Wild-card wizardry: Hamilton, Salazar could be key
Major league teams start spring training in February, grind through 162 games — or 163, for Texas and Tampa Bay — and if they’re lucky, reach the playoffs. For wild cards, it’s a chance to become a World Series champion. Or have a whole season’s worth of work wiped out in nine innings.
Five things to know about wild-card games:
SECRET WEAPON: Looking for an X-factor? Try speedy Billy Hamilton, who debuted late this year for Cincinnati. He stole a record 155 bases in the minors last season, then swiped 13 of 14 for the Reds in September. Perhaps as a pinch-runner, his dash could decide a tight game Tuesday night in Pittsburgh. Maybe it’s gamesmanship, but Reds manager Dusty Baker isn’t saying yet whether Hamilton will be on the postseason roster.
SEEN HIM?: OK, it might seem like a risk for the Indians to start rookie Danny Salazar in a winner-take-all game Wednesday night at Cleveland. But, the 23-year-old righty throws a 100 mph fastball and struck out 65 in only 52 innings. Remember, too: No batters from the Rays have seen him.
C’MON, UMP!: Chipper Jones and the Atlanta Braves found out last fall how risky it can be to let an entire season tilt on one play. Umpire Sam Holbrook’s infield fly call sent fans running for the rule book and set off a huge debate on what constitutes “ordinary effort.” A bad hop, a blooper or a missed ump’s call such as the one in the Rays-Rangers game — anything can make the difference when it gets down to one game.
SUCCESS RATE: Five wild-card teams have won the World Series, including the 2011 Cardinals and the 2004 Red Sox. But that was before baseball changed the playoff format last year, creating a wild-card playoff. MLB wanted to put a premium on winning a division title and make it harder for wild cards to advance by adding the extra game.
WAITING GAME: It seems to become a question every October — rest or rust? Detroit had a long layoff before last year’s World Series and Tigers hitters lost their timing. Boston and St. Louis each have several days off this week before hosting the wild-card winners.