It's become accepted baseball wisdom that for many teams, the best way to win a playoff series is to have your top starter -- or top two starters -- start and win as many games as possible, and then figure the rest out from there. That strategy, though, will be tested in a new way in 2012.
For the first time, Major League Baseball's postseason will feature a one-game Wild Card playoff before the Division Series get under way. Thus, managers will have to make a decision: go with your best starting pitcher in the Wild Card round, then only have him once in the Division Series, or take your chances with a second or third starter and hold the top guy back if you make it to Game 1 of the first full series.
Several of the contenders are likely to be playing down to the final day of the season, eliminating any opportunity to get clever with rotation order. But some teams will have at least some chance to set things up. The Braves know they'll be in the Wild Card round. The Cardinals are close to cementing that status. Within a few days, the A's and Orioles could have punched tickets -- or could fall into tighter races.
So what should they do? It depends on a lot of factors. Each team has some variables to consider, so in each case, it's a different question.
The Braves, for example, have already decided that their emergent No. 1, Kris Medlen, will start in the Wild Card game. They would then not have Medlen available until Game 3 of the National League Division Series, which would be on the road against one of the three division champions. That would then leave Tim Hudson to start Game 1, and Mike Minor or Paul Maholm for Game 2.
"For me, you've got to go with whoever your best is," said manager Fredi Gonzalez. "No matter whose butt it is [on the line], you've got to go with whoever gives you the best chance to win the ballgame."
Atlanta broadcaster and former Braves star John Smoltz has argued for the opposite position, that Medlen and Hudson should both be saved for the Division Series.
For St. Louis, it appears likely that Kyle Lohse would start the Wild Card game, leaving the Cards with two of Adam Wainwright, Chris Carpenter and Jaime Garcia for Games 1-2 of the following round.
It would seem obvious to go with Wainwright and Carpenter, but here's one of those special considerations. Garcia has struggled on the road, and the first two games of a Cardinals NLDS would be in St. Louis. So there might be some case to go with Garcia in Game 2, leaving Lohse and either Wainwright or Carpenter for Games 3-4.
Not that they're talking about it.
"I believe it's more relevant now than ever before that we have to focus on today," said Cards manager Mike Matheny. "That stuff -- you guys know well enough by now that we don't just come up with something on the last minute. We've done some preparation. But any talk of stuff beyond today, to me, is taking us in the opposite direction of where we need to go."
The considerations are different for the American League Wild Card leaders. Neither Oakland nor Baltimore has a clear-cut 1-2 punch. The A's rely on going five deep with quality starters rather than a dominant ace or two, while the Orioles have mixed and matched all year. Tommy Milone and Jarrod Parker are nominally the top two A's starters, but they'd be on turn to go Games 1-2 of the Division Series, if things hold as they are.
For the O's, it's more a matter of just getting something from the starters, then hand it to the bullpen. Baltimore is one team that might get very creative with its roster for the Wild Card round, perhaps adding relievers at the expense of starters in order to get through the one game.
The Rays have David Price and James Shields atop their rotation, but as with Baltimore, they're on turn to be available for Games 1-2 of the ALDS, unless one gets moved up. That'll be very nice if they get to that round, but frustrating if they go out without being able to use either of their stars.
And the surging Angels could be in position to have to make an extra-complicated decision. As of now, ace Jered Weaver is slated to pitch their regular-season finale. If he's not needed for that game, he could pitch the Wild Card game, with Zack Greinke and Ervin Santana opening the Division Series. If Weaver is, things get much tougher, with either Greinke on short rest or a rested Santana in the Wild Card round.
This all dances around one key point, of course. It's possible, especially in the AL, that we'll be looking at one-game tiebreaker before the playoffs begin. If that happens, the whole equation is thrown into limbo.
It's even conceivable, at this point, that some teams could have to play two extra games before the official postseason begins. It's a potential complication that everyone is aware of, but nobody can really do much about -- except hope not to have to deal with it.
But then, that's a big part of what October baseball is all about. A lot of things change, and the teams that deal best with the distractions, complications and challenges tend to be the ones with a chance to play deep into the month.
Matthew Leach is an editor and reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach.