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Wild-card times (cont.)

Posted: Friday April 1, 2005 12:31PM; Updated: Friday April 1, 2005 2:54PM
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All records are not created equal

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In 2002, the Angels won 99 games but finished second in a division that had three teams with 90-plus wins. Oakland took the crown with 103 victories and Seattle was third with 93. Thanks to the unbalanced schedule, Anaheim played 58 of its games within its division, which also featured an underrated Texas squad. The Angels went 30-28 against this brutally tough competition. Meanwhile, the team with the best record in the league, the 103-58 Yankees, went 46-29 against the decidedly weaker AL East, with 26 of those wins coming against the bottom-feeding Orioles and Devil Rays.

Who is to say which team was better, the second-place Angels for winning 99 games in the AL West or the division champion Yankees for compiling 103 wins in the East? When they met in the Division Series, Anaheim handled New York in four games.

The unbalanced schedule is a major reason the Angels had to settle for the wild card in the first place. The A's won 11 of the 20 head-to-head meetings; the Angels won nine. The difference in the division race was four games. If two of their head-to-head matchups had gone the other way, the race would have ended in a tie. The unbalanced schedule puts a huge emphasis on intradivision games.

"If you are going to play an unbalanced schedule, then you need to have the wild-card format," Epstein says. "Because it gives you a chance even if you lose too many games to your [division] rival."

A Whole New Season

How often have you been passed by a speeding car only to end up at the same red light as that car a few minutes later? When the light turns green, you start at the same place. The playoffs are the same way -- all the teams begin on equal footing.

Unlike the NFL, which makes wild-card teams play all of their games on the road with no bye week, the only disadvantage for wild cards in baseball is losing home-field advantage in the first two rounds. And despite what FOX's All-Star promos say, home field doesn't mean as much in baseball as it does in other sports. Since 1995, wild cards have won 22 of their 38 postseason series despite seldom having the home-field advantage -- only the '97 Marlins, '02 Angels and '04 Red Sox enjoyed the home-field edge in the World Series.

As a member of two wild-card teams that made it to the World Series ('97 Marlins and 2000 Mets), you would think Al Leiter would be a fan of the current playoff format. He's not. Leiter, now back for a second stint with the Marlins, believes wild-card teams should have to play an extra round in order to deplete their starting pitching before the Division Series starts.

"Teams that are able to clinch the wild card with three or four days left in the regular season are able to rest their top starters," Leiter says. "When the playoffs start, they are in no different position than teams that won 104 games. We should give the advantage to the teams that won the marathon."

'Hunger'

After six months of nothing but baseball every day, you're going to be tired, and any extra motivation you can find may be worth a few runs in a short series. Edgar Renteria won the '97 World Series for the Marlins with a 10th-inning single and lost to the wild-card Red Sox as a member of the Cardinals last year. He says wild-card teams have something the other postseason teams may be lacking: a desire to prove themselves as worthy members of the postseason field. "It's hunger," Renteria said. "Wild cards have to come ready to play every day. You have to keep that edge."

There is little sense of accomplishment to being a wild card. A division winner, however, knows that another flag will fly at its ballpark regardless of what happens in the playoffs. The Braves go so far as to hang a division flag in their stadium before the playoffs begin. Maybe the complacency such a move engenders is one of the reasons why Atlanta has been home to see three of its NL East runners-up play in the Fall Classic.

So if your favorite team gets off to a slow start this season or is nowhere near the division leader after the first couple of months, don't despair. You could be rooting for the next wild-card World Series champions.


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