Competition heats up for wild cards

By Charles Surette, Staff Columnist

As one season begins, another nears its end. The month of September brings the opening weeks of the NFL alongside MLB’s end. With the prospect of October baseball looming large, 30 teams are fighting for 10 precious playoff spots.

Alongside MLB’s six division winners, the two teams from the American and National leagues with the best record not leading their divisions will earn two wild-card spots. These two teams will then face off in a one-game playoff for the chance to face the division winner from their respective league with the best overall record in the league divisional series.

Although the wild card is now an integral part of professional baseball, its creation was hugely controversial. Prior to 1995, only the winners of each of MLB’s then four divisions faced off in the league championship series, with the winners playing in the World Series. In 1995, in an attempt to renew fan interest in baseball following the infamous players’ strike of 1994, MLB expanded to three divisions per league and added a fourth playoff team, the wild card. Initially, the one wild-card winner would face off against the division winner with the best record not in their own division in the LDS.

Despite objections from baseball purists, the expanded playoffs have created enticing matchups over the years and have given teams new opportunities to chase October glory. Moreover, the addition of a second wild-card spot to each league has created a greater sense of urgency, as the win-or-go-home, one-game playoff has heightened tension for contending teams.

Last year, the AL’s Tampa Bay Rays won their wild-card playoff against the Cleveland Indians before losing in four games to the eventual World Series-winning Boston Red Sox, while the Pittsburgh Pirates of the NL defeated the Cincinnati Reds before bowing out to pennant winners St. Louis in five hard-fought games.

This year, both leagues feature tight races as the final regular season games approach. In the AL, the Oakland Athletics — led by one of baseball’s top pitching rotations of Jon Lester, Jeff Samardzija and Scott Kazmir — feature in the top spot, followed by the surprising Seattle Mariners, headed up by ace pitcher Felix Hernandez and former New York Yankee second baseman Robinson Cano.

Hot on their heels are the Detroit Tigers and their powerful offense headlined by former Triple Crown-winner Miguel Cabrera and former Cy Young Award-winners Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander on the mound. Tighter still is the NL wild-card race, with San Francisco and Milwaukee clinging to the final playoff spots, closely followed by Atlanta and Pittsburgh.

With pitching now at a premium, look for Oakland to secure the first AL wild card spot and for Detroit to make a late push for the second. In the NL, look for San Francisco to follow NL West-leading Los Angeles into October, while Atlanta continues its late run to shock former NL Central-leading Milwaukee for the final spot.

A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, Sept. 9 print edition. Email Charles Surette at [email protected]