Even though the Pittsburgh Pirates currently find themselves three games back of the Cincinnati Reds in the National League Central Division, they come into today's action tied with the Atlanta Braves atop the wild card standings, four games up on the rest of the league. It's been a while since the Pirates had a four game lead of any importance, and while the division is still the ultimate regular season prize, any chance at the postseason is quite welcome.
And this year, with Major League Baseball adding an extra wild card in each league, the Pirates and Braves aren't necessarily battling one another, they're battling the rest of the league. It provides for a bit of a cushion, and it increases the chances of Pittsburgh making the postseason for the first time in 20 years.
However, in terms of the prospects of an extended postseason run, I'd sure love to see the Pirates overtake the Reds and claim the Central.
For the first 17 seasons of the wild card format, being the wild card team was essentially no different than being a division winner. There were disadvantages in terms of homefield, but at least a team was guaranteed a trip to the LDS (League Division Series) and three postseason games. If there are any football fans out there, that's basically what the NFL wild card was like back in the 70's. Sure, the wild card teams in each conference had to play on the road all throughout the playoffs, but, just like the division winners, they only needed to win two games to make it to the Super Bowl. That all changed in 1978 when the league added a 2nd wild card team in each conference, forcing a wild card playoff game just to get to the divisional round.
And that's how it will be in baseball starting this season thanks to the additional wild card spot. Now, the two wild card teams in each league will have to play a one game "playoff" just to reach the LDS. The extra wild card spot might cause teams and fans to relax a bit down the stretch, and it may have created a seller's market at the trade deadline with so many more teams being in the hunt, but man, it's sure going to make for a tense afternoon for players and fans come "Wild Card Day" immediately following the regular season.
Can you imagine if Pittsburgh had to travel to Atlanta to play their first postseason game since 1992? You talk about returning to the scene of the crime. It would essentially be the same sudden-death Game 7 type of deal as the infamous '92 NLCS. Just imagining the sound of the fans doing the tomahawk chop gives me the creeps.
It sure would add importance to a tie atop the division heading down the stretch. In past years, if two teams were in a heated division race but both were pretty much assured a berth in the League Division Series, how heated could it have been?
Now, winning the division is going to be pretty critical.
And because of the wild card playoff game, will teams have huge celebrations after just clinching one of the two spots? I'd imagine they'd probably save that for after the one game playoff.
And how will it change a team's strategy? I'm guessing a team that is two games out of the 2nd wild card spot in the final week of the season won't be thinking of tomorrow, but neither can any team who clinches a spot. There probably won't be as much thought given to setting up the starting rotation. If A.J. Burnett is available to pitch the wild card game, he has to go. And if he does that and the Pirates win, most likely, you may not see him again until perhaps Game 4 of the LDS.
It's going to be interesting, for sure. And it's going to cause a lot of wild card teams to be at a disadvantage for the LDS. But that's how it should be.
There should be a greater advantage to winning your division.
Still though, having your fate come down to nine innings after a 162 game season? Man, that's a tough one. However, I'm not complaining. I think it adds intrigue. And as a Pirates fan, it's a problem that I hope I'm worrying about come October.
It sure beats the heck out of going for the top pick in June's amateur draft. I've had my fill of those.