Extra wild card spices up September
When Major League Baseball added a second wild card to the playoff format, the idea was to capture the emotion and intensity of that brilliant final day last season and extrapolate it out over the final month.
The result in the first year of the new setup has been an injection of NFL-style suspense, with more on the line in more games as teams frantically chase a chance to get into the playoffs.
More teams are in the hunt. More fans are tuning in. More players are doing whatever it takes because there are more roads into October than ever before. It's been one spicy September, and it's not over yet.
''There's pressure on everybody,'' White Sox manager Robin Ventura said. ''I don't think even teams that are five games up, everybody has pressure. There's nothing you can really do about it but go out and play. I don't think it makes it easier that you're up by two or down by two. It's not going to change the way we play, that's for sure.''
There are 10 playoff spots available this time around rather than eight, and those extra two spots are getting an awful lot of attention.
More than a dozen teams had a legitimate shot at making the playoffs in early September and 12 entered this weekend either in position to take a wild card or within six games of the last playoff spot. Seven teams in the National League, including the fading but surprising Pittsburgh Pirates, were legitimately in contention with 15 games to go.
With more possibilities to get in, more teams are pulling out all the stops to get a crack at the pennant. Chris Carpenter was scheduled to make his season debut for defending champion St. Louis, hoping to give the Cardinals even a few precious starts to push them over the hump and help them hold off the Brewers and Dodgers.
''I think it's awesome,'' Rangers second baseman Ian Kinsler said of the second wild card. ''It's really exciting for the game, there's so many different just scenarios where different teams can get in, teams can get knocked out pretty quickly it seems like.
''It's crazy, and after last year with what happened at the end of the season with baseball, and all the late game, or late season drama, I think it just adds to it and I think it's great for the fans.''
Some have been pushing for another wild card for a few years, with baseball purists always turning them back. Those from the old school were proud of how difficult it was to make the postseason in baseball as opposed to the other major sports, and some criticized the idea as a money grab.
But the movement for a second wild card really picked up steam after the final day of the regular season last year, the kind of heart-pounding, edge-of-your-seat thriller that helped football overtake baseball as the sport of choice in the U.S. The Tampa Bay Rays got home runs from Dan Johnson and Evan Longoria to rally from a 7-0 deficit and beat the Yankees and squeaked into the playoffs when Boston blew a late lead against Baltimore.
And the Cardinals wouldn't have even had a chance to win the World Series had Braves closer Craig Kimbrel not blown a save against Philadelphia that knocked Atlanta out of the playoffs and put St. Louis in.
Looking to build on that win-and-you're-in drama from that day, baseball instituted a new format that includes a one-game wild-card round in both leagues on Oct. 5 between the teams with the best records who are not division winners.
There is no doubt that a second wild card will generate more revenue for baseball's coffers, but it is also hard to deny the new edge, and sense of hope, that it has cast across both leagues.
''A lot wider spectrum compared to years past,'' Rangers outfielder David Murphy said. ''Usually it's broken down pretty quickly and your basic teams that are in the playoff hunt are, they're narrowed down quickly. This year there's been more teams, there's been a lot more teams to keep your eye on, pay attention and it's made for good entertainment.''
And there's a new-found premium placed on winning the division. The two wild-card teams will play in a one-game playoff on Oct. 5, with the winner immediately turning around and starting the division series the next day. That's a rollercoaster that nobody wants to ride, so the front-runners are keeping their feet on the gas rather than easing up to rest up for the first round.
''I think the winner of the division should have a little bit more of an advantage than they do, but one game and you're gone is not the greatest situation to be in,'' Kinsler said. ''I think it's going to be highly anticipated game, highly-watched game.''
It's also added fuel to a few teams that once appeared to be out of the race. The Philadelphia Phillies were 37-51 on July 13, but they won 11 of 14 and entered the weekend four games back of St. Louis for the second wild card in the National League.
''To be here is a testament to the character of this team - that we don't give up,'' Howard said. ''It's a 162-game season and we're just going out here trying to play it all out.''
The Oakland Athletics were 37-42 at the end of June, but have been one of the best teams in baseball after the All-Star break. A 21-5 run helped them surge into the playoff picture and they led the Los Angeles Angels by 4 1/2 games for the second wild-card spot in the AL heading into Friday night.
Suddenly, anything is possible for GM Billy Beane's Moneyballers.
''I'm not surprised that we're competitive,'' A's managing partner Lew Wolff said. ''I'm surprised that we're more than competitive. This is all a plan that Billy set out last January. We didn't expect to be this far along, but we are. We have a real tough schedule coming, but that's only fair. A lot of it's on the road.''
No matter who gets in and who is left out, the one-game playoff brings a whole different dimension to a sport that is built on large sample sizes and long series.
''There's going to be a lot of excitement for those type of games, there really is,'' Rockies manager Jim Tracy said. ''Whew! There's a lot there when you're involved playing a win-and-in game and now an extended five- or seven-game series. We'll see a little different type of game with those first two that are played, I can tell you that.''
AP Baseball Writer Janie McCauley in Oakland and AP Sports Writers Stephen Hawkins in Arlington, Texas, and Rick Gano in Chicago contributed to this story.