For Orioles and fans, wild card format is about pressure, nerves

There is something both irresistible and agonizing about the single-elimination wild-card game, the hotly debated win-or-go-home playoff the Orioles and their anxious fans are facing Tuesday for the second time since Major League Baseball introduced the format four years ago.

It's baseball's version of a scary movie: unnerving as it unfolds, but rapturous for those fans whose team is the one left standing at the end.

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"Nerve-racking," said longtime Orioles fan Tommy Pluff, a highway construction worker from Aberdeen who sports a tattoo of the Oriole bird on his calf. After six months and 162 games, he said, "you would think maybe they'd make it a two-game or three-game series.

"You've got to take what they give you, I guess."

The Orioles face the Blue Jays on Tuesday night in Toronto. They are the first American League team to make a second appearance in the wild-card game since the format was introduced in 2012. They beat the Texas Rangers that year.

The wild-card game pits the teams with the best records that didn't win their divisions in a single-game playoff to advance to the divisional round.

The Orioles and Blue Jays finished four games behind the Boston Red Sox in the American League East with identical 89-73 records. The Blue Jays won home field by edging the Orioles in the season series 10-9.

Before 2012, there was only one wild-card team in each league. The team with the best record that didn't win its division advanced to the divisional round for a full series with the division winner with the best record.

Major League Baseball added the second wild card to sustain more excitement in more cities deeper into the season.

"From the perspective of everyone, it's worked out really well in terms of adding another team to the mix," Major League Baseball spokesman Patrick Courtney said. "It has created more interest — we went right down to the wire."

The Orioles and Blue Jays didn't qualify for the wild card until Sunday, the last day of the regular season.

Since fans didn't know whether Baltimore would qualify for the postseason — or where the team might play — die-hard backers scrambled to make last-minute travel plans to Toronto.

That meant nonstop, round-trip airfares topping $1,500 (connecting trips for a bit less), or the prospect of a 16-hour drive, there and back. Ballpark tickets at Rogers Centre are playoff-priced, too: Upper-level seats for Tuesday's game were listed on StubHub between $81 and $125.

Most fans will watch on television.

"If they're behind I get up and pace," said Dawn Smith, a longtime fan in Dover, Pa.

The Orioles team store at Camden Yards was selling black T-shirts with "Made for October" in orange on the front, and caps reading "Postseason 2016."

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Critics of the new wild-card format say the elimination contests settle the regular-season marathon with the baseball equivalent of a coin toss. In a sport in which the best teams win only 60 percent of the time, they say, a single game is inadequate to pick a winner.

"You're playing 162 games over six months and boiling it down to one game," said Jason Rollison, managing editor and founder of the Pirates Breakdown blog. "It's just a dice roll."

Pittsburgh has played in the National League wild-card game three years in a row. The Pirates won their first contest in 2013, but lost the last two by a combined score of 12-0.

In the losses, they had the misfortune of facing two of the sport's best pitchers: Madison Bumgarner of the San Francisco Giants and former Oriole Jake Arrieta of the Chicago Cubs.

"I feel badly for Pittsburgh the past two years," said ESPN broadcaster Dan Shulman, who will call Wednesday night's National League wild-card game between the Giants and New York Mets.

"There is the argument that one game might not show who is the better team but who has the better leading pitcher. I understand it might not quote-unquote be fair, but nobody said life is fair.

"I think it's worked out great. A one-game playoff is about as exciting as it gets."

The thrill-ride feel is part of the rationale for the wild-card games, Courtney said. They are games with instant consequences, on par with March Madness — the single-elimination NCAA basketball tournament — or the decisive Game 7 of a long postseason series.

"What everyone desires is a Game 7," Courtney said. "What you're doing is starting out the postseason with a Game 7."

If the high-stakes games are taxing for fans, imagine the toll and pressure on the players.

"This is about the next 27 outs," said Orioles infielder Manny Machado. "We've been grinding the whole year and we've dealt with a lot of adversity and a lot of stuff. It's coming down to one game."

If the Orioles win the wild-card game, they'll head to Arlington, Texas, on Thursday for Game 1 of a five-game American League Division Series against the Rangers.

"Let's face it. These guys are, I'm not saying beat up, but it's 162 games, especially the wild-card teams," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "They've had to play every game with no sense of wiggle room or a safety net. It's been a constant. And that can be good — make you tested for it — but it does wear on you."

The length of the season is part of the reason Major League Baseball felt it couldn't allow wild-card teams more than one game.

A wild-card playoff series "would elongate the postseason," Courtney said, "and teams having to wait to play isn't necessarily viewed as a positive by the clubs."

This season's World Series could extend as far as Nov. 2.

"Even to do a two-out-of-three wild-card series takes too much time," said Phil Wood, who broadcasts Washington Nationals games. "Playing baseball in November isn't appealing to everybody."

Baltimore Sun reporter Colin Campbell contributed to this article.

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