New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi was holding his daily pregame dugout briefing last weekend in Toronto’s Rogers Centre when a reporter asked him how critical it would be for the Yankees to avoid finishing as a wild-card team rather than as the winner of the American League East.
Arms crossed in front of him, Girardi shook his head. Everyone around baseball is happy two more teams were added this year to the postseason party but nobody really wanted a part of the new slots.
“I do think it’s a good thing there’s two more,” Girardi said. “And I enjoy what it’s meant to September. But I am not a fan of the one-game playoff. I think teams work too hard to get to that point. To have it come down to one game? That’s tough. We said it was going to be a very competitive American League and it has been. This group of teams has gotten closer together.”
Two years ago, of course, it didn’t matter how you got into the playoffs so the Yankees chose to get their pitching in order and basically ceded the division to the Rays over the season’s final days before eventually losing to Texas in the American League Championship Series. Largely because of the Yankees’ indifference, Bud Selig & Co. made sure the division was made paramount again with this year’s change that adds a second wild-card to each league but makes them play off to get to the division series.
Girardi’s team avoided the one-game showdown by clinching the East Wednesday against against the surrender-mode Red Sox, leaving the upstart Baltimore Orioles to travel to Texas in tonight’s inaugural AL wild-card playoff. In the National League, St. Louis will travel to meet the Chippers, er, Braves in what amounts to a grudge match over last year’s wild-card race.
The Braves and Cardinals will certainly take their one-game shot, as they couldn’t catch the Washington Nationals and Cincinnati Reds, respectively, in their divisions. The Orioles haven’t been in the playoffs since 1997 so they’re fine with it too.
The Rangers? No way.
The two-time defending AL champions blew the West Division by going 4-9 in the final 13 games and dropping the final three games in Oakland. That allowed the upstart A’s to claim the crown and a direct path to the division series opener in Detroit.
So in addition to not winning the division and having to play an extra game, the Rangers have to run out Yu Darvish to start tonight’s game rather than having him open Game One of the division series and be available for a potential Game Five. The Orioles, meanwhile, are taking a huge risk by starting lefty Joe Saunders. He’s 0-6 with a 9.38 ERA in his career at Rangers Ballpark. He’ll likely be on a very short leash.
“The opportunity is still there,” Texas manager Ron Washington said after Wednesday’s stunning 12-5 loss in the winner-take-all AL West showdown in Oakland. “We just have to go out and play our style of baseball.”
The Rangers, remember, went into the playoffs last year with huge momentum off a 10-1 finish to the regular season. Pretty different scenario this time. The Rangers are trying to become the first team to go to the World Series three years in a row since the Yankees went to four straight from 1998-2001, and but Texas is trying to become the first three-peater to lose the first two since the Yankees of 1921-23.
Odd standings note: Under the old format, Texas and Baltimore would have tied for the lone wild-card and been forced to stage a one-game showdown anyway.
One thing the extra game will do is make longer odds for the wild-cards to go deeper in the playoffs if they use top starters to pitch the game and not be available twice in the division series. Since beginning in 1995, the wild-card has won the World Series five times (Florida in 1997 and 2003, Anaheim in 2002, Boston in 2004 and St. Louis last year) and lost it five times.
But there’s plenty of bad karma around for favorites too. Don’t look for the team with the best record to win the Series. That’s only happened three times since 1990 (by the Yankees in 1998 and 2009, and by the Red Sox in 2007). So that’s a piece of bad news for the 98-win Nationals, who are going deep into October for the first time since they were the 1981 Montreal Expos.
Tonight’s National League game is an interesting one. What better retribution is there for the Braves than the chance to knock out the Cardinals? After all, they were team that came out of nowhere to steal the wild-card from Atlanta on the last night of 2011 and then went all the way to a World Series title. And with Chipper Jones’ career hanging in the balance, the Braves will call on Kris Medlen to pitch and hope to continue his incredible streak of 23 straight winning starts.
The Yankees await the winner of the Orioles and Rangers, while the Stephen Strasburg-less Nationals await the Braves-Cardinals survivor. Perhaps the worst thing for the Yankees might be three days rest before their opener cooling off the ridiculously hot bat of Robinson Cano, who finished the season 23 for 38 and tied his career high with six RBIs in Wednesday’s finale.
The division series rules have been changed this year, allowing teams from the same division to meet in that round. So we could see Yankees-Orioles and Nationals-Braves, matchups that were not allowed in the past.
The format has also been changed this year to a 2-3 rotation of games, with the Yankees and Nats in the odd position of having to open on the road despite having their league’s best record. The late addition of the second wild-card and the tight calendar to try to finish the World Series by Nov. 1 meant the normal 2-2-1 was not possible this year. But it will return in 2013.
Two other division series matchups are already set for Saturday and don’t get impacted by the extra game. In the American League, Detroit and Oakland meet in an intriguing rematch of their 2006 ALCS won by the Tigers on Magglio Ordonez’s Game Five walk-off home run in Comerica Park. In the National League, the 97-win Reds meet the 94-win Giants, who are trying to win a second World Series in three years after going 0 for their first 52 years out West. The Reds have not won a playoff series since a 1995 NLDS sweep of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
As for predictions, a Tigers-Giants World Series was this corner’s thought back in the March preview editions. The last several weeks had a Reds-Rangers matchup percolating but Texas’ late-season struggles KO that. Original thoughts prevail.