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03/02/12 2:12 PM ET

Extra playoff spot could have changed history

Would the Cardinals be defending World Series title this year?

Now that a fifth wheel in each league has been invited to baseball's big postseason dance, there's nothing that can be done about those who found themselves on the wrong side of the velvet rope in the past.

Even the recent past -- as in the final regular-season games of 2011 that remain painfully fresh for some -- cannot be changed.

Ah, but Terry Francona still knows what it would have meant to have a fifth Wild Card in the playoffs last year.

"I'd be in uniform. Maybe," the new television announcer and old Red Sox manager said.

Wild Card team and runner-up in each league
Year Wild Card W-L Next W-L GB
2011 Cardinals 90-72 Braves 89-73 1
Rays 91-71 Red Sox 90-72 1
2010 Braves 91-71 Padres 90-72 1
Yankees 95-67 Red Sox 89-73 6
2009 Rockies 92-70 Giants 88-74 4
Red Sox 95-67 Rangers 87-75 8
2008 Brewers 90-72 Mets 89-73 1
Red Sox 95-67 Yankees 89-73 6
2007 Rockies 90-73 Padres 89-74* 1
Yankees 94-68 SEA/DET 88-74 6
2006 Dodgers 88-74 Phillies 85-77 3
Tigers 95-67 White Sox 90-72 5
2005 Astros 89-73 Phillies 88-74 1
Red Sox 95-67 Indians 93-69 2
2004 Astros 92-70 Giants 91-71 1
Red Sox 98-64 Athletics 91-71 7
2003 Marlins 91-71 Astros 87-75 4
Red Sox 95-67 Mariners 93-69 2
2002 Giants 95-66 Dodgers 92-70 3.5
Angels 99-63 SEA/BOS 93-69 6
2001 Cardinals 93-69 Giants 90-72 3
Athletics 102-60 Twins 85-77 17
2000 Mets 94-68 Dodgers 86-76 8
Mariners 91-71 Indians 90-72 1
1999 Mets 97-66 Reds 96-67* 1
Red Sox 94-68 Athletics 87-75 7
1998 Cubs 90-73 Giants 89-74* 1
Red Sox 92-70 Blue Jays 88-74 4
1997 Marlins 92-70 NYM/LAD 88-74 4
Yankees 96-66 Angels 84-78 12
1996 Dodgers 90-72 Expos 88-74 2
Orioles 88-74 Mariners 85-76* 2
1995 Rockies 77-67 Astros 76-68 1
Yankees 78-65 Angels 78-67 2
* 1999 Mets and '98 Cubs won tiebreakers and '96 Mariners would have played a makeup game to determine final standings.
Last year's fantastic finish -- a final day on which Wild Card berths slipped from the grasp of longtime leaders in both leagues -- left Francona's Red Sox in the American League and the Braves in the National League wanting just one more game, just one more chance to redeem themselves.

In 2012, they'd have it. With owners and players agreeing to start the five-team playoff system this October, the stage is set for a new epoch in the Wild Card era to begin. Alas, the extra spot and extra game comes a year too late for the Red Sox and Braves.

"I would have taken it," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "They still want to play right now?"

Eh, probably not, considering the Cardinals went on to win the World Series, becoming the fifth Wild Card entrant in 17 years to fall short of winning its division but then go on to win the game's most cherished prize.

Of course, had the Cardinals lost a one-game playoff against the Braves, the famous two birds on a bat would be singing a different tune.

In 2011, Atlanta would have traveled to St. Louis for the one-game Wild Card playoff, since the Cards won 90 to the Braves' 89. Having lost their past five, the Braves might have been due -- and both would have been coming in from out of town, with the Cardinals finishing the regular season in Houston last year.

"If they had the extra Wild Card team last year, I don't think the Cardinals would have won the World Series," Braves pitcher Tim Hudson said. "They might not get past the first round. Anything can happen in one game. We could have gone up there and beat them. It didn't look like we could have [beaten] anybody. But you never know what could happen in one game."

