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New postseason format spices up races

This year's tweak to Major League Baseball's postseason format has already made quite a difference.

Prior to the start of the 2012 campaign, MLB added a second Wild Card to both the American and National Leagues. The result was a bounty of drama over the past few weeks as the playoff schedule came together.

If the postseason was operating under the '11 format, the defending World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals would have started making offseason vacation plans a week ago. Atlanta would have clinched the sole Wild Card spot on Sept. 27, sending the Cardinals home despite an 88-win season. Thanks to the second Wild Card berth, the Cardinals will instead oppose the Braves on Friday at Turner Field.

The Dodgers padded their payroll with the additions of Carl Crawford, Josh Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez and Nick Punto in an August swap with the Red Sox. Los Angeles remained in the playoff hunt until a loss to San Francisco on Monday. Without the additional Wild Card, the Dodgers would have faced a much more daunting deficit in the playoff chase, perhaps dissuading them from such an aggressive move.

The advent of the second Wild Card also gave clubs such as the D-backs, Brewers and Pirates some very meaningful games in the season's final weeks.

In the AL, there's a bit of symmetry between the new and old formats. Under either, Baltimore and Texas would have a one-game duel. Under the 2011 setup, the clubs would meet in a tiebreaker for the league's lone Wild Card berth, rather than in the AL Wild Card game on Friday night at the Ballpark in Arlington. Both scenarios would have them battling for the right to face either the Yankees (if the Rangers won) or the A's (if the Orioles won) in the AL Division Series (because a Wild Card could not play a team from its own division in the old format).

The final days of the season provided plenty of excitement. The Orioles, Yankees and Rangers all clinched playoff spots when Texas knocked off the Angels in the second tilt of a twin bill on Sunday night. And on the final day Wednesday, the A's and Rangers decided the AL West and the Yankees captured their 13th AL East title in 17 years with a win against the Red Sox.

Last season, the World Series lasted an unforgettable seven games. If the last few days are a forecast of a postseason littered with drama, baseball fans are in for another October to remember.