With a month left in the Major League season, only two of the six divisions have pennant races that are within three games, the AL Central (White Sox and Tigers) and the NL West (Giants and Dodgers). Thanks to baseball’s newest playoff format though, both leagues have heated wild card races that should make for an exciting finish to the regular season. The wild card race in the AL currently has two teams (Oakland and Baltimore) tied for the final spot with Detroit just one game out. In the NL, Atlanta holds the top spot with the Cardinals right behind them holding on to the final spot by half a game over the Dodgers. The Pirates are also just one game out of the final spot.
If you haven’t noticed, Major League Baseball has moved to a new playoff format–the first big change since the inception of the wild card team back in 1995. The new format now allows for an additional team to make the post-season as a second wild card. Both wild card teams will then have a one-game playoff to see who advances to the next round, which is the usual five-game first-round series. A close pennant race is what the executives at Major League Baseball wanted, and adding another team in the post-season mix does the trick. The likelihood of having some last-day finishes to begin baseball’s October season is almost a sure thing at this point.
Pennant races like 2011’s final day will be more of a common occurrence from now on in Major League Baseball. For those who have forgotten, Tampa Bay and St. Louis clinched post-season births on the final day of regular season. The Rays came back to beat Boston, knocking them out, and the Cardinals edged out the Braves who ended the year on a five game slide. The excitement created from that final day is what Major League Baseball hopes to accomplish by expanding the playoff format.
Those opposed feel the accomplishment of a long and successful regular season is being taken away. The argument has some merit, seeing that a team who squeezes into one of the wild card spots just has to win one game to advance a round further. Not win three games or five games, but just one. With that said, the players are undoubtedly happy with the prospect of more teams in the postseason. I’m sure there are some Hall of Famers thinking, “If only they had the wild card back when I played….” The 1961 Detroit Tigers for instance, won 101 games but finished second to the Yankees who won 109 that year. Historically divisions were not established until 1969 in MLB, so prior to that year, if you were in first, you made the World Series.
Although the regular season as a whole is slightly less important, the new playoff format has made winning the division in baseball all the more significant. Division winners are guaranteed the five-game series prior to the League Championship Series, while both wild card winners will play in the one game playoff. Plus, the division winning temas can be sure that the two wild card teams will pitch their aces against each other and won’t hesitate to hold anything back. That means division winners will have the advantage from the outset–they can pitch their number 1 guy in game 1, while the wild card winner won’t likely be able to start their top pitcher until game 4.
Clutch hits, top-notch pitching, and managerial chess matches will all be part of the playoff fun come October. The new playoff format is an overall positive gain for baseball fans across the country. All fans want close division finishes and the last month of the season should offer plenty of it.
By: Craig Emmert