Whether the Cardinals' October fate would have U-turned the way Hudson suggests or not, the madness of the final day of the season would have had a completely different air about it. As devastating as it was, the Red Sox could have gotten over their ninth-inning loss at Baltimore if they still could have played the Rays at Tropicana Field for one more game.

Then again, a team that won its 162nd game the way the Rays did -- with a six-run eighth, a two-out game-tying homer in the ninth and a walk-off homer in the 12th -- might be a little hot to handle the very next day.

"Last year, what would have happened? We're as good as anybody in a one-game playoff," said the Rays' versatile Ben Zobrist, whose club lost to the Rangers in four games in the AL Division Series. "I guess it's all conjecture, I just like our chances any time in a one-game playoff. Regardless of who pitched the day before for us, we're still really strong. It's not like we have three [strong starters] and our Nos. 4 and 5 are iffy. We have five strong starters."

But then, who knows what would have transpired if things were different? Well, some of it -- including intriguing one-game matchups that would have emerged -- is known, even if the outcome can't be.

A quick look at the previous five years and what the Wild Card matchups would have been, in order of finish (home team first):

2010 -- AL: Yankees-Red Sox; NL: Braves-Padres
2009 -- AL: Red Sox-Rangers; NL: Rockies-Giants
2008 -- AL: Red Sox-Yankees; NL: Brewers-Mets
2007 -- AL: Yankees-Mariners/Tigers; NL: Rockies-Padres
2006 -- AL: Tigers-White Sox; NL: Dodgers-Phillies

Aside from the Bucky Dent-Aaron Boone-Dave Roberts element of a couple more Red Sox-Yankees matchups hanging off the edge of a cliff, it's important to note that one recent would-be Wild Card game already happened.

It was in 2007, and it became one of the most thrilling finishes in recent years, with Matt Holliday bouncing his chin off the dirt and sneaking a hand over home plate to lead the Rockies to a remarkable comeback victory over the Padres. The D-backs already had won the division, so this was in effect the same thing as what will be contested at the end of this season in both leagues.

Also of note, there would have had to have been a 163rd game between the Tigers and Mariners in 2007 to decide which would be the No. 5-seeded Wild Card entrant. Only three times previously has there been a playoff for the Wild Card, all three in the NL -- that '07 game, along with 1999 Mets-Reds and '98 Cubs-Giants.

Some of the dynamics of the postseason would have been altered with a fifth wheel in each league, to be sure. The Giants and A's both would have made the postseason in 2004, 15 years after their World Series meeting. The Expos would have made the postseason in 1996, the Padres would have been in the playoffs twice more in the past five years, and the Phillies would have started their current run of six straight playoff appearances a year earlier.

It's always been a high-wire act at the end, even with just one Wild Card spot available. Over the first 17 years of the Wild Card era, the Nos. 4 and 5 teams have been separated by an average of 3.97 games, with 11 of those 34 instances (one per league, per year) including a gap of one game or zero. Five other times, the gap was two, meaning almost half of all Wild Card winners won the berth by two games or fewer.

On three occasions, there would have been a tie for the fifth spot -- 2007 AL, '02 AL, 1997 NL -- and '96 might have included a three-way tiebreaker for the last available slot in the AL. That year, the Orioles were two games clear of the Mariners for the Wild Card, but the Mariners would have had to play a rain-out makeup against the top-seeded Indians to determine whether they'd fall into a three-way tie for the No. 5 slot with the White Sox and Red Sox.

On top of all that, a sixth team fell just one game short of the No. 5 team on nine occasions out of 34, and wouldn't that crowd have added a little more thrill to the mix as the season concluded?

Would it have been good to have the red-hot Rays and Cardinals play a one-game Wild Card entry game against the stumbling Red Sox and Braves last year? Would history -- and in the case of Francona perhaps a managerial career -- have been altered?

"We'll never know, you know?" Zobrist said.

Very true. Still, some will always wonder.

John Schlegel is a national reporter for MLB.com. MLB.com reporters Adam Berry, Mark Bowman, Anthony Castrovince and Bill Chastain and editorial producer Dan Cichalski contributed to this report. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.