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
|Red Sox||92-70||Blue Jays||88-74||4|
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.