home.
“I’m excited,” Angels manager Mike Scioscia, who participated in the task force, said when the changes were approved. “It leans more heavily on the integrity of a season than the other system.”
I wonder if Scioscia is still excited about the wild card modifications. Once his first-place team clinched home-field advantage through the playoffs on Sept. 26 — after the Orioles lost to the Blue Jays — the Angels went into spring training mode.
The schedule called for a season-ending series at Safeco Field, but their heads and hearts were elsewhere during a three-game sweep at the hands of the Mariners. Three more days of inactivity followed the sweep.
While the Angels had shifted the gear to neutral, the Royals found themselves facing a buzz saw dangerous enough to rattle Indiana Jones: a one-game test of skill and will against the A’s, who scored five runs in the sixth inning to take a 7-3 lead.
You know how that turned out. The Royals slashed and dashed, pulled even after nine innings only to be down 8-7 going into the bottom of the 12th. They pushed across two runs, and in the snap of a finger — OK, not really, the game lasted 4 hours and 45 minutes — a dearth of playoff experience was no longer an issue for them.
“That game definitely did a lot for us,” first baseman Eric Hosmer told reporters the other day. “If anybody had nerves or anything going into that game, after that game they didn’t.”
Emboldened by their electrifying comeback, the Royals went on the road and survived two 11-inning thrillers against the Angels. The final stroke of the three-game sweep, back home in Kansas City, seemed destined, as did the four-game sweep of the Orioles.
Settling for a wild card berth is supposed to minimize a second- or third-place team’s ability to make it to the World Series, but it was the wild card game that transformed the Royals from happy campers content to be alive into cold-blooded winners.
The Giants were challenged by an even greater degree of difficulty: Having secured the second NL wild card, they were sent to Pittsburgh for a loser-out game against the Pirates.
Then Brandon Crawford stepped to the plate in the fourth inning and did something unprecedented — he became the first shortstop to hit a grand slam in a postseason game — and San Francisco coasted to an 8-0 victory.
The Giants were warming up, and the first-place Washington Nationals were sitting around, and by the time they met in the opener of the division series, at Washington, the team on the roll was the team forced to compete in the playoff — er, play-in — game.
Crazy, isn’t it? The format was changed to dignify the achievement of finishing first after six months, and, by extension, to put the runners-up after six months in a position associated with checkmate.
But the Royals found a way to the Fall Classic, and so did the Giants, and if you’re a baseball fan, this is as good as it gets.
May the best (second-place) team win.