MLB playoffs 2023: Stop blaming layoff for Braves, Orioles and Dodgers starting slow

We’re about a week into what has been an entertaining postseason, full of emerging phenoms like Evan Carter, and underrated stars shining on the big stage, like Pablo Lopez.

Instead, because of a couple of unexpected losses to start the Division Series round, the baseball world seems to be focused on another topic. All anyone seems to want to talk about is days off and byes and rust and the inability of baseball’s elite athletes to stay sharp. How is baseball going to fix this horrible, awful problem with the playoff format, almost everyone — media and fans, not so much the players or coaches — is asking?

It’s a lot of noise, and when you boil the conversation down to its essence, you have this: People are upset that baseball is not coddling its top teams enough. 

That’s it. That’s the base argument. Word this however you want, that’s the “problem” that’s being discussed around the sport.

The Braves won 104 games, but overcoming a five-day layoff is too much to reasonably ask from even an historically epic offense, right? The Dodgers won 100 games but future Hall of Famer Clayton Kershaw showed all the sharpness of an old, worn piece of leather because they had a bye through the wild-card round. The Orioles’ incredible 100-loss-to-100-win storybook ride has been derailed because of excessive rest. 

Give me a break. 

Ask the Rays or Brewers if they would have rather played a Wild Card Series or gotten a bye into the second round. Tampa Bay won 99 games in the regular season but sure looked like the sloppy Devil Rays of old against the Rangers. Milwaukee cruised to the NL Central title but wasted multiple-run leads in both games as they were ousted by the Diamondbacks. 

What was their excuse? They weren’t sharp, either, but both teams flowed into the postseason, same rest as everyone else. Both teams had their aces lined up to start Game 1. Didn’t matter.

Sometimes, you just have to play better. 

Don’t we remember just last year, when the Mets won 101 games but lost the NL East tiebreaker to the Braves, so they had to play a Wild Card Series? They lost that best-of-three to the 89-win Padres, and Mets fans complained that the Braves got the bye.

It’s October. Play better. Sorry.

Can’t help but think of the quote from Jimmy Dugan in ‘A League of Their Own:’ “It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.” 

The hard is what makes baseball’s October great. 

Seriously, isn’t it kind of crazy that this is where we are, complaining that baseball isn’t coddling its best teams enough, not making it easy enough for them to advance? They already get to skip a round. They already get a few extra days to heal and set up their rotation and bullpens. They already get to play more games at home in October. The deck is already stacked.

How many advantages do they need? The next step, honestly, would be giving the top two seeds a 1-0 advantage in every playoff series, or have them start every game with a 3-0 lead before the first pitch. Those sound like baseball blasphemy, but the powers-that-be already decided to magically put runners on second in extra innings, so nothing’s really sacred.  

Want to advance in October? Play better. 

Look at how the Braves, Dodgers and Orioles lost. The Dodgers lost because Kershaw was abysmal against a division foe. He made his last start of the regular season on Sept. 30, meaning he had six days between starts. Kershaw had a 2.23 ERA in the last two months of the season; his days off between starts in August and September: 5, 6, 5, 6, 10, 6, 6. Huh.

MORE: Inside Clayton Kershaw’s ugly postseason stats

The 104-win Braves were shut out in Game 1 by the 90-win Phillies. The gap between those two teams isn’t nearly what those record seem to indicate, though. In the last 105 games of the season, the Braves had 71 wins, the Phillies had 65. From July 25 to the end of the regular season, the Braves had 40 wins, the Phillies had 37. And there’s this: The Phillies constructed a game plan — and a pitching roster — specifically to target Atlanta’s lineup should they meet in the postseason, as detailed in this fantastic piece by Matt Gelb in The Athletic. 

The Orioles are a fantastic story, but they also have a roster full of talented youngsters with a scarce amount of playoff experience. And, remember, the Rangers were neck-and-neck with the O’s for the AL’s best record for most of the season, before a slump took them out of that race. Now, they’re playing like the offensive juggernaut they were for most of the year. Yeah, the Orioles are the No. 1 seed in the AL and they are in big trouble but it’s not like they’re losing the the University of Maryland-Baltimore County here, folks. 

MORE: Full bracket, 2023 postseason schedule

So, yeah, baseball’s three 100-plus win teams are in trouble. Their playoff lives are on the line, a stunning turn of events after regular seasons spent in pursuit of excellence. 

But it’s not the format’s fault. Excessive rest is not the root of the problem. 

The teams that are playing the best in in the postseason will advance. Same as it’s always been for October baseball. More format coddling isn’t the answer. To open the Division Series round, the Braves, Dodgers and Orioles didn’t play like the best teams in baseball, and so they’re trailing in their series. It’s that simple. 

Play better, move on. Don’t play well, go home.

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