Second Wild Card spots crank up the pressure
Dodgers manager Mattingly on one-game playoff: 'It's Russian roulette'
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The new Wild Card format in Major League Baseball is a subject Dodgers manager Don Mattingly will discuss, but not within earshot of his players, coaches or anyone else in his sphere of influence.
"My thought is I don't want to be in [the Wild Card playoff]," Mattingly said. "I don't want to even consider it. It's Russian roulette."
Of course, circumstances always can dictate a change of heart. That happened last September when Mattingly's club took a run at the postseason but was rejected, falling two games short of a Wild Card bid when the Giants took two of three games in the season's final series at Dodger Stadium.
"If it's the only chance to get in [the postseason], you'll take it every day," Mattingly said. "But it's not something you want to think about or talk about now. A ball hits a rock or bounces off a base, one bad call ... anything can end your season in one game like that."
By all evaluations, the 2012 debut of the new system creating two Wild Cards in each league was an unqualified success. It served multiple purposes; it enhanced the value of a division title and made the road tougher for Wild Cards, and it increased fan interest throughout the sport down the stretch.
"The biggest thing, if you look at the grand scheme of things, was having every one of the games in September meaningful," new Yankees outfielder Vernon Wells said before bidding farewell to his Angels teammates. "It definitely puts the Wild Card team at a disadvantage. It's not an easy thing for a 162-game season to come down to one game. But it added excitement to that last month."
It would be an exaggeration to suggest that September became as enthralling as October, but it certainly kept fans' interest to the final day.
It figures to be that way again in 2013 with a high percentage of teams being legitimate contenders for the postseason.
"Every club understands the difference between winning the division and being a Wild Card now," said Bruce Bochy, who managed the Giants to their second World Series championship in three years last season. "I was in a situation in '96 [with the Padres] where it didn't matter who won the division. The Wild Card had just as good a shot.
"It's changed completely now. Everyone's going to do all they can to win the division and stay out of that one game to stay alive. Atlanta's had some bad luck the last two years with that Wild Card."
If the three NL division winners repeat, the Braves will join the Dodgers and Cardinals as the leading candidates for the Wild Cards this time around, with the Phillies, D-backs, Pirates and Brewers threats to get hot and make runs.
The Braves were eliminated from the postseason on the incredible final day of the 2011 season, enabling the Cardinals to secure the Wild Card en route to the World Series title, where they subdued the Rangers. Last year, the Braves cruised to a Wild Card by six games but were eliminated at home in the first Wild Card showdown by the Cards, who rode the momentum to within one win of another World Series appearance with first-year manager Mike Matheny.
It didn't have final day drama close to 2011, when the Cards and Rays claimed the wildest Wild Cards imaginable and left the Braves and Red Sox out in the cold. But for sustained drama, the final month of the 2012 season was riveting.
"There were less [player] moves made at the Deadlines because more teams felt they had a chance for the Wild Card," Bochy said. "It created more interest in all the races."
When the last regular-season pitch was thrown, the surging A's had won the AL West at the expense of the two-time defending AL champion Rangers, who then fell at home to the surprising Orioles in the first AL Wild Card showdown. It then took the Yankees five games to dismiss the Orioles in their AL Division Series.
In the NL, the Cardinals stunned the Nationals in Game 5 of the Division Series, and then seized a 3-1 lead in the Championship Series. But the Giants rallied, as champions will, to finish the postseason with seven consecutive wins and a second World Series title in three years. San Francisco had previously used its comeback magic to erase the Reds after Cincinnati had won the first two NLDS games in California.
Ruining the Dodgers' playoff hopes gave the Giants an emotional edge heading into the postseason. In spite of its remarkable ability to rally against long odds, San Francisco wants no part of a Wild Card showdown if it can avoid it.
"Our goal is to win the division, so we don't have to play that one live-or-die game," said shortstop Brandon Crawford, a star in ascent. "Lose one game and go home -- nobody wants to do that. This new system brings out the importance of winning the division. That's the way it should be."
By doubling the available Wild Cards and giving them a one-game survival test, MLB basically forced them to go with their No. 1 starter -- if he's available -- in that winner-take-all game. The result is he'll be available just once in the Division Series, while the division winner -- as was the case with Sabathia and the Yankees -- can go twice.
Last year's Wild Cards are among the candidates to make it to that pressure-filled, winner-move-on, 163rd game again this season.
While the Tigers are the clear favorite in the AL Central, the AL East and West are loaded divisions with no clear choice.
The Blue Jays have made the most dramatic improvements in the East, thanks largely to their major deals with the Marlins and Mets. R.A. Dickey, Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle give Toronto the brand of top-shelf starters capable of carrying a club deep in the postseason. The Rays have Joe Maddon's magic and their familiar pitching-and-defense formula intact, and the Red Sox figure to be much improved on the mound. The Yankees, with so many issues to resolve, are the wild card -- if not the Wild Card -- in the East.
The arrival of the Astros, who were 29-50 within the NL Central, could position the AL West -- the most competitive of the six divisions last year -- to nail down both Wild Cards. Adding Houston to the regular schedule could help a team such as the Angels make up the four-game deficit that kept them out of the postseason.
The A's plan to build on their young pitching and have a breakout star in Yoenis Cespedes. The Angels took Josh Hamilton from the Rangers and added him to an already formidable lineup featuring the great Mike Trout and Albert Pujols. But they have concerns about their bullpen and the rotation behind ace Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson.
Texas' challenge is to replace the production of Hamilton, Michael Young and Mike Napoli, something A.J. Pierzynski and Lance Berkman should take personally. The Mariners could be this year's A's, coming out of nowhere behind young pitching and proven muscle from Kendrys Morales and Michael Morse.
The addition of Torii Hunter's bat, glove and leadership could complete the star-laden Tigers, who plan to finish what they started last year when they reached the World Series but were swept by the Giants. The solid White Sox, who should keep President Obama's interest through September, and youthful, pitching-enhanced Royals are the prime candidates for a Wild Card run. But the retooled Indians and Twins have assets and shouldn't be dismissed.
The NL West, home of the defending champion, figures to be a two-horse race between the Giants and Dodgers, with the D-backs trying to hustle head-first into the playoff picture. The Rockies and Padres need everything to break right.
Solid across the board, headed by emerging superstars Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, the Nationals are rightful favorites to repeat in the East. The Braves will be exciting with their explosive new outfield and youthful talent, and the Phillies can join the hunt if Ryan Howard and Chase Utley hold up. Philly fans will envy that Atlanta outfield. The Mets and Marlins will be hard pressed to contend for a Wild Card.
The Reds are deep enough and hungry enough, after their flameout against the Giants in the NLDS, to retain control of the Central and take a run at the Fall Classic. The Cards are the Cards, never to be counted out and always a threat with a Wild Card in their pocket. The Pirates might be ready to take the next step into Wild Card contention. The Brewers got a much needed lift with the Kyle Lohse signing, and the Cubs figure to really miss the Astros.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.