February 26, 2024
Attendance around MLB is up 9.1%, but the winner of the NL's third wild card has a chance to be one of the worst playoff teams ever, by run differential.

Welcome to the race to the bottom for the third National League wild card. The finish should be thrilling, if not pretty, and it’s precisely what Major League Baseball signed up for when it expanded the postseason to six teams per league before last season.

Engaged fanbases. Heated races. Mediocre play.

The San Francisco Giants are a flawed baseball team. That much has been on display for the better part of three months, now, and was only made clearer as they went 1-6 on their past road trip to drop them all the way back to .500.

But the good news, Giants fans, is that so are Diamondbacks. And the Marlins. And the Reds.

And one of those teams will be playing in October.

“It’s probably gonna come down to the last day,” outfielder Mike Yastrzemski said of the race last week.

In fact, the competition has been so underwhelming, that multiple people within the Giants organization suggested that they wouldn’t count out the Padres, who had just taken them to town for three out of four games. (San Diego went on to lose two of three to the Phillies.)

The Padres, after all, have outscored their opponents this season (by a 64-run margin). It hasn’t translated to a winning record (due to a dreadful 6-22 mark in one-run games, 0-11 in extra innings), but it’s a historically significant measure of success that none of the Giants (minus-19), Diamondbacks (minus-14), Reds (minus-37) or Marlins (minus-44) can claim.

There have only been nine teams in MLB history to make the postseason with a negative run differential, and four came during shortened seasons (three in 2020). It’s worth noting that last season, the NL’s third wild card, the Phillies, reached the World Series, and the race on the American League side this year is shaping up to even leave one deserving club home.

But whether or not the baseball’s good, it’s good for baseball.

Attendance leaguewide is up 9.1% from last season, at an average of 28,989 per game, on pace for the largest year-over-year increase since 1992-93. Twenty four teams are on pace to outdraw last season, the top of the list basically replicating the wild card standings — Phillies (plus-9,877 per game), Reds (7,147), D-backs (4,126), Marlins (2,777) — though the Giants (minus-141) are absent.

Chalk up some of that to the new rules, no doubt. Games are shorter and more action-packed. They’re playing faster (2:41 on average) than anytime since the 1980s and stealing bases like never before (the 80% success rate on pace for an all-time high).

But there are also more teams in it than ever before. As we saw at a quieter-than-usual trade deadline, when few premium players were made available, everyone believes they’re a contender these days. Before last season, the Giants’ 1-6 road trip, featuring a sweep at the hands of the club in front of them in the wild card standings, would have been the dagger in their season.

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Yet, here they are, still, with the ability to take their playoff fate back into their own hands.

A make-or-break homestand against the cellar-dwelling Rockies and sub-.500 Guardians begins Friday night. That’s followed by four more at Coors Field before the Giants close with 12 straight against the D-backs, Padres and Dodgers.

“Understanding that each game matters, when you get a chance to beat somebody, you’d better do it,” Yastrzemski said. “We’ve just got to play our best, and I think we’re only going to do that if we enjoy the moment.

“We’ve got a good opportunity in front of us, and if we start thinking about the opportunity, we’re probably going to handcuff ourselves. But if we just go out there, play our game and have fun, you can go home and rest your head at night and sleep well.”

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