The New York Yankees and Oakland Athletics each needed 162 games to win division titles on the final day of Major League Baseball’s regular season.
In doing so, they avoided the potential one-and-done wild- card scenario that now awaits the Baltimore Orioles and Texas Rangers. The Rangers (93-69), after blowing a 13-game lead over Oakland in the American League West, host the Orioles (93-69) tomorrow, with the winner advancing to face the Yankees in a best-of-five division series.
The defending World Series-champion St. Louis Cardinals (88-74) open the postseason tomorrow on the road with a one-game National League wild-card playoff against the Atlanta Braves (94-68). This is the first year MLB has added a second wild-card team to three division winners and had those clubs meet in a one-game playoff format.
“Every manager, it’s their worst nightmare,” former Cy Young Award-winning pitcher John Smoltz, who’s now an analyst for Turner Sports, said by telephone. “Nobody wants to have to have this situation but they’re glad they’re not home fishing. There’s going to be so much second-guessing, so many opportunities to question strategy that you don’t have in a five-game series.”
The new format makes it more difficult for the Cardinals to replicate their run to the 2011 World Series title as a non- division winner. The Anaheim Angels, Florida Marlins and Boston Red Sox also won the World Series as wild-card clubs in three straight seasons from 2002 to 2004.
“It puts a premium on winning your division because aligning your pitching puts you in the best position to win,” Terry Francona, a former Red Sox manager and now ESPN analyst, said in a telephone interview. “If you have to play the play-in game, you have to use your best pitcher and may have to travel. Even if you win, you’re at a disadvantage.”
The Yankees and Washington Nationals are the co-favorites to win the World Series, with 5-1 odds at the Las Vegas Hotel’s Super Book. Both clubs yesterday locked up home-field advantage until the World Series, meaning they could host three of a potential five games in the division series and four of seven in the league championship series.
The Cincinnati Reds are listed at 11-2, followed by three other division winners -- the Detroit Tigers at 6-1, and the Athletics and San Francisco Giants at 7-1.
The Rangers have the best odds among the teams playing in the wild-card games, at 8-1. Before yesterday’s 12-5 loss to the A’s that cost them the AL West title, the Rangers had been listed as 5-1 World Series favorites.
The Braves are 12-1, while the Cardinals have 15-1 odds of successfully defending their title. The Orioles, who ended a run of 14 straight losing seasons, are given the worst chance of winning the World Series at 18-1, meaning a winning $10 bet on Baltimore would yield a $180 profit.
“I wish there was a way it could be a best-out-of-three series,” Francona said. “There’s a chance that a good team is going to go home and it would be a shame if it were a bad hop. I just think there’s a little bit of luck involved when it’s a one-game series. I agree it’s exciting, though.”
The winner of the Cardinals-Braves wild-card game faces the NL East-champion Nationals (98-64) in a division series that starts Oct. 7. The other NL playoff series pits the NL Central- champion Reds (97-65) against the Giants, who won the NL West with a 94-68 record.
In the other AL playoff series, the Athletics (94-68) face the AL Central-champion Tigers (88-74), with Game 1 scheduled for Oct. 6.
The A’s, whose $55 million opening-day payroll was the second-lowest among baseball’s 30 teams, had gone five straight years without a winning record since their last playoff appearance in 2006. Oakland’s roster, which features five rookie starting pitchers, was assembled by General Manager Billy Beane, whose philosophy of evaluating players was the topic of the book “Moneyball” by Michael Lewis.
“Listen, after 162 games, you’re not a Cinderella,” Beane told reporters yesterday after the A’s completed their comeback from a 13-game deficit on June 30. “Surprises are in May.”
The Yankees, with baseball’s highest payroll at almost $200 million, are in the playoffs for the 17th time in 18 years. New York won 14 of its final 18 games, including a four-game winning streak to end the regular season, to take the AL East by two games over the Orioles and finish with the league’s best record for the ninth time since 1998. Like the A’s, New York didn’t wrap up the division until the last day.
“We’re heading into the playoffs with great momentum,” Yankees outfielder Nick Swisher said after last night’s 14-2 rout of the Boston Red Sox.
They’ll also head to the road to start the postseason, as this season there’s a 2-3 format for the division series. The Yankees will play their first two games in Arlington, Texas, or Baltimore on Oct. 7-8 before returning home for Game 3 and, if necessary, the fourth and fifth games.
“If you’re the top seed, splitting those two games on the road is essential because it’s not easy to win three straight games at home,” Smoltz said.
The Nationals also go on the road for two games before bringing postseason baseball back to the nation’s capital for the first time since 1933, when the Washington Senators lost to the New York Giants in the World Series. Before this season, the Nationals hadn’t had a winning season since moving to Washington from Montreal in 2005.
Washington may have been the outright World Series favorite if the organization hadn’t shut down pitcher Stephen Strasburg, who went 15-6 with a 3.16 earned run average and 197 strikeouts in 159 1/3 innings. The team put an innings limit on its 24- year-old former No. 1 draft pick in his first full season back following ligament-transplant surgery in his pitching elbow.
“When you have strikeout stuff like this guy does, you just can’t help but think what that does in a short series,” Smoltz said. “It’s almost a chip on their shoulders to show everybody why they were one of the best teams in baseball.”
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