Wild Card Dogfights

The Yankees and Orioles are in a dogfight for the AL East crown, with everything on the line. And yes, the division title actually means something this year.

Last year, such a race would have been meaningless.  There was little or no advantage in winning the division as long as you qualified for the postseason.

Which is why the new playoff format in Major League Baseball is just what the sport needed.

Teams that make the playoffs as  a wild card must now survive a one-game playoff to join the rest of the playoff teams (i.e. the division winners).

So the “loser” of the AL East race, either the Yankees or the Orioles, will have to play a do-or-die game against the other wild-card team, possibly the Oakland Athletics.

Yes, an extra team in each league now makes the playoffs. But the road is now much harder for these wild-card teams.

The survivor of the wild-card game will be at a disadvantage the rest of the way. Imagine if the Yankees don’t win the division and then had to pitch CC Sabathia in the “play-in” game? Even if they advance, then the Bombers’ pitching rotation would be severely weakened for the next round.

Which is exactly why the Yankees do NOT want to get stuck in that game. Players will tell you they want to win the division every year, but they ESPECIALLY want to win it this year, and will want to in years to come.

Fortunately the new format restores the importance of doing just that.

And at least teams that have great seasons (such as the Orioles) can be rewarded even if they don’t win the division. In 1993, two years before the addition of the wild-card teams, the San Francisco Giants won 103 games, but missed the playoffs when they finished one game behind the Braves for the NL West title.

Under the current format, at least the Giants would get a shot – but not the same opportunity as division winners.

And the new system creates wonderful new strategy questions – which is what baseball is all about.

The Braves are entrenched in the No. 1 wild-card slot in the NL, so they can already think about who their pitcher is going to be in the one-game playoff.

Kris Medlen (9-1, 1.51 ERA) has been their best pitcher during the second half of the season. Tim Hudson (16 victories) has also been terrific. The Braves say Medlen will pitch the wild-card game.

John Smoltz recently said that the Braves should not pitch Medlen OR Hudson in the wild-card game if they harbor any hopes of winning the World Series.

“I know it’s unconventional,” Smoltz told MLB.com. “I know it’s outside the box, and I know I’d get fired if I was the manager. But this is what I would do if I was the Atlanta Braves. I wouldn’t start Medlen or Hudson in that one-game playoff. I will tell you why. So what if they win that first game? So what? My theory is the Braves’ best chance to win the World Series is to line up their rotation in the [Division Series] with Medlen and Hudson or Hudson and Medlen.”

Not easy decisions for any manager, but pretty good fodder for sportswriters and fans.

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