About three minutes after the Baltimore Orioles had rallied to beat the Boston Red Sox 4-3 on the final, crazy night of the baseball regular season last Sept. 28, Evan Longoria’s walk-off home run in the 12th inning gave the Tampa Bay Rays an 8-7 victory over the visiting New York Yankees. The results sent the Red Sox home for the winter and the Rays on to the playoffs as the wild card.
Meanwhile, that night in the National League, the St. Louis Cardinals won and the Atlanta Braves lost games that ended about an hour apart. That got the Cards into the postseason as the wild card on their way to an improbable championship. It left the Braves, like the Red Sox, pondering a historic September collapse.
Now, under the expanded 10-team playoff format adopted last week by Major League Baseball, that final night drama — dubbed the “best night in baseball history” by many observers — wouldn’t have been nearly as riveting. The Rays and Cardinals, as well as the Red Sox and Braves, would have all made the playoffs. The win-or-go-home element of the games would have been postponed for a few days.
MLB will add a second wild-card team in each league starting this 2012 season. If that had been the case last year, the Rays would have hosted the Red Sox and the Cardinals would have hosted the Braves in one-game playoffs to decide who moves on to the Division Series.
“I would have taken it last year,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez joked last week.
Expansion of the playoffs from 8 to 10 teams by 2013 was agreed to in the new labor contract adopted last year, but baseball commissioner Bud Selig has been pushing to have it in place for this season. The contract was approved March 2.
One holdup in implementing the change for this season had been scheduling. The one-game playoffs will be on Oct. 5, in between the end of the regular season Oct. 3 and the scheduled start of the Division Series Oct. 6 and 7. Adding to the scheduling complications is the fact that should ties for a division title occur, they have to be broken in separate one-game playoffs.
Traditionalists decry the fact that the format could allow a third-place team in a division to win the World Series. Also, a 162-game season’s worth of work could be ruined by a single game. Supporters argue that the new format places more of an emphasis on winning the division to avoid the one-and-done scenario of a wild-card playoff and that it will put more teams in the hunt for a playoff spot in the final weeks of the regular season.
Wild card teams were guaranteed at least one home game under the old format, which had them playing a division winner in a best-of-five series. The top wild card team will still get a home game, where they’ll host the other wild card.
For 2012 only, the winners of the one-game playoffs will host the first two games of the best-of-five Division Series. A travel day was eliminated from the series to accommodate the additional one-game playoffs. After this season, the format will return to having the winners of the wild card playoffs play the first two games of the Division Series on the road.
Ticket sellers no doubt like the fact that the new plan could create more important games among more teams down the stretch in September.
“I like it,” Max Waisvisz, owner of Gold Coast Tickets in Chicago, told TicketNews. “Expanding it is the way to go. Getting more teams involved is always a good thing.”
With two MLB teams in Chicago, Waisvisz likes the increased chances of bigger games late in the season.
“Any ticket broker is going to agree with you,” he said. “It means more meaningful games. I don’t know about the traditionalists who say ‘Oh, you’re ruining the game.’ What’s wrong with more teams in the hunt?”
Since the playoff field was expanded from four teams to eight in 1995, five wild card teams have gone on to win the World Series (the 2011 Cardinals, 2004 Red Sox, 2002 Angels, and the 1997 and 2003 Marlins). Now, that road to the Fall Classic gets tougher for the wild card teams, who may have to use their best pitchers for a one-game playoff or just to reach that game.
Even with a 10-team playoff field, MLB has the fewest teams reaching the postseason that the other three major pro sports. In the NFL, 12 out of 32 teams make the playoffs. In the NBA and NHL, it’s 16 out of 30.
Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland, whose team won the AL Central last season, told The Associated Press that if the commissioner and fans support the new format, he is in favor of it.
However, Leyland told the AP he envisioned a scenario where “somebody could win a division with 84 wins and some other team could get 97 wins and finish behind a team that won 98 — and play one game. So it’s never going to be perfect, but at the end of the day, I’m for whatever the commissioner, and more importantly, whatever the fans want.”
New Red Sox right fielder Cody Ross, a postseason hero for the 2010 champion San Francisco Giants, sees some unfairness in the one-and-done scenario.
“Say you win a wild card and you have a five-game lead over the other wild card, and the other team ends up winning the game,” Ross told ESPN.com. “That’s going to be controversial.”
With the Chicago Cubs and Chicago White Sox each coming off down seasons the past few years, Waisvisz hopes that an extra playoff spot can keep them in the running longer.
“Our baseball sales were on a steady rise, but the past three years, it’s been way down,” he said. “This might help. In Chicago, we’re always hoping for the best, but expecting the worst.”