It’s a one-game playoff, except nobody is getting eliminated.
It’s for a division title, except both teams will still have a chance to win a championship.
In attempting to earn something, both teams will be actually be attempting to avoid something.
Because the Dodgers and Colorado Rockies each won their regular-season finales Sunday, they finished the season tied atop the National League West, and thus will meet at Dodger Stadium on Monday afternoon in a showdown for, oh, about three-fourths of the marbles.
Welcome to Game 163, which offers a different twist on the cliché generally used to describe such occasions.
It’s do or wild card.
It’s two teams already assured of playoff spots fighting to avoid the worst of all playoff spots, the dreaded wild-card game.
“It’s kind of like win or go home, but not really,” said pitcher Walker Buehler.
It’s actually winand go home. While the winner will get to open the postseason at home in a five-game division series against the Atlanta Braves, the loser will have to immediately travel to Milwaukee or Chicago to play a true winner-take-all game traditionally fraught with danger. The Brewers and Cubs will be playing their own Game 163 for the National League Central title three hours earlier, with both of them trying to avoid that same game.
Only two of the previous 12 wild-card-game winners have advanced to the World Series. No playoff team wants to begin its journey like that. The Dodgers would be thrilled that a victory would give them a sixth consecutive division title, but even more excited that it would keep them far away from that wild card.
“It’s a game where obviously it’s not do or die, but I think it’s a must-win game … get a couple of days off and host the division series, that’s very important,” Dodger manager Dave Roberts said.
It’s so important, the Dodgers held back Buehler from his scheduled start Sunday in the regular-season finale against the San Francisco Giants here so their hottest pitcher could pitch Monday. Instead, they started the recently inconsistent Rich Hill, taking the chance that the struggling Giants wouldn’t put up much of a fight.
Late Sunday morning, I argued that this was a wrong decision, that the Dodgers needed their best pitcher in this must-win situation. An opposing view was held by this newspaper’s Dodgers beat writer, Andy McCullough, who felt it was a smart move.
“Look at the Giants lineup, look at Rich Hill, the Dodgers are going to win 15-0,” he said before the game.
The Dodgers won, 15-0.
The game felt over after just three Dodgers batters had faced Giants rookie Andrew Suarez. Leadoff hitter Chris Taylor walked on six pitches, then, with Taylor running, Justin Turner doubled to right field on the eighth pitch of a brilliant plate appearance. Two pitches later, the revelation named David Freese – this late-arriving vet has been huge -- singled to right to score Turner.
This is the kind of hitting that can carry the Dodgers in the coming weeks, the kind of hitting the Dodgers have been missing throughout much of this season.
“From the first at-bat … there was a lot of linked-up, quality at-bats,” Turner said.
The 16 Dodgers hits left it in the hands of Hill, looking as sharp as he has looked all season, allowing two hits in seven innings with seven strikeouts.
Afterward, in perfectly awkward fashion, the Dodgers celebrated a regular-season tie by Yasiel Puig dumping some Starburst on the head of Matt Kemp.
The ball is now handed to the rookie Buehler, which is the exact opposite of what happened in the Dodgers franchise’s only other one-game playoff, in 1980, when manager Tom Lasorda infamously decided to start veteran Dave Goltz instead of rookie Fernando Valenzuela and the Dodgers lost 7-1 at home to the Houston Astros.
Roberts will not risk the same mistake, his eyes opened after watching Buehler allow more than two runs only once in his last seven starts while fashioning a 2.76 ERA for the season. The kid is renowned for being, um, self-assured, but Roberts loves that attitude for this situation.
“Right now, he’s our best,” Roberts said of Buehler, later adding, “There’s guys that want to be in this spot, and there’s guys who want to run from it. Walker is a guy we know wants to be in this moment.”
It is a moment that is bigger than any division title, and not only because the game will be exclusively on ESPN, meaning that the many Los Angeles households that do not receive the Dodgers’ SportsNet LA channel will finally get to watch the team for one of the few times this season.
“This is a must win for us,” Kemp said. “I don’t think we want to go to the East Coast to play a one-game playoff. We’d rather have a series.”
Right about now, some of you might be wondering why the Dodgers are even playing in this game in the first place, and curious why I’m not ripping the Washington Nationals for suddenly deciding not to use rested ace Max Scherzer on Sunday against the Rockies in Colorado’s 12-0 victory.
No criticism here. It’s not the Nationals’ responsibility to hand the division to the Dodgers. The Dodgers should have taken care of that long ago, maybe when they were going 1-6 against the Cincinnati Reds and 2-4 against the Miami Marlins.
The Dodgers know that, other than the two times he faced them this year, his team going 1-1 in those starts, nothing about their season has anything to do with Scherzer.
“They made a decision and we still have to go out there and win ourselves,” Roberts said.
Win or board a plane to Milwaukee. Win or catch a flight to Chicago. Win or play a game about 24 hours later with a shredded pitching staff and nine innings from elimination.