Wild-card race looking extra crowded this season

NEW YORK (AP) Joe Maddon manages one of the best teams in
baseball. And the Tampa Bay Rays could wind up going home after one game
this postseason.

Then again, winning just one game shouldn’t be
too hard for the teams that survive the crowded wild card race. It’s
getting there that’s going to be difficult in the second year of
baseball’s new playoff format.

“Right now, you look at the
American League East, and Boston and Tampa aren’t taking any days off
because who wants to win 98 or 99 games and be in a one-game playoff?”
said former Red Sox manager Terry Francona, who now has the Cleveland
Indians in the thick of the wild-card race. “They wanted to stress the
importance of the season, which makes sense.”

The Rays are only a
game behind Boston for the AL East lead, and if the season ended before
Friday’s games, they would make it as one of the wild cards and play
Oakland in a one-game, winner-take-all matchup.

With a little
more than five weeks left in the regular season, though, the AL wild
card race is jammed. The NL is slightly less crowded.

Lurking
right behind Tampa Bay is Cleveland, 2 1/2 games back before Friday’s
games. Baltimore was 3 games out of the playoffs and the Yankees were 3
1/2 games behind. Even the Royals might have an outside chance to get
in. Kansas City is seven games behind Oakland for the second wild card
spot and falling fast, having lost five straight and eight of 10.

“Now
with the extra wild card, everyone has to be on their toes,”
Cleveland’s Jason Giambi said. “GMs have to be into it because they may
have to make a trade that can get you over the top, and a lot of teams
that would be sellers become buyers.”

That’s five, maybe six,
teams scratching and clawing to get the chance to play one extra game.
And after all that, one team will be ending its season only a day or two
later than hopeless cases such as the Miami Marlins or Houston Astros.

“Is
it fair? Of course not,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “But I’d
rather play in a one-game playoff than not be involved in one at all.”

Showalter
would know. His team beat Texas last season to face the Yankees in the
AL Division Series. He also managed in the first wild card round, with
the 1995 Yankees. They got to play a full series, though, and nearly
upset the Mariners in a first round that went the full five games.

Since
then, wild-card teams have outperformed expectations by winning more
than half of their series. Last year, St. Louis beat Atlanta (with some
help from a dubious call) in the one-game wild card, then eliminated
Washington before losing in the NLCS.

In fact, the World Series
has been won by a wild card five times, most recently by the 2011
Cardinals. Four of the last 10 World Series champs have been wild card
winners. Three more made it to the World Series and lost.

Whichever
AL teams make the wild card will have spent plenty of time fighting to
qualify at the end of the season. In the NL, it might work out easier.
The Braves are running away and hiding in the East, and the Dodgers
began Friday with a 9 1/2-game lead on Arizona.

The Diamondbacks
were 7 games out of the second wild-card spot, so that race could come
down to the Pirates, Cardinals and Reds jockeying for the division title
and to dodge the one-game playoff.

Two years ago, the stakes
might have been a bit higher. With three teams that close, one would win
the division, one would be the wild card and the third would get
nothing. That could be everything to teams like the Pirates, whose last
postseason appearance came before there was a wild card, in 1992.

The
Royals, clinging to contention, have been waiting even longer. If they
make it, it will almost certainly be as the second wild-card team.

“It’s the first time I can say we’ve had a shot,” Billy Butler said.

They
would take it without reservation. As would any of the dozen or so
teams that can reasonably be considering postseason play at this point.
Now it’s all about bridging September to get to October.

“If you get to the dance, you have a chance,” Reds manager Dusty Baker said. “You just don’t know.”