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09/23/10 10:00 AM ET

Tiebreaker scenarios, possibilities abound

System to determine home-field advantages in second year

You actually can make heads or tails out of Major League Baseball's revamped tiebreaker system, now in its second year, and what's generally considered the best part about it is you don't need a coin to do it.

Coin flips for decades were the modus operandi for determining the site of a 163rd game to break a tie between two teams vying for one postseason spot. Team officials would get on conference calls with MLB in September and soak in the drama of the proverbial 50-50 chance -- is it tails never fails, or heads first?

Well, the coin has been flipped out of the picture, and no longer is chance a factor.

Now it's about performance.

Tiebreaker scenarios
If two teams are tied atop the division and both are assured of making the postseason, head-to-head record would be used to determine which team is the division champ and which falls to the Wild Card.
If two teams are tied atop the division and share the Wild Card lead with another club, the ties will be broken in the following fashion:
• The teams tied atop the division will play, with the winner taking the division.
• The losing team will then play the remaining Wild Card contender, with the winner making the playoffs.
If three clubs are tied atop a division or Wild Card standings, each club would be designated in one of three slots, "A," "B," or "C." Clubs get to choose their designation based on head-to-head records. Tiebreaking games would then proceed like this:
• Club A hosts Club B on Monday, Oct. 4
• The winner of the first game hosts Club C on Oct. 5, with the winner declared champion.

Starting last year, based on a proposal from general managers, MLB went with a tiebreaker system that starts with head-to-head between the two involved teams, followed by intradivision and intraleague records. Sure enough, the tiebreaker made itself useful in 2009, as the Twins took their 10-8 season advantage over the Tigers to extend the life of the Metrodome, using every bit of it in a 12-inning thriller, beating Detroit 6-5 to advance.

Consider: Had a coin been flipped and taken a certain rotation, it might have been the Tigers celebrating at Comerica Park, and the Twins' next game would have been at Target Field for the 2010 home opener, not in the American League Division Series opener against the Yankees.

Especially with the Wild Cards creating more variables and better odds for ties to exist at the end of the 162-game, regular-season marathon, it was determined that play, not the flip of a coin, has to be the thing when it comes to deciding home field for No. 163.

"I just think everybody came to the conclusion that something as important as home-field advantage in a tiebreaker game ought to be decided by what happened on the field that season as opposed to the randomness of a coin flip," said MLB senior vice president for on-field operations Joe Garagiola Jr., a former GM himself with the D-backs. "Travel, the home clubhouse, the home crowd, these are all big things in a win-or-go-home scenario."

Major League Baseball is the only major sports league that decides whether teams that are tied for a single playoff berth advance or go home the old-fashioned way: on the field. Other leagues, such as the NFL, NBA and NHL, deploy a series of statistical tiebreakers, such as head-to-head matchups and divisional records. Baseball's on-the-field solution has led to some of the sport's most memorable games.

• Five tiebreaker games have been played to decide division titles, three for Wild Card berth and one for a league championship.
• Five have been in the American League, four in the National League.
• The most consecutive seasons in which a tiebreaker game was needed is three (2007-09).
• The most consecutive seasons in which a tiebreaker was not needed (since the LCS was adopted in 1969) is 14 (1981-94).
• Teams with home-field advantage have won four of the eight games, with all of those victories among the last five tiebreakers.

To determine
Oct. 6, 2009AL CentralTwins 6, Tigers 5 (12 inns.)
Sept. 30, 2008AL CentralWhite Sox 1, Twins 0
Oct. 1, 2007NL Wild CardRockies 9, Padres 8 (13 inns.)
Oct. 4, 1999NL Wild CardMets 5, Reds 0
Sept. 28, 1998NL Wild CardCubs 5, Giants 3
Oct. 2, 1995AL WestMariners 9, Angels 1
Oct. 6, 1980NL WestAstros 7, Dodgers 1
Oct. 2, 1978AL EastYankees 5, Red Sox 4
Oct. 4, 1948AL pennantIndians 8, Red Sox 3

1948IndiansWon World Series
1978YankeesWon LCS, won World Series
1980AstrosLost NLCS
1995MarinersWon ALDS, lost ALCS
1998CubsLost NLDS
1999MetsWon NLDS, lost NLCS
2007RockiesWon NLDS, won NLCS, lost WS
2008White SoxLost ALDS
2009TwinsLost ALDS

Baseball fans have been treated to "free ball" -- as the saying goes for extra innings, but in this case it's extra games -- each of the past three seasons, the first time a one-game tiebreakers has been needed in three consecutive years. Two of those three were won on walk-offs. There have been nine one-game playoffs overall, including eight since 1969 and five since the Wild Card came into play in 1995. The home team is 5-4 in those games, but four of the past five home teams have won.

(Prior to the advent of divisional play in 1969, the National League used a best-of-three series to determine a pennant winner if there was a tie for first place. There were four such series -- all involving the Dodgers, incidentally -- in 1946, 1951, 1959 and 1962.)

If there will be a fourth consecutive year with a Game No. 163, it would take place on Monday, Oct. 4.

The tiebreaker rules start simply with the head-to-head marks, which usually do the trick. If they don't, they're followed by records each club has within its own division, which is followed if necessary by intraleague records for the second half of the season, adding another game to the sample if even that's tied.

This year's NL tiebreaker scenarios include a three-way possibility in the West, which would involve combined head-to-head records against the two other teams to set up a three-way playoff. Colorado currently leads at 20-13, followed by San Diego at 16-17 and San Francisco at 12-18 -- but the Giants still are to play each three times, so that can change. In a three-way tie, the team that tops the tiebreaker would be given the choice between trying to win two home games or one road game against the winner of the first game.

