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ESPN prepared to carry load of MLB wild-card matchups in new playoff format

Matt Vasgersian calls an Opening Day game remotely

Matt Vasgersian calls an Opening Day game remotely from ESPN's studios in Bristol, connecticut on July 23, 2020.  Credit: Kelly Backus / ESPN Images

Six months ago, there was no baseball. This week, there will be almost no end to it.

With eight best-of-three wild-card playoff series on the schedule and seven to be carried on ESPN/ABC channels, the production executive overseeing September Madness had a simple message for his staff:

"We’re going into it with, ‘Guys, these are four — hopefully four — great days of baseball, four great days for us, four great days for the company,’ " ESPN senior vice president Mark Gross said on Monday.

"’Let’s just camp out in Bristol or Charlotte or wherever you are, Tuesday to Friday, and let’s have some fun.’"

The Yankees will be in Cleveland Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, if necessary, with Games 1 and 2 set for 7 p.m. on ESPN, featuring the "Sunday Night Baseball" crew of Matt Vasgersian, Alex Rodriguez and Buster Olney.

The fact the Yankees are in prime time comes as no surprise. Gross did not make that decision, as he does not work in programming, but he said, "Clearly, the Yankees are a national brand with nationwide interest."

But this being 2020, that is the only thing normal about the Yankees’ postseason television appearance. Vasgersian and Rodriguez will call the game from a studio in Bristol, Connecticut, with Olney working from home. Marly Rivera will be on site in Cleveland to provide reporting.

But wait, there’s more: Vasgerian and A-Rod also will call the Cincinnati-Atlanta series, meaning a split doubleheader on Wednesday, with Cincinnati-Atlanta at noon and Yankees-Cleveland at 7 p.m.

Karl Ravech and Eduardo Perez will do the same thing on Wednesday, working both Houston-Minnesota and Milwaukee-L.A. Dodgers series.

Gross said no one has complained about the extra work.

"These guys are baseball junkies," he said. "They can’t watch enough baseball. Now, playoff baseball? It’s great. We didn’t have to twist anybody’s arm to call baseball playoff games."

The play-by-play announcers will be in studios in Bristol or Charlotte, while analysts other than Rodriguez will work from home. Some reporters such as Rivera will be on site.

TBS has the Toronto-Tampa Bay series, but the other seven will be on ESPN, ESPN2 or ABC — which will carry baseball playoff games for the first time since 1995.

It begins with four games on Tuesday, eight on Wednesday and potentially another eight on Thursday. ESPN could have seven of those. Gross said the network is ready for the challenge.

"Our company is built that way," he said. "We do it every Saturday for college football. So while it’s complicated and can be daunting at times and a little bit nerve-wracking, we’re confident, because we do it for the women’s basketball tournament, we do it for college football."

Gross said ESPN’s understanding of remote coverage from empty stadiums benefitted in two key ways from the KBO games it began showing from Korea in May.

One was the logistics of having announcers and guests scattered around the country and world, calling a game none of them were at. The other was the use of enhanced audio to create a better television experience.

"That was the very beginning of being prepared for a wild-card series, even back then, although there was no wild-card series," Gross said. "At that point we were just hoping there was going to be a baseball season."

Now it’s all real. The format is uncomfortable for purists, with regular-season achievements being put at risk in very short series. But it should be entertaining.

"Seeing brackets to me is a great thing," Gross said. "It does remind you of March Madness, and it’s easy to understand and it’s easy to follow . . . So format-wise, it couldn’t be any more simple to put on a graphic and explain to viewers how this works.

"Given where we’ve been in this world since March, just to have Major League Baseball playoff games, the NBA Finals, college football, WNBA, all converging within a one-week or five-day window, I think it’s unprecedented, obviously. This has never happened."

New York Sports