This year, baseball's new playoff format begins the postseason with some sizzle.
Two additional wild-card teams expand the playoff field, but will oppose one another in a one-game playoff, with the winner facing the top division champion.
As if the postseason didn't already create enough drama, the one-game playoff doesn't allow either of the wild-card winners to settle in and enjoy their surroundings. The stakes are high, and they're immediate. One and done.
But the current wild-card standings present the possibility of some extremely intriguing matchups and storylines. Not just team versus team, but batter against pitcher and pitcher versus pitcher. Even if it's just one game between the wild cards, it could be memorable.
Here are the five potential matchups that look like the most exciting possibilities for the one-game wild-card playoff.
What if a one-game playoff between the Detroit Tigers and Los Angeles Angels came down to a Justin Verlander vs. Jered Weaver pitching matchup?
If you want drama, the two best starting pitchers in the American League opposing one another provides plenty of it. Verlander and Weaver finished first and second in last year's AL Cy Young Award voting, and they could very well do so again this season.
In addition, these two teams feature the two biggest free-agent prizes from the offseason. Albert Pujols surprised most everyone in baseball by forsaking the St. Louis Cardinals to sign with the Angels. And the Tigers pretty much shocked the world by swooping in to sign Prince Fielder after losing Victor Martinez to a knee injury.
The Angels and Tigers also have a bit of a grudge between them dating back to last season. Verlander won the duel over Weaver by taking a no-hitter into the eighth inning. But Weaver lost his composure over Magglio Ordonez and Carlos Guillen watching their respective home runs go into the seats. Weaver was ejected after throwing at Alex Avila.
Erick Aybar also caused an uproar when he attempted to break up Verlander's no-hitter with a bunt. That led to a controversial play in which Verlander was charged with an error trying to throw Aybar out at first base.
That game left Tigers and Angels fans wanting a playoff rematch. They didn't get it last year, and Ordonez and Guillen are retired now. But renewing the rivalry for a chance to advance in the playoffs would be just as fun.
In what could be the last game of his major league career, Chipper Jones might have to face reigning NL Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw. How's that for a retirement gift?
There's not much history between the two. Jones has four career plate appearances against Kershaw, getting one hit and one walk.
Would Kershaw make sure Jones' last game wasn't particularly memorable, holding him without a hit? Or might Jones have one more big hit in him, getting a key knock off of one of the best pitchers in the National League?
Two of the Dodgers' new additions have plenty of experience facing the Braves from their NL East days, however.
Hanley Ramirez has 421 career plate appearances versus Atlanta, compiling a .266/.361/.438 slash average with 13 home runs and 44 RBI. Shane Victorino has a .282/.330/.451 average with 11 home runs, 10 triples and 50 RBI in 427 plate appearances.
Maybe we could call this matchup "Big Money versus Moneyball."
The Los Angeles Angels and Oakland Athletics have vastly different philosophies when it comes to building baseball teams and assembling rosters.
The Angels, of course, have piles of cash from their huge television contract to push across the table to players like Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson. They also have a prosperous minor league system that provides the kinds of prospects that can get a pitcher like Zack Greinke.
Meanwhile, the Athletics look for the undervalued players who can make a major contribution. They might not have flashy names, but they get on base, show opportunistic power and support their pitchers with good defense.
But the A's will spend some money when they need to. Oakland came up with a big surprise when they signed Cuban outfielder Yoenis Cespedes to a four-year, $36 million contract, beating out teams like the Miami Marlins and Detroit Tigers.
Do the A's have another surprise in them? Can the small-market, low-payroll team beat one of their big-market, cash-loaded counterparts?
We could call this the Dante Hicks Classic, in honor of the convenience store clerk who wasn't even supposed to be here today, yet had to put in a full day of work.
OK, maybe that's a stretch. But neither the Oakland Athletics nor Baltimore Orioles were supposed to be in the postseason. Both were expected to be at or near the bottom of their respective divisions while their presumably more accomplished rivals played meaningful baseball in September and October.
An O's versus A's playoff would surely provoke a bunch of belly-aching over how unappealing a matchup it is, and TBS would be banging its head against a desk because it lost out on the Los Angeles and Detroit television markets.
But who cares about that stuff? If the Orioles and Athletics are in the wild-card playoff, they obviously played well enough to be there. It's not about style points, bigger markets or big names. It's about baseball.
Would Josh Reddick, Chris Carter and Yoenis Cespedes flex some muscle against the O's pitching staff. Or would Wei-