NEW YORK – Brian Dozier likes to mock the notion, and honestly, it gets him a little riled up.
“You’re telling me that something that happened in 2006 [actually 2004, but forget it, he’s rolling] is supposed to affect what this team does?” the Twins’ most vocal advocate said, his Mississippi twang drawing out the words for maximum sneerage. “I gar-awn-tee you, you can ask 99 percent of the people in [this clubhouse], and they’ll have no idea what you’re talking about. The Yankees used to beat the Twins a long time ago — so what? We don’t care a bit about that. We just play.”
That puts to bed, as far as the Twins are concerned, any notion that New York’s nine-game postseason winning streak against the Twins, and the Yankees’ 12-2 domination over four postseason series, will be on their minds Tuesday night, when those two teams meet in a single-elimination showdown at Yankee Stadium. But even if that record of futility meant something, Dozier points out, there’s another factor that negates it.
“Besides,” Dozier said, “it’s just one game. Any team can win one game.”
With that, the six-year veteran, who will be participating in his first playoff game as a professional, distilled into one sentence one of the biggest objections that Major League Baseball faced when it created the one-game wild-card playoff in 2012. The game of baseball revolves around series, around establishing over a number of games, which team is deeper and better. Three- or four-game series in the regular season, best-of-five or seven to determine a champion.
One game? “It’s kind of a coin flip,” Twins manager Paul Molitor said. “You’ve just got to take your shot.”
The Twins are a wild-card team for the first time this season, but they — or their forerunners, as Dozier would insist — have some experience at this one-and-done business. In back-to-back seasons, 2008 and again in 2009, they finished the regular season tied for the AL Central title, and were forced into a Game 163 to settle the matter.
The first time, they engaged in a pitchers’ duel against the White Sox in Chicago. Nick Blackburn and John Danks kept the game scoreless until the seventh inning, when Jim Thome, a future Twin who was then with the White Sox, drilled a 400-foot solo home run to center field, the lone run in a 1-0 loss.
A year later, they sent out the Metrodome in crazy fashion, beating Detroit 6-5 in 12 innings in the Dome’s final — and arguably most thrilling — regular-season game. The Twins fell behind, went ahead, wound up in extra innings, and had to rally once again. There were plays at the plate, clutch hits galore, and Alexi Casilla finally driving in his buddy Carlos Gomez in the 12th, setting off pandemonium not seen since the Twins’ World Series run.
You want to talk about the randomness of any single game? That rollicking night was the only win of journeyman righthander Bobby Keppel’s major league career.
That game had longer-lasting implications than anyone may have realized at the time, too. In fact, it probably played a role in the Twins’ meeting with the Yankees on Tuesday.
MLB Commissioner Bud Selig created a three-division format for each league in 1995, with the best second-place team also qualifying for the playoffs. But after a decade under that system, concerns were raised that there was little incentive to win a division title for teams that had that wild-card slot locked up, a fact that watered down some pennant races.
Then came a series of one-game playoffs: the two involving the Twins, both one-run thrillers, and an epic Rockies-Padres 163rd in 2007 that was also full of fireworks, finally ending with a dramatic blown save by Trevor Hoffman in the 13th inning.
With so much riding on those games, TV ratings were stunning. The Twins-Tigers game drew more than 6 million viewers, the highest-rated game of the entire season and 2 million more than the average for the Division Series games that followed it. It didn’t take long for MLB owners to begin stumping for another expansion of the postseason field, with the added feature of two of those one-game playoffs guaranteed each year. It had the advantage of creating a greater incentive for winning your division, gave more teams hope that they could quality for the playoffs, didn’t extend the postseason by more than a day or two, and ensured a dramatic kickoff to every October.
Selig admitted to the New York Times that he preferred a best-of-three series, but his 14-member rules committee convinced him otherwise.
Adding a wild-card team has been a success, as the Twins, their six-year postseason drought finally over thanks to the extra berth.
“As the second wild card, I am fully supportive of this endeavor,” deadpanned Twins General Manager Thad Levine. But he recognizes — he has experienced, actually — the flip side of the one-game format. The Rangers were the first AL team to lose a wild-card play-in game, back in 2012, while Levine worked for Texas.
“After 162 games, it’s tough to have your fate decided by one game. And you want your fans to experience and celebrate a home game,” Levine said. “In Texas, there was kind of an eerie feeling that maybe you would be better served to make a run late and fall one game short, than get into the playoffs and lose that game, because afterward, there’s a sense of failing.”
Michael Cuddyer played a major role in the Twins’ Game 163 win and loss — he was thrown out at the plate trying to score on a fly ball to Ken Griffey Jr. in the 2008 game, then tripled and scored the tying run in the 10th inning of the 2009 game — and said that an extra game to settle a tie seems logical. But telling a team that it has “made the playoffs,” then eliminating them after one fluky game? “As a player, I’m not a big fan of that,” Cuddyer said. “The postseason is supposed to be a reward, but it would be hard to feel that way if it lasts one day.”
That said, he’s looking forward to watching two of his former teams, the Twins on Tuesday and the Rockies at Arizona on Wednesday, try to survive that one-game hurdle as underdogs. “The atmosphere is electric. Both of those games were intense, some of the coolest moments I’ve ever experienced,” Cuddyer said. “It’s actually easier as a player than a fan. The fans build it all up, but players mostly don’t see all the hype, they just go play the game. There are butterflies, but once the first pitch it thrown, you focus on all the normal stuff of playing a game.”
That’s why Dozier doesn’t want to hear about the drawbacks of the format, or the intimidation of the Yankees.
“Would we be satisfied if we didn’t go any farther than nine more innings? Absolutely not,” he said. “But this is the playoffs. We earned this, and that’s special. When you’ve been in the trenches for five years and never made it, there’s nothing negative about it.”