Woonsocket Call

Team with se­cond-best record in base­ball might have to play in one-game play­off Wild card makes Yan­kees-Sox bat­tle more en­tic­ing

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In 1993, the At­lanta Braves and San Fran­cisco Gi­ants staged an epic duel for the Na­tional League West ti­tle - some­times called the Last Great Pen­nant Race - with Bobby Cox’s Braves win­ning 104 games and go­ing on to the NL Cham­pi­onship Se­ries, and Dusty Baker’s Gi­ants fin­ish­ing se­cond with 103 wins and go­ing home. The next year, Ma­jor League Base­ball in­tro­duced the wild card, in part to pre­vent a re­peat of the 1993 Gi­ants’ cruel fate.

What we are see­ing this year with the Bos­ton Red Sox and New York Yan­kees sur­passes even that his­tory-al­ter­ing episode. Roughly a third of the way through the 2018 sea­son, the AL East ri­vals are win­ning at a blis­ter­ing clip - with the Yan­kees (40-18 en­ter­ing the week­end) on pace for 112 wins and the Red Sox (43-20) on pace for 111. The stand­ings, though, showed Bos­ton with a half-game lead en­ter­ing Fri­day, ow­ing to the fact they had played five more games than New York.

With 13 more head-to-head meet­ings be­tween the teams - in­clud­ing a sea­son-end­ing, three-game se­ries at Fen­way Park on the last week­end of Septem­ber - this di­vi­sional race sets up as a po­ten­tially un­prece­dented bat­tle of ri­val ti­tans. In the di­vi­sional era (since 1969), no two teams from the same di­vi­sion have ever won even 105 games in the same sea­son.

And like the Braves/Gi­ants duel of 25 years ago, this one has the po­ten­tial to prompt a ma­jor change to MLB’s play­off sched­ule - which, since the in­tro­duc­tion of the se­cond wild card in 2012, has pit­ted the two win­ningest non-di­vi­sion-champs in each league in a one-game play­off to ad­vance to the Di­vi­sion Se­ries.

As a re­sult, the win­ner of the Red Sox/ Yan­kees race will ease into the play­offs as the AL’s top seed, but the loser will be forced to play - and sur­vive - a sin­gle-elim­i­na­tion wild card game. Imag­ine a 110-win Yan­kees or Red Sox jug­ger­naut hav­ing to face Seat­tle’s James Pax­ton, Hous­ton’s Justin Ver­lan­der or the Los An­ge­les An­gels’ Sho­hei Oh­tani in a win­ner-take-all wild card game, and you can see why this is a fate to be avoided at all costs.

Ever since it was in­tro­duced, the wild card game has struck some as be­ing capri­cious at best - a 162-game grind of a sea­son dis­tilled down to a sin­gle game, with odds of win­ning that are roughly the same as win- ning a coin flip - and wholly un­fair at worst.

This was never more so than in 2015, when the Pitts­burgh Pi­rates fin­ished with the se­cond-best record in the NL, at 98-64, but were still two games be­hind St. Louis in the NL Cen­tral. Forced into the wild card game, the Pi­rates lost to the Chicago Cubs, 4-0, be­hind a com­plete-game shutout by Jake Ar­ri­eta. Sea­son over.

Per­haps be­cause it was the Pi­rates, the calls for a change to the play­off for­mat to make it more fair never went any­where. (Un­der­stand­ably, MLB’s re­sponse to any com­plaints about the wild card game amount to some ver­sion of: “If you don’t like the wild card for­mat, just win your di­vi­sion.”) But as tends to hap­pen in base­ball, should a 105- or 110-win Yan­kees or Red Sox team lose in the wild card game to a team they out­per­formed by 10 or more wins in the reg­u­lar sea­son, you will see a tidal wave of out­cry and calls for change.

And it just might work. Many in the game al­ready hate the one-game wild card. And if the league and the union could find room in the sched­ule for four ad­di­tional off-days dur­ing the reg­u­lar sea­son - as they did in the most re­cent la­bor agree­ment - surely they can find a way to squeeze in a best-of-three wild card round.

In the mean­time, the 2018 Red Sox and Yan­kees have no choice but to duke it out un­der the cur­rent for­mat, which means both teams will be highly mo­ti­vated to win the di­vi­sion and avoid the dreaded “coin-flip game.” That could turn this sum­mer into one of the hottest trade-dead­line sea­sons in re­cent mem­ory, with both teams seek­ing to shore up their weak­nesses ahead of the an­tic­i­pated duel to the fin­ish.

For the Yan­kees, who host the Wash­ing­ton Na­tion­als for a two-game se­ries in the Bronx be­gin­ning Tues­day, this al­most cer­tainly means adding a start­ing pitcher from a pool of can­di­dates that could in­clude Texas’s Cole Hamels, Toronto’s J.A. Happ or Mar­cus Stoman, Detroit’s Michael Ful­mer, Tampa Bay’s Chris Archer or San Diego’s Tyson Ross.

“Like ev­ery front of­fice,” Yan­kees gen­eral man­ager Brian Cash­man said, “we’re con­stantly try­ing to at­tack our weak­nesses and hope our strengths re­main our strengths.”

And for the Red Sox, it could mean adding one or more re­liev­ers - al­though the Red Sox’s MLB-high pay­roll of roughly $235 mil­lion, which al­ready ex­ceeds the lux­ury tax thresh­old by nearly $40 mil­lion, could present some prob­lems.

There are no guar­an­tees, of course, that both teams can con­tinue to play at such a clip. Take 2002, for ex­am­ple. Through the same date on the sched­ule, the Red Sox (40-18) were on pace for 111 wins and the Yan­kees (39-22) were on pace for 104. But while the Yan­kees more or less main­tained that pace, fin­ish­ing with 103 wins to win the di­vi­sion, the 2002 Red Sox went 53-51 the rest of the way, fin­ished with 93 wins and missed the play­offs en­tirely.

But as things stand, it has been years - per­haps go­ing back to 2009, or 2004, or 2002, or even 1978 - since the Red Sox and Yan­kees were both this good at the same time, and just as long since the great ri­valry has felt this in­tense or this es­sen­tial.

If the pur­pose of the se­cond wild card - and the one-game wild card play­off - was to boost the value of a di­vi­sion ti­tle and thus rein­vig­o­rate the di­vi­sion races, MLB has cer­tainly ac­com­plished that. But should one of these teams, at the end of an epic 162-game march, see their bril­liant sea­son end in the wild card game, the cries for change will be vast, loud and re­lent­less

 ?? File photo by Louri­ann Mardo-Zayat / lmzart­works.com ?? Dustin Pe­droia and the Bos­ton Red Sox need to win the Amer­i­can League East to avoid play­ing in the one-game wild card play­off. Cur­rently, Bos­ton and the Yan­kees have the league’s best records.
File photo by Louri­ann Mardo-Zayat / lmzart­works.com Dustin Pe­droia and the Bos­ton Red Sox need to win the Amer­i­can League East to avoid play­ing in the one-game wild card play­off. Cur­rently, Bos­ton and the Yan­kees have the league’s best records.

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