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Wild-card times

Why do second-place teams keep winning it all?

Posted: Friday April 1, 2005 12:31PM; Updated: Friday April 1, 2005 2:54PM
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Jason Varitek; Keith Foulke
When the Red Sox won the World Series last year, they become the third consecutive wild-card team to win it all.
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images
Wild-Card Threats
Top to bottom, these teams might not be good enough over a 162-game stretch to win their divisions in 2005. But if they can make the playoffs, watch out.
Boston Red Sox
Good luck fending them off if their bats catch fire and Curt Schilling is 100 percent.
Cleveland Indians
They are too young to be intimidated by the postseason pressure.
Texas Rangers
Much like the '02 Angels, the starting pitching is thin but the bullpen is stout.
Atlanta Braves
Maybe a wild-card entry is what they need to kickstart their first World Series run since 1999.
Florida Marlins
The Josh Beckett the Yankees saw in Game 6 could make a sudden return.
San Francisco Giants
Barry Bonds' injury might hand the NL West crown to L.A., but would you want to face a healthy, mad-at-the-world Bonds in October?
Chicago Cubs
The stacked Cardinals will dust them in the Central, but they have more than a good chance in the playoffs if the Carlos Zambrano-Mark Prior-Kerry Wood power trio is firing on all pistons.

Picture this: You are a member of a Major League Baseball team. But not just any team -- a first-place team. The 162-game grind is over and you are on top.

Congratulations. You win nothing.

Well, maybe not nothing. You might be able to scrounge up a T-shirt somewhere that says, "I busted my tail for six months to win a division and all I got was this lousy shirt." But the true prize -- a World Series ring -- goes to a second-place team. At least that's the way the postseason has gone the past three seasons -- and four times since the current playoff format began in 1995.

The trend began in 2002 with the Rally Monkey Angels, who defeated another pennant-winning wild-card team, the Giants, in a seven-game Fall Classic. In 2003, the wild-card Marlins shocked the Yankees in six games to win it all. Last season, the Astros came within one victory in the NLCS of making the World Series another all-wild-card affair. Instead, it was the NL Central champion Cardinals who were swept away by the wild-card Red Sox.

Second place isn't for suckers anymore. In fact, in a counterintuitive way of thinking that flies in the face of purists who love to spout phrases like, "the integrity of the regular season," it might even be enviable. If you still can sneak into the playoffs, that is. Here are a few reasons why wild cards keep winning:

Midseason Makeovers

First-place teams aren't going to make drastic changes at the trade deadline. Why should they? But the past two champions, the Marlins and Red Sox, saw their biggest flaws exposed and essentially recreated themselves on the fly.

Florida began 2003 with a 19-29 record; it would become the first team since the 1914 Boston Braves to win a World Series after being 10 games below .500. The Red Sox were 15-6 through April and essentially played .500 ball for the next two months. After losing to the Twins on July 31, the Red Sox were 56-46.

By the time the Marlins were sipping champagne in Yankee Stadium, they had replaced a manager (Jack McKeon for Jeff Torborg), closer (Ugueth Urbina for Braden Looper), found a lights-out setup man (Chad Fox) off the scrap heap, added a veteran corner outfielder (Jeff Conine) and called up two kids straight from Class AA named Dontrelle Willis and Miguel Cabrera. The Red Sox didn't take off until they had traded away the face of the franchise -- Nomar Garciaparra -- and replaced him with Gold Glove shortstop Orlando Cabrera in one of the most daring deadline moves in baseball history. They also added another Gold Glover in first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz to solidify their late-inning defense.

Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein doesn't go so far as to say that it was a good thing to see his club play at its worst -- "I don't think you ever want to see your team struggle," he says -- but he isn't upset about how things turned out, either. "I think the fact that we had to overcome adversity during the regular season probably helped us," Epstein says.

Click below for the rest of Jacob Luft's Baseball Insider.

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