Yanks, Rays have safety net
Fans seem to like the wild-card system in baseball because if gives more teams a chance to reach the playoffs. The powers that be in the game certainly approve it of it because the more teams involved in races the greater the interest there is in the sport in the final month of the season.
There is one downside of the system that was adopted in 1994 by which the second place team with the best record qualifies for post-season play as a wild card, and that is it can ruin an old-fashioned race for first place.
Take what is going on this year between the Yankees and the Rays, for example. These two teams entered play Tuesday night tied for first in the American League East for the eighth straight day. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, that marks the most consecutive days that a pair of teams has been tied for first this late in a season. The previous record was seven straight days by the Dodgers and the Astros in the National League West Sept. 10-16, 1980.
That season featured one of the wildest finishes in major league history. The Dodgers swept the Astros in a three-game series at Los Angeles to force a one-game playoff that also took place at Dodger Stadium the day after the regular season ended. The Dodgers’ bubble was burst by Joe Niekro’s knuckleball as Houston won the playoff to qualify for the NL Championship Series against the Phillies.
Had there been a wild-card system, there would have been no need for a playoff because both teams would have made it.
Something similar happened in 1993, the last year there was no wild-card in the majors. In fact, the finish in the NL West that year was a major reason the wild-card supporters got what they wanted. The Giants won 103 games but finished one game behind the Braves (then in the NL West) and went home.
It was as wild a race as every existed. Atlanta trailed San Francisco by a season-high 10 games July 22 and by 9 ½ as late as Aug. 7. A seven-game losing streak Sept. 7-15 brought the Giants back to earth as they fell 3 ½ games behind the Braves, who were amid a 9-1 run. It came down to the final weekend. The Braves swept a three-game series from the Rockies, but the Giants lost to their arch-rival Dodgers on the final day of the season.
There was no fallback position for the Giants without the wild card. As tight as that race was, it does not compare really to what is going on between the Yankees and Tampa Bay. The Braves and Giants were tied on the same day only eight times total in 1993, only as often as the Yanks and Rays have been for a little more than the past week.
Over the past 30 days, the Yankees and the Rays have been tied for first place 12 times and have had the same share of the top spot 23 days during the season. But with the third-place Red Sox having fallen seven games behind them and the second-place teams in the other divisions nowhere near contention for the wild-card berth, the juice is missing from the Yanks-Rays race because whoever doesn’t win the division will make the playoffs anyway.
Sure, there is home-field advantage in the Division Series and Championship Series at stake, which is sort of a carrot but not as appetizing as eliminating a foe altogether.