09/30/12 10:00 AM ET
Second Wild Card producing great drama
By Terence Moore / MLB.com
It all makes sense to me.
Actually, it took awhile. Then again, I also believe the designated-hitter rule is the cause for global warming.
So when baseball devised its new playoff format for this season and beyond, I understood why more than a few managers would respond as though these changes were as palatable as chewing a couple of rosin bags between innings.
"It's great for the fans, but, boy, for a manager, it's tough," Washington Nationals manager Davey Johnson said to reporters this week. His team leads the National League East by four games, and the Nationals automatically will reach the NLDS if they do as expected and clinch the division.
That's why Johnson added, in despair, "It's actually easier for the clubs fighting for the Wild Card, because they'll know who they have to beat to move ahead. And then if they get it, they'll know who they're going to play. I don't. I shouldn't be handicapped that way."
Yeah, well, despite the extra preparation that could lie ahead for Johnson, I'm guessing he would rather have the luxury of five games to win three than the anxiety of sitting one loss from missing the NLDS as a Wild Card participant.
Just saying. Plus, I'm just saying I understand the concerns of many players about the new playoff format.
"Major League Baseball wants a bunch of teams in the playoffs," said Chipper Jones, who is not in favor of a second Wild Card in each league. "There's nothing like cutthroat baseball for the fans. People love that 163rd regular-season game. They loved it in the past. I'm sure that's what has warranted a second Wild Card game."
Jones is correct with his analysis. This new playoff format really is "cutthroat baseball," but in the good sense. Baseball now has a bunch of teams playing competitively every moment down the stretch.
As for both leagues featuring a "163rd regular-season game," that means the possibility of future Bucky Dents.
Here's the bottom line, though: September baseball is more relevant now than ever before. With less than a week left in the regular season, half of the 30 teams in the Major Leagues either had clinched a playoff spot, were close to doing so or had a legitimate shot of surging into the postseason without having the earth spin backward.
Entering Sunday, the New York Yankees and the Baltimore Orioles were tied in the AL East. The Chicago White Sox were two games behind the Detroit Tigers in the AL Central. There are also outside chances that the Braves in the NL East and the Oakland A's in the AL West could overcome their deficits to overtake the Nationals and the Texas Rangers, respectively.
If not, there always are the Wild Card races for the Braves, the A's and a slew of others.
While the Orioles and the A's hold the two AL Wild Card spots, both the Los Angeles Angels and the Tampa Bay Rays are in the hunt. Then, in the NL, the Braves and the St. Louis Cardinals are in charge of the two NL Wild Card spots, but the Los Angeles Dodgers are just two games back of the Cardinals for the second slot.
You've guessed it. The cities of those aforementioned teams have citizens paying attention to baseball in huge ways.
Remember the recent old days prior to this year? There was one Wild Card in each league, and even though the drama wasn't as prolific as we have now, there still was drama.
You can go all the way back to ... last season.
Depending on your perspective, you could say the Red Sox and the Braves did the unprecedented in baseball history in September 2011 by blowing huge Wild Card leads of nine games and 8 1/2 games in the AL and NL, respectively. Or you could just say the teams that zipped past them -- the Tampa Bay Rays in the AL and the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL -- deserve credit for playing out of their minds.
Either way, those Wild Card races joined several others from previous seasons to create an extra buzz around September baseball that didn't exist when division winners alone advanced to the postseason.
This isn't to say the playoff format with only division winners and no Wild Cards never produced fairy tales.
I'll give you two examples, starting with Dent in 1978. His game-winning homer at Fenway Park during a one-game tiebreaker for the AL East title completed the Yankees' journey from 14 games back of the Boston Red Sox in July to a World Series championship in October.
Then there was 1993, when the San Francisco Giants and the Braves scorched their competition through September to remain within centimeters of each other atop the old NL West. The Braves eventually won 104 games to the Giants' 103.
Before division play in 1969, the only way to make the playoffs was by winning the AL and NL pennants. Period. And that also had its memorable Septembers. They included everything from the Red Sox holding off challengers down the stretch in 1967, to the Cardinals doing the same in '64, to the events leading to Bobby Thomson's homer for the New York Giants against the Brooklyn Dodgers in '51.
It's just that what baseball has now with its two Wild Cards in each league and "cutthroat baseball" everywhere is keeping the turnstiles clicking and the television ratings rising. Big time.
Terence Moore is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.