KILLIAN: New Wild Card has made baseball better than ever

The NHL season began Tuesday night with some competitive opening contests. College football and the NFL have been as exciting as ever. But America’s pastime is stealing the spotlight this fall.

Baseball fans have been spoiled the last three seasons with more drama in the final weeks of September than a year’s worth of Univision telenovelas.

In 2011, the Tampa Bay Rays and St. Louis Cardinals punched postseason tickets in Game 162. In 2012, the first one-game Wild Card rounds took place. And this season, improbable as it seems, the Wild Card got even wilder.

Tampa Bay defeated the Texas Rangers Monday in the play-in game before the Wild Card game after tying for the second Wild Card spot. Tuesday, the Pittsburgh Pirates won their first playoff game since 1992 to sail into the National League Division Series. And on Wednesday night, the Rays defeated the Cleveland Indians.

Some, including ESPN’s Doug Glanville, have argued that the one-game format is “inconsistent with a game that has been going on for six months with rotations of pitchers and teams playing to win a series of games.”

Sometimes, a team’s ace pitcher might not be slated for the season-deciding matchup or the classic “any given game” mentality leads to an underdog upsetting a presumed favorite. These issues lead critics to believe that a one-game sample size is simply irrational after such a long and arduous regular season.

But recently baseball hasn’t been a game won on paper and predictions. It’s been a game of improbable moments and unforeseen intangibles. It’s Dave Roberts’ stolen base sparking the Boston Red Sox’s rally from a 0-3 series deficit to win the 2004 ALCS. It’s David Freese’s rise to stardom for the Cardinals in the 2011 playoffs. Ultimately, it’s the unheralded factors that have made the difference.

In this sense, the new Wild Card has fully captured the storied spirit of baseball. The game has been given a level of win-or-die intrigue that rivals college basketball’s March Madness. Also, like March Madness, it’s given more opportunity for the “little men” to shine.

The storylines continue this weekend with the beards in Boston adding another chapter to one of the best rivalries in recent years with the Rays. The Oakland A’s hope to avenge last season’s ALDS loss to the imposing Detroit Tigers. The Pirates and Cardinals will decide the “real” NL Central champion, and we’ll see if the Los Angeles Dodgers’ dominating rotation is postseason-ready against the retooled and reloaded Atlanta Braves.

This October will be another one to remember, and when the World Series champion is finally crowned the pressure will be on next season to reach new heights of exhilaration.