Elsewhere in the NL, the key breakdowns are as such: the Phillies-Braves season series stands at 8-7 in favor of Philadelphia, with a season-ending, three-game set in Atlanta to go, and the Phillies currently get the edge if that ends up tied because of a better NL East record; in the West, the Rockies would host the Padres, the Giants also would travel to face the Padres, but the Giants-Rockies scenario depends on this weekend's series at Coors Field. And if the Braves are involved with an NL West team to determine the Wild Card, they would host the Giants (4-3) or the Padres (4-2) but would go on the road if it's the Rockies (2-4).

Here's the breakdown of the more conventional tiebreakers in the NL, based on current standings.

Phillies: A tiebreaker vs. the Braves, if needed, would be determined in the season-ending series at Atlanta, with the season series currently at 8-7 Phillies. If the season series ends up tied, the Phillies would win out, at this point at least, based on a 39-24 (.619) mark in the NL East; the Braves are 33-30 (.524). For the Wild Card, the Phillies would host the Reds (5-2), the Rockies (6-1), the Padres (5-2) and almost certainly the Giants (3-3), the latter tie broken because Philly is 39-24 (.619) vs. the NL East and the Giants are 32-31 (.508) vs. the NL West.
Reds: Good news: Once they finish the NL Central job, they'd only go to a tiebreaker to determine home-field advantage. Bad news: Every other team has an advantage on them at this point. They do have a chance to get an advantage on the Padres this weekend, with San Diego holding a 2-1 edge heading into the three-game set at Petco Park.
Giants: Other than taking a home-field tiebreaker from the Reds, the Giants would be on the road for a 163rd game against the Braves (3-4), the Phillies or the Padres (5-10, with three to play). Giants-Rockies would be determined by this weekend's three-game series between the two clubs at Coors Field. The Rockies currently hold an 8-7 advantage, and their 36-29 record in the NL West is well ahead of the Giants' mark.
Braves: With the Phillies scenario still up for grabs, the Braves would host the Giants (4-3) or the Padres (4-2) but would go on the road if it's the Rockies (2-4).
Padres: They'd host the Giants, but they'd travel to face the Rockies (6-12), the Braves (2-4) or the Phillies (2-5).
Rockies: The Rockies hold the advantage over the Padres (12-6) and the Braves but would travel to Philadelphia, with the Giants to be determined this weekend.
In the AL, it's more about home-field advantage, and here's how those matchups play out:
Yankees: The Rays' win over the Yankees on Wednesday gave them a 9-8 edge in the season series, with the teams playing one more time on Thursday. Tampa Bay is 40-28 vs. East teams with four intradivision games remaining. The Yankees are 35-27 with 10 games remaining. The Yankees hold the advantage over the Twins (4-2) and are tied with the Rangers (4-4). In the very unlikely event that the Rangers were to catch up, the Yankees' winning percentage of .565 vs. the AL East is identical to the Rangers' 26-20 (.565) record vs. the AL West, though those figures will change.
Twins: No play-in game this year, they know that much. The Twins would lose out to the Yankees or the Rays (3-5) in tiebreakers, but beat out the Rangers (7-3).
Rangers: The only way a tiebreaker likely would come into play would be for home-field advantage, and they're out of luck in all three of those. Just in case, though, an A's-Rangers tiebreaker game will be determined by this weekend's four-game series, with Oakland currently holding an 8-7 edge.
Rays: If they were to surpass the Yankees, they'd hold the edge over the Twins (5-3) for the No. 1 spot. They also have a 4-2 edge over Texas.
-- John Schlegel

In the AL, the only real possibility of a one-game playoff would require the A's sweeping the Rangers this weekend in Oakland and both teams continuing in that direction next week. Then, it would come down to a game at Oakland, assuming they will have won the season series this weekend to even create the scenario in the first place.

Of course, it's all moot if nobody ties -- although it's by these same rules that home-field advantage would be determined between two teams already qualified for the postseason.

The last three years, the tiebreaker was not moot, and Game No. 163 has been a special bonus for baseball.

In 2007, it was Matt Holliday going chin-first into home plate -- did he touch it? -- with the winning run over the Padres in the 13th inning, setting the Coors Field crowd into a Rocktober frenzy with the team's 14th win in 15 games. Incidentally, that game would have been played at Coors Field under the new system as well, as the Rockies held a 10-8 advantage in the season series -- so the coin flipped well on that one.

The Twins were the poster team for the tiebreaker the past two years, losing No. 163 in 2008 to the White Sox and then winning No. 163 last year in dramatic, walk-off fashion over the Tigers. In 2008, they actually held the season advantage over the White Sox, 10-9, but lost the coin flip and ultimately the game, 1-0.

No surprise, the Twins were among the teams pushing that winter for the home-field advantage to be determined by performance, not chance.

This year, the Twins became the first team in baseball to clinch -- 11 games before the schedule was complete, instead of one game after. The bottom line for them at this point is they're glad they're not in another tiebreaker.

"Considering we've been to Game 163 the last couple years, I think this might work out a little bit better for us," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "At least I know we'll be rested for the first game, and that's a nice thought that we can get some people healthy and kind of set things up a little bit easier than we have the last couple years."

For any teams that wind up less fortunate than that but still fortunate enough to have the opportunity to play in a Game No. 163, it'd be a whirlwind way to finish the season. Even the host team might have to travel as much as the visitor, depending on where it finishes the regular season.

But the team that hosts the game would have earned it on the field.

"People start working in February to end up playing in one of these games," Garagiola said. "Everything about these games ought to be the best we can make them."

John Schlegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.