NEW YORK (AP) — Joe Maddon manages one of the best teams in baseball. And the Tampa Bay Rays could wind up going home after one game this postseason.
Then again, winning just one game shouldn’t be too hard for the teams that survive the crowded wild card race. It’s getting there that’s going to be difficult in the second year of baseball’s new playoff format.
“Right now, you look at the American League East, and Boston and Tampa aren’t taking any days off because who wants to win 98 or 99 games and be in a one-game playoff?” said former Red Sox manager Terry Francona, who now has the Cleveland Indians in the thick of the wild-card race. “They wanted to stress the importance of the season, which makes sense.”
The Rays are only a game behind Boston for the AL East lead, and if the season ended before Friday’s games, they would make it as one of the wild cards and play Oakland in a one-game, winner-take-all matchup.
With a little more than five weeks left in the regular season, though, the AL wild card race is jammed. The NL is slightly less crowded.
Lurking right behind Tampa Bay is Cleveland, 2½ games back before Friday’s games. Baltimore was 3 games out of the playoffs and the Yankees were 3½ games behind. Even the Royals might have an outside chance to get in. Kansas City is seven games behind Oakland for the second wild card spot and falling fast, having lost five straight and eight of 10.
“Now with the extra wild card, everyone has to be on their toes,” Cleveland’s Jason Giambi said. “GMs have to be into it because they may have to make a trade that can get you over the top, and a lot of teams that would be sellers become buyers.”
That’s five, maybe six, teams scratching and clawing to get the chance to play one extra game. And after all that, one team will be ending its season only a day or two later than hopeless cases such as the Miami Marlins or Houston Astros.
“Is it fair? Of course not,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “But I’d rather play in a one-game playoff than not be involved in one at all.”
Showalter would know. His team beat Texas last season to face the Yankees in the AL Division Series. He also managed in the first wild card round, with the 1995 Yankees. They got to play a full series, though, and nearly upset the Mariners in a first round that went the full five games.
Since then, wild-card teams have outperformed expectations by winning more than half of their series. Last year, St. Louis beat Atlanta (with some help from a dubious call) in the one-game wild card, then eliminated Washington before losing in the NLCS.
In fact, the World Series has been won by a wild card five times, most recently by the 2011 Cardinals. Four of the last 10 World Series champs have been wild card winners. Three more made it to the World Series and lost.
Whichever AL teams make the wild card will have spent plenty of time fighting to qualify at the end of the season. In the NL, it might work out easier. The Braves are running away and hiding in the East, and the Dodgers began Friday with a 9½-game lead on Arizona.
The Diamondbacks were 7 games out of the second wild-card spot, so that race could come down to the Pirates, Cardinals and Reds jockeying for the division title and to dodge the one-game playoff.
Two years ago, the stakes might have been a bit higher. With three teams that close, one would win the division, one would be the wild card and the third would get nothing. That could be everything to teams like the Pirates, whose last postseason appearance came before there was a wild card, in 1992.
The Royals, clinging to contention, have been waiting even longer. If they make it, it will almost certainly be as the second wild-card team.
“It’s the first time I can say we’ve had a shot,” Billy Butler said.
They would take it without reservation. As would any of the dozen or so teams that can reasonably be considering postseason play at this point. Now it’s all about bridging September to get to October.
“If you get to the dance you have a chance,” Reds manager Dusty Baker said. “You just don’t know.”