In a breakthrough that was hailed as the forerunner of even more seismic shifts down the road, a special 14-man committee put together by Commissioner Bud Selig has announced the elimination of exactly one off-day from a postseason schedule that turned last year's championship competition into a joke. Thus it remains a joke, a bad joke with a punch line just a word or two shorter than it was in 2009.
"It's an important first step," said committee member Mike Scioscia, the Angels manager whose outraged reaction to being screwed by excessive off-days in last year's playoffs led to the formation of the committee, "and could lead to a really good [postseason] format eventually." Key word there is "eventually," as in "perhaps in our lifetimes" or "possibly soon enough that Scioscia will still be managing." With television dictating the essence of the ridiculous postseason schedule, it's a sure bet that, eventually or not, the schedule's prime focus will be money and not fair competition.
That's because the big change of the past few years is unlikely to be altered, namely Television's insistence that the World Series begin on a Wednesday in order to minimize competition with football and (possibly) get a bigger audience. As long as that World Series starting date is set in stone, it matters little what alterations are made for the earlier postseason series. All that the committee did this week was eliminate one grievous glitch in the League Championship Series. They got rid of the extra off-day, added a few years ago, between games 4 and 5. That's it. One entire off-day gone. Teams will now be forced to play three days in a row in the same stadium, as they did during the first century or so of postseason play. Two rainouts during an LCS in 2006, which affected travel days and disrupted the television schedule, were the cause of the added off-day, a typical Bud Selig overreaction though not as extreme as giving the home-field advantage in the World Series to the All-Star Game-winning league just because two managers ran out of pitchers in his hometown ballpark.
Scioscia's complaint last year was chiefly that the excessive days off (the Yankees won the title by playing 15 games in 29 days) prevented teams with what qualifies these days as a "deep" pitching staff were penalized because all teams were able to get by quite nicely with three starting pitchers and a couple of relievers. For more than three weeks, the Yankees never had to play more than two straight days. Granted, they earned a bit of this privilege by sweeping their Division Series from the Twins--but even there they played the three games over a five-day period, with a day off after each game. As a result, the Yankees were able to use a strict three-man rotation throughout the postseason; CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, and A.E. Pettitte each made five starts.
I think an even more important break the Yankees gained from the lazy schedule was getting more rest for Mariano Rivera. Thanks to the team playing essentially only every other day, Rivera was able to pitch in 12 of the 15 postseason games. Of course he was untouchable, as he has almost always been in the postseason; in 2009, he logged 16 innings and allowed only one run. Also typical of his postseason play, he was employed for more than one inning of work more than any other reliever of his generation, a whopping six times in a dozen appearances.
Could he have pitched in 12 of 15 games, going more than an inning in half of them, without all those days off? Nope. There is no evidence from the rest of his career that suggests such a possibility. In 2004, he pitched in 74 games, a career high, or fewer than one-half of his team's games. He had one stretch in June of 2004 where he pitched 7 times in 9 days, picking up 7 saves while allowing just one run, but he never pitched more than an inning in any of those games. There was a similar stretch in 2003, 7 games in 9 days, with 6 saves in 9 innings of work. Then he got five days off.
In 2009, at the overripe baseball age of 39, Rivera's toughest test during the regular came in July, when he pitched 5 times in 6 days. He got the save all 5 times but faced only 15 batters in 4 1/3 innings--and this followed seven days during which his only inning pitched was in the All-Star Game. So he was well-rested, and his final effort during this run was a one-batter save with nobody on base and a two-run lead.
When the 2009 postseason rolled around, Rivera got the call for the first six games played by the Yankees--over a 13-day period. Only once did he have to pitch two days in a row, and he did just fine, 2 1/3 scoreless innings en route to a 4-3 Yankees victory over the Angels in 13 innings in Game 2 of the ALCS. Following that hard labor, he pitched only three times in the next 11 days--of course, the Yankees only played 5 games (losing three) in those 11 days.
You get the idea. Cutting out the off-day following Game 4 of last year's ALCS wouldn't have made a damn bit of difference in the outcome. The postseason should be the most difficult challenge that teams face, a test of their talent, depth, versatility, and resilience. For the athletes, it shouldn't be the prelude to their November vacations it is now, allowing them to play golf half the time and get in some competition the other half. Make them work for those rings!
I hate to say it, but it's time that MLB took the lead from the NBA and the NHL. They have just as many tiers of postseason playoff rounds as baseball, and they use a simple formula for scheduling. Finish this series, take a day or two off, and start the next one. It doesn't matter what day of the week it is. The fans will figure out that the most important games of the year are being played, and they'll watch. Scioscia and Yankees manager Joe Girardi concurred yesterday that the current postseason schedule robs the players of a sense of "continuity". Baseball is an everyday sport from the start of spring training through the end of the regular season. That is, until we get to October (and now November, thanks to Commissioner Television). Then MLB takes its time, stepping daintily around the football behemoth and trying to wedge in a few games here and there when the turfheads might be distracted. But you know what? If hockey fans can find their games, baseball fans can find them, too--right where they should be, every day.