Wild-card race to increase suspense

We know about the new play-in games, brought on by the addition of a second wild card in each league. But we might witness a play-in to the play-in, which would be highly entertaining for all of us who aren’t responsible for booking team travel.

Baseball’s playoff picture is more muddled than the early stages of the 3,000-meter Olympic steeplechase, and we shouldn’t expect a resolution until the final hour of the regular season.

If then.

In a bygone era, baseball had a quaint means of determining its champion: The best team in the American League played the best team in the National League. The all-new postseason structure is quite the opposite. At least five teams in each league will play more than the standard 162 games.

The 2012 postseason is scheduled to begin Friday, Oct. 5, with the single-elimination wild-card game. That’s less than two months away, and Major League Baseball has yet to announce start dates for later rounds. Perhaps we’re about to witness baseball’s most chaotic October ever.

And I mean that as a compliment.

We know about the new play-in games, brought on by the addition of a second wild card in each league. But we might witness a play-in to the play-in, which would be highly entertaining for all of us who aren’t responsible for booking team travel.

The Detroit Tigers and Oakland A’s occupy the American League wild cards with identical 58-50 records. But three teams — the Los Angeles Angels, Baltimore Orioles and Tampa Bay Rays — are within two games of a wild-card spot. Clearly, it’s possible there will be a tie for the AL’s final bid, requiring another game.

In that event, MLB would need to squeeze in two games — the wild-card tiebreaker and regularly scheduled wild-card game — between the Oct. 3 season finale and start of the division series. (And since I know you’re curious: The “home” team in such games would be determined by head-to-head record or, if that is a push, each team’s intra-division record.)

One additional wrinkle: This year only, the best-of-five division series begins with two games at the lower seed, followed by three at the higher seed.

So, consider the following scenario: The Yankees finish with the AL’s best overall record. The Angels win the first wild card. The Tigers and A’s tie for the second, necessitating a knockout game in Detroit Oct. 4. The Tigers win and fly to Anaheim for the Oct. 5 game. Then the Angels win — and get to sleep in their own beds while the Yankees fly across the country to begin the division series Sunday, Oct. 7.

Despite earning home-field advantage, the Yankees open the postseason by playing a game in the Pacific Time Zone for the first time in more than two months. Yes, they have a rested CC Sabathia for Game 1, while Angels ace Jered Weaver is unavailable because he pitched the wild-card game. But two cross-country flights in a three-day span isn’t the ideal way for an aging Yankees roster to begin its World Series run.

“It ain’t fun — time change is not fun at all,” Angels outfielder Torii Hunter affirmed in a recent interview. “When you’re coming west to east, it can help you. When you’re coming east to west, it’s late where you’re coming from. The game is at 7 p.m., but your body’s trying to shut down.”

Asked if the Angels would have an edge against an East Coast opponent in that situation, Hunter said, “That could be a little advantage. It’s too much coffee and Red Bull out there. … It’s harder for a veteran team. Flying has its own pressures, too, with the swelling of the body (because of) any injury from the season.”

Since we can’t help it, here are the playoff matchups as they stand today. Expect them to change a few (dozen) times between now and Oct. 5.

 

AMERICAN LEAGUE

 

THE BRACKET (FOR NOW)

1-Texas Rangers vs. 4-Detroit Tigers/5-Oakland Athletics

2-New York Yankees vs. 3-Chicago White Sox

WILD-CARD CONTENDERS

Los Angeles Angels (1/2 GB), Baltimore Orioles (1 GB), Tampa Bay Rays (2 GB)

WILD-CARD LONGSHOTS

Boston Red Sox (4-1/2 GB), Toronto Blue Jays (5 GB)

STORYLINES

• The AL Central runner-up (Chicago or Detroit) has an excellent chance to claim one of the wild-card spots. The A’s and Angels play 10 more times this season, beginning Monday night in Oakland. While the California rivals will neutralize each other during those meetings, the White Sox and Tigers should pad their win totals in a division that (given Cleveland’s recent faceplant) now includes three non-contenders.

• Waiting for the Orioles to collapse? I’ve been doing the same since April. But they just went 4-2 during a road trip to New York and Tampa Bay, including back-to-back shutouts of the Rays.

• The Red Sox still don’t look like a playoff team. They are 11-12 since the All-Star break.

 

NATIONAL LEAGUE

 

THE BRACKET (FOR NOW)

1-Cincinnati Reds vs. 4-Atlanta Braves/5-Pittsburgh Pirates

2-Washington Nationals vs. 3-San Francisco Giants

WILD-CARD CONTENDERS

St. Louis Cardinals (2-1/2 GB), Los Angeles Dodgers (3 GB), Arizona Diamondbacks (6-1/2)

WILD-CARD LONGSHOT

None. The New York Mets (9 GB) are finished.

STORYLINES

• The NL lacks the sort of dominant team that would begin the postseason as the clear favorite to reach the World Series. But the Reds’ play in the second half (19-4, best in baseball) has been breathtaking, particularly with superstar Joey Votto out of the lineup. The streaky Ryan Ludwick has 23 RBI since the All-Star break, third-most in the majors over that span.

• The Cardinals are dangerous, even as the NL Central’s third-place team. They have won three straight and continue to lead the majors with a +107 run differential.

• Washington’s Gio Gonzalez is 1-3 with a 4.75 ERA since the All-Star break. Are the Nationals really sure they have to shut down Stephen Strasburg?

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