New format could lead to 'Intradivision Series'
Division rivals can now meet in best-of-five playoff, adding to intensity and interest
The changes to Major League Baseball's postseason have already made their mark on the 2012 regular season.
Division races are vastly more important than they were before the introduction of one-game Wild Card playoffs, and a greater number of teams have remained in the hunt late in the season because of the two additional Wild Card berths.
But one aspect of the changes that has been mostly overlooked -- and will likely remain that way until it happens -- is the change by which two teams from the same division can play each other in the Division Series.
In the past, a division champion would not play a Wild Card team from its division, even if the division winner had the league's best record. Now, the team with the best record will play the winner of the Wild Card playoff, regardless of its division.
This alteration was necessary for logistical reasons. It makes no sense to keep all three division winners waiting for an opponent, a start date and a series-opening location until one day before the Division Series games are scheduled to start.
In addition, the change rewards the teams with each league's top overall record. The No. 1 seed will get to face a team coming off a de facto play-in game in which it most likely used its ace starting pitcher. That means the Wild Card winner may only get to throw its top arm one time in the five-game series.
But what exactly does the possibility of an "Intradivision Series" mean for this year's playoffs?
The odds of it happening are relatively high. In the National League, a Reds-Cardinals series and a Braves-Nationals series are both very possible, considering the Reds and Nationals are currently battling for the league's top record and the Braves and Cardinals would play in the Wild Card game if it were held today. In the AL, the Rangers could play either the A's or the Angels in the ALDS, and if they can't secure the best record, the AL East's Yankees and Orioles could meet.
The saying goes "familiarity breeds contempt." Well, evidently it also breeds parity.
Since 1995, when the Wild Card first arrived in the playoffs, teams from the same division have met 11 times in the postseason -- all in the League Championship Series, obviously. The division winner, even with the home-field advantage and better regular-season record, has lost six of those 11 series.
Sure, it's a small sample size, but as the cliche about tossing the records out goes, games between teams that already play each other about 18 times a year are often much tougher to call.
"We've changed the face of the sport," Commissioner Bud Selig said of the new playoff format during a recent gathering with reporters in New York.
Adding what could essentially amount to a division championship series to the mix is just one part of the changes. Sure, the division winners are justly rewarded with an exemption from a one-game playoff, but the ultimate goal is not about winning a division crown.
"We've done a lot of winning this year," said first baseman Joey Votto of the NL Central-champion Reds. "But I think anything but setting the World Series as our standard would be selling ourselves short. Whether we achieve that or not is kind of irrelevant, but that's our goal."
It's also the goal for the Cardinals and Brewers, who -- despite not mounting much of a threat in the NL Central -- still have a shot, and if one of them capitalizes on it, it could eventually come at the early expense of the Reds.
In fact, the Cardinals and Brewers are the last two teams from the same division to meet in the playoffs. St. Louis knocked off Milwaukee in a six-game NLCS last October to secure a trip to the World Series, rendering the Brewers' division title academic.
As Milwaukee's Corey Hart put it after that series, "They were a better team than us this year," even though the regular-season standings didn't suggest as much.
Put simply, if the Brewers faced the Reds in the NLDS this season, Hart wouldn't care for a moment whether his team got there by virtue of a division crown or through the Wild Card game.
Another possibility, of course, is a bit of hostility between the two clubs. After all, it was during a intradivisional clash in the postseason when the Yankees and Red Sox benches emptied in Game 3 of the 2003 ALCS.
Before last year's NLCS, executive vice president of baseball operations Joe Torre spoke with both managers, the Cards' Tony La Russa and the Brewers' Ron Roenicke, to make sure hostilities from the regular season wouldn't carry over.
Given the intensity of some of the rivalries that could come together this postseason -- Reds-Cardinals and Angels-Rangers come to mind -- a Division Series with extra familiarity between the clubs could bring heightened interest and excitement.
AJ Cassavell is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.