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Point: Earn your spot in the postseason

A second wild card breeds excitement, eliminates safety net
07/19/2012 12:13 PM ET
By Jon Lane

The Yankees are running away with the AL East and are on course to earn a big postseason advantage.(AP)

This was back in March on a quiet Spring Training morning in Tampa, Fla. Major League Baseball had just formally announced its new postseason format that starting this season will include a second wild card team from both the American and National League. The recommendations made by baseball’s advisory committee and endorsed by Commissioner Bud Selig were that there wasn’t enough incentive or a reward for division winners. Wild-card winners were granted an equal opportunity to advance deep into the playoffs.

For those who need a refresher course, here’s how it works: More teams will be in the hunt, and thought it augments the chances of a team flirting with .500 to sneak into the party – the 47-45 Toronto Blue Jays and 47-45 St. Louis Cardinals are three and 4 ½ games back, respectively, of each league’s respective postseason berths – wild card teams will no longer get a free ride. If you don’t win your division, you’re forced into a sudden-death situation where managers may be forced to deploy their rotation ace in lieu of Game 1 of a Division Series.

Derek Jeter, as his wont, responded to the news with a deadpan and a shrug before paraphrasing Al Davis’ famous “Just win, baby” philosophy.

“Win your division, buddy,” said the Yankees captain.

It’s simple and it’s logical. If you want to enter the postseason at optimum capacity, then earn the privilege. The wild card is no longer a safety net that will brace anyone from falling off a tightrope. Also during Spring Training, Brian Cashman admitted the Yankees essentially conceded the AL East in 2010 to rest key players and receive a more favorable ALDS matchup against the Minnesota Twins. The Yankees won the wild card by six games, which afforded them an opportunity that’s no longer a luxury.

“We conceded the division two years ago cause of the previous setup," Cashman said. "I'm not taking away from Tampa Bay's eastern division title, but we didn't try to win the division. We tried to line up ourselves for the playoffs and that worked. We wound up sweeping Minnesota and going to play the Texas Rangers two years ago because we got our guys healthy and ready to go.”

The Yankees’ GM went on to endorse baseball’s new postseason system. If you’re not winning your division you’re forced to continue at full throttle and that will generate excitement during a time when the NFL takes over America. More teams are in the hunt, which means a lot more people will be paying attention to baseball’s stretch run. In the American League the Yankees have a tremendous advantage. They have a 10-game AL East lead, which has four very good teams below them playing just to get into the postseason.

Not a bad way to possibly end the 2012 regular season.

“Bud Selig did a remarkable thing by adding the wild card and I think he's now doing another remarkable thing by enhancing the playoff push,” Cashman said. “And it's going to create a lot of buzz and excitement and meaningful games deeper into the season as it should be, and certainly bring back the importance of being a division winner again.”

Back in the day it was win your division or bust, a concept I prefer over the wild card, but because the wild card has retained interest, MLB has reinstated the true incentive of capturing the flag. Fans will also be treated to the drama of a one-game playoff. Documented in history is the famous Yankees-Red Sox tilt in 1978, the day Bucky Dent broke hearts all over New England. The Rockies stunned the Padres in 2007 when Matt Holliday scored on Jamie Carroll’s sacrifice fly in the 13th inning. The 2009 Tigers blew a two-game AL Central lead with three to play and lost their sudden-death game to the Twins, 6-5, in extra innings, an affair Sports Illustrated later named the “Best Regular-Season Game of the Decade.”

A third-place team, in other words the second wild-card winner, may still end up winning the World Series, but the road will be a lot harder. And if that team succeeds, so what? Fans and media alike eat up the story of the underdog. More often than not, the team crowned king of the hill isn’t necessarily the year’s finest, but one playing at absolute peak performance at precisely the right time. That’s the beauty of the NCAA Tournament, where Cinderella takes over. The Los Angeles Kings took hockey on a thrilling ride en route to winning their first Stanley Cup – as a No. 8 seed that upset the top-three seeds in the Western Conference before taking out the New Jersey Devils in six games.

“The only good thing about it is one more team (in each league) gets in the playoffs,” said Braves pitcher Tim Hudson in the spring. “But it totally handicaps the wild-card team. Both teams will probably have to expend their best pitcher to win that game. Plus, it’s another day they have to use their bullpen. Even if you get by that one game, the chances of winning the next round are not very good.”

The incentive is clear: Win your division, buddy, for the victor earns a big advantage in the postseason. It’s a karat deserving of a division champion, leaving sudden-death theatre as another win for the fans.

What do you think? Voice your opinion in the comments section below, and click here to read Bugs & Cranks' E. Spencer Kyte's counterpoint of why a second wild card is one too many.

Follow Jon Lane on Twitter: @JonLaneNYC

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