Thank goodness for two Wild Cards in each league
Change in makeup of postseason has made winning division more important
Courtesy of the two Wild Card spots in each league, baseball is about to get crazy through September.
Trust me. Better yet, watch the Pirates, Reds and Cardinals scratch, claw and fight down the stretch in search of becoming kings of the National League Central. They'll make this one of the greatest divisional races of all time. That is, if they aren't surpassed by more than a few teams in the American League East and the AL West.
You see, the Rays won't yawn in the shadows as the Red Sox keep doing their thing atop the AL East, and the same goes for the Orioles and the Yankees. As for the AL West, the Rangers now have a three-game lead over the second-place A's, but you just know these two teams aren't finished swapping the top spot. I mean, the Indians are 6 1/2 games behind the Tigers in the AL Central, and even the Tribe hasn't stopped dreaming of winning its division, so why should Oakland?
I know. The Tigers have this habit of shredding the Indians with the greatest of ease. In fact, Cleveland has won just once against Detroit during the past 13 games between the two, and Tribe pitchers have a 5.82 ERA against the Tigers in that stretch. Still, the Indians begin a three-game series in Detroit on Friday, and if they sweep, well, you know the rest. Even if Cleveland fails for a 13th time in 14 games against its northern bullies, it won't be because the Indians have settled to play for a Wild Card spot.
Nobody should do such a thing. Not now.
Let's just say that it was a simple move by Major League Baseball officials before last season, but it was a brilliant one. They added a second Wild Card to the playoffs for each league, and they made those teams battle in a single-elimination game for the right to advance further. It was so masterful that those in contention for a playoff berth these days know that it's about winning the division or bust.
Well, they should know as much. If not, here's a quick reason why teams should fear becoming just a Wild Card team: "The Outfield Fly Rule," or so it is called among those into chopping and chanting in Atlanta.
First, a little history. From 1995 through 2011, there was one Wild Card for each league. That team opened the postseason in a best-of-five Division Series like everybody else, and it was unfair for division winners. Despite slipping through the back door of the postseason, Wild Card teams won the World Series five times under the old system, and they even took three straight World Series championships from 2002-04.
The new system arrived last season. Now the winner of the Wild Card Game advances to a Division Series against the league's team with the best regular-season record.
Too many "ifs" if you're a Wild Card team these days.
Which brings us back to "The Outfield Fly Rule" last October in Atlanta at Turner Field. With the Cardinals in town for the first NL Wild Card Game, the Braves trailed, 6-3, in the bottom of the eighth, but the home team threatened to load the bases with one out. That was before umpire Sam Holbrook shocked the packed house by calling the infield fly rule after Atlanta's Andrelton Simmons sent a fly to left field that dropped between St. Louis left fielder Matt Holliday and shortstop Pete Kozma.
To hear Braves fans tell it, Simmons' ball was deep enough in left to be called -- well, to be called nothing but a hit by the umpires and official scorer. Instead, Atlanta had two outs and two runners on base instead of one out and three on, and the Braves soon had a third out without either of those runners scoring. The Cards won, 6-3, and those associated with the Braves blamed "The Outfield Fly Rule" instead of their inability to hit in the clutch and a crucial error earlier in the game by retiring third baseman Chipper Jones.
Still, the big picture remains: When it's one and done in the postseason, anything can happen, and much of it isn't good. So most teams in serious contention for making the playoffs do whatever they can to stay away from those Wild Card spots. I said "most" teams, because for some teams, the more realistic choice is to play for a Wild Card spot. The Orioles, Indians, Yankees and Royals come to mind in the AL, where they currently trail their respective division leaders between 6 1/2 games to 8 1/2 games. In the NL, the Nationals are 13 games behind the NL East-leading Braves despite a three-game winning streak, and the D-backs are 9 1/2 games behind the NL West-leading Dodgers.
Come to think of it, you should forget all of that. September is on the horizon, and just two seasons ago, the Red Sox and the Braves gave hope forever to the hopeless. While Boston did the unprecedented by blowing a nine-game lead for the AL's Wild Card spot, Atlanta surrendered an 8 1/2-game lead for the NL's Wild Card spot.
There was only one Wild Card in each league back then, but the winner did have a best-of-five series up ahead. That's opposed to the uncertainty that awaits Wild Card clubs these days.