It’s easy to observe that every game counts equally over six months’ worth of season, but the sense of the stakes comes into focus when it’s one-or-done territory. And it’s even more interesting to talk about because of what changes about a team within a season. No matter how canny your team’s general manager, no matter how impressive your collection of talent might be on paper, no matter how sharp a manager of a team that your man in the dugout might be, the team you hope to win with in April doesn’t often resemble what you can count on come October.
Take the Indians’ Scott Kazmir, a classic example of a spring flier made good. His victory over the Twins puts the Indians in the driver’s seat in a three-team race, the one wild-card contender that controls its own destiny on the season’s last day despite a rotation that ranks behind the Astros in quality starts, with a total that betters just two other AL clubs (the Blue Jays and Twins).
When he came to Cleveland, Kazmir was an ex-famous ex-prospect picked up on the off chance that he had something left in the tank to help out from the Indians’ fifth slot of their rotation. A classic no-risk addition, he was the kind of guy whom you could discard if he didn’t pay off on the low-stakes gamble that he could do something resembling the strikeout-per-inning southpaw who helped propel the Rays to their only pennant back in 2008.
The Rays, aggressive asset managers that they are, swapped him out the next summer, trading him to the Angels for a package that included a couple of present-day Rays (supersub Sean Rodriguez and lefty Alex Torres). By 2011, Kazmir was on the ropes with a back injury, a guy forced to make his comeback in the Atlantic League in 2012 after seeing his strikeout rate drop below six K's per nine. He was, at best, a long shot.
Some long shot. That spin in the indie leagues and a memory of what he’d been got him his spring invite to Cleveland’s camp, and during the course of the season he has come from fifth afterthought to key component on a team that’s a win away from October action. His fastball velocity, which had bottomed out into mid-80s territory in 2011, now sits at 92 and sometimes comes back up into the mid-90s he used to reach with ease. He’s also become more effective than ever before at generating more ground-ball outs.
As a result, Kazmir’s ERA since the All-Star break is a full run less than it was beforehand. In that time he’s striking out a man per inning again, something he hasn’t done in the major leagues since 2008. As his single-season career-best 3.43 xFIP from FanGraphs this year suggests, Scott Kazmir may be the best he has ever been, right now, exactly when the Indians need him to be.
Not everything has changed for Kazmir. Durability remains an issue for him: He has managed to turn over an opponent’s lineup three times in just five of his 29 starts this season. But on a staff that, since Justin Masterson left the rotation with an oblique injury, lacks an obvious second banana beyond Ubaldo Jimenez, Kazmir has been a godsend for the Tribe down the stretch, a piece almost as important to them as Jimenez’s big in-season turnaround.
Heading into Sunday’s action, rotation strength might seem like a key issue for all three wild-card wannabes struggling to reach the division series, because all three wild-card contenders are running their best starters out there on Sunday: the Rays with Matt Moore, then the Indians with Jimenez, and finally the Rangers with Yu Darvish. The odds of a tie-breaker game look pretty good. Say all three teams win on Sunday; will the Rays use David Price in their tiebreaker with the Rangers, instead of saving him for the wild-card fight with the Indians?
What Sunday's sunrise will give us, all of us, inside the dugouts, in the stands and in a living room to be named later, is scoreboard-watching agony that, for these three teams, distills the effort of the season’s six-month slog to a matter of minutes. Moving the game from one wild card to two has been a formula for late-season drama that might represent Bud Selig’s most lasting improvement to the game. If you’re going to have wild cards at all, this is the way you want them to wind up, with consequences and desperation and efforts that put a wild-card winner in a tough spot.
Because of their lack of rotation depth, you might think that the Indians don’t really have the kind of starting pitching that matches up so well with the other contenders. Is Kazmir, Zach McAllister and Danny Salazar a trio that makes up anyone’s answer for an ideal short-series rotation beyond Jimenez? No, but the Cardinals proved in 2011 that you can win a World Series without an ideal short-series rotation, and as the Giants showed last year with Tim Lincecum, sometimes having a former quality starter shunted into a middle-inning role can make a huge difference -- could that be Masterson this year?
We’ll see if that happens should the Indians get that far. Much like Scott Kazmir was in March, the Indians might be a long shot, but if recent history teaches us anything, it's that sometimes it's the long shots who come through, because they make real what they can be, instead of living down to what they were supposed to be.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.