The 11th hour: Much still on the table today
From early afternoon until late evening, final day's games paint postseason picture
The 2012 regular season is more than 99 percent complete. In the spirit of the batting-title race, let's take it out an extra decimal point or two, and note that before the first pitch was thrown on Wednesday, it was in fact 99.38 percent done. And yet a great deal remains on the line as baseball sets its postseason.
In fact, only four teams know who they'll be playing, and where: the Braves and Cardinals know they'll face each other in Atlanta on Friday, and the Giants will host the Reds on Saturday. Beyond that, it's all up in the air. The Tigers know they'll be opening up the American League Division Series at home on Saturday, but their opponent is still to be determined.
Here's a look at how the various games on Wednesday's docket might affect the matchups and seedings for the postseason.
Nationals 5, Phillies 1: At 98-64, Washington secured the best record in baseball and with it, home-field advantage throughout the postseason.
The Nats earned that advantage by holding the tiebreaker over the Reds, due to a 5-2 head-to-head record. So now that they've won, the Nationals know that they will be playing on Sunday, on the road, against the winner of the Cardinals-Braves Wild Card game on Friday.
Rangers at A's, 3:35 p.m. ET: This is quite easily the biggest single game of the day. The American League West title rides on its outcome, with Ryan Dempster facing A.J. Griffin as the A's go for their 50th home win. The victor will have 94 wins, the loser 93, and each team will wait for the outcomes of the Orioles-Rays and Red Sox-Yankees games in the evening, because even though we'll know the West champ, we won't know whether that team is the top seed or second seed in the AL, nor will we know whether the losing team is the No. 1 Wild Card or the No. 2 Wild Card.
So while no single game has as much bearing on the matchups, even this one-game shootout will still require waiting on other variables.
Angels at Mariners, 6:40 p.m. ET: It's your last chance to see Mike Trout, Albert Pujols and Jered Weaver this year, which makes for a decent reason to watch. But also, Trout will be looking to have a huge day as he holds out the faintest hope for passing Detroit's Miguel Cabrera in the AL batting title race, thus denying Cabrera the Major Leagues' first Triple Crown in 45 years.
Red Sox at Yankees, 7:05 p.m. ET, and Orioles at Rays, 7:10 p.m. ET: This one almost resembles a World Cup group, where on the final day, the teams start at the same time to avoid anybody having an advantage. That's not why it's set up this way, of course, but it'll make for lots of picture-in-picture watching all over the Northeast.
The Yankees hold a one-game lead over the Orioles, so the reigning division champs have it simple: win and the AL East title is theirs regardless of what the O's do. Additionally, a Yankees win secures them the best record in the AL, the top seed and home-field advantage in the AL Championship Series. They would face the Wild Card winner in the Division Series, starting on the road, on Sunday. In that scenario, the AL West champion, regardless of whether it's Texas or Oakland, would head to Detroit for the first two games of the best-of-five ALDS, with the first game on Saturday.
Regardless of the Yankees' outcome, though, Baltimore will still have something to play for. If the Orioles and Yankees both win, Baltimore would host the one-game Wild Card playoff against the team that loses the Texas-Oakland game. But if the Orioles lose, no matter what the Yankees do, then they will be going on the road for the Wild Card playoff game. Because of tiebreakers (head-to-head record), if Baltimore loses, it will have to travel to the loser of the A's-Rangers game for the one-game Wild Card playoff on Friday. The winner of that game would then open the Division Series at home on Sunday against the team with the best record.
If the Yankees lose and the Orioles win, then it gets hairy. They would meet Thursday in a one-game tiebreaker, which would count as a regular-season game, to determine the division champion. That game would take place in Baltimore due to the second tiebreaker, which is record within a team's own division. The losing team would have 94 regular-season wins and thus would host the Wild Card playoff game over the 93-win AL West runner-up.
Since the result a tiebreaker game cannot be considered in determining playoff seeding, the winning team would be tied for the top seed with the 94-win AL West winner. To determine top seed and Division Series matchups, then, the previous tiebreakers would apply. If the Yankees won and the A's are West champions, New York would play Detroit and Oakland the Wild Card winner. If the Yankees won and the Rangers are West champs, New York would play the Wild Card winner and Texas would play Detroit. If the Orioles won, they would play the Tigers, with the AL West champion playing the Wild Card winner.
Tigers at Royals, 8:10 p.m. ET: How about a chase for a historic individual accomplishment, just to add a little spice? By the time this game starts, Cabrera and the Tigers will likely know whether Trout has any chance of catching him in batting average, and whether the Rangers' Josh Hamilton has passed him in homers (Cabrera leads by one), although manager Jim Leyland has already decided to start his superstar, and that means the opportunity for fans in Kansas City and around the world to see him put the final touches on what looks likely to be the first Triple Crown season since 1967.
The Tigers, like the Giants, actually have one small advantage as the third-place division champion in their league. They have a little bit of certainty. And they're going to be no fun for any opponent to face. Regardless of whether it's the AL East champ or the AL West champ, somebody's going to be heading to Comerica Park knowing that Justin Verlander and a potential 0-1 series hole awaits. It's better that than having to play a one-game-for-your-playoff-life test, but it's quite a challenge just the same.
Reds at Cardinals, 8:15 p.m. ET: Since the Nats have won, there's not a lot on the line in this one, and in fact the Cardinals have already bagged scheduled starter Adam Wainwright in favor of rookie Shelby Miller.
It's wall-to-wall baseball, from early afternoon to late at night, and it's got the potential to be another day of madness, much as Tuesday was. And with a potential one-game tiebreaker on Thursday, the Wild Card games on Friday, and the Division Series getting started on Saturday, it's the start to baseball's second season.
Matthew Leach is a writer for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. Jane Lee contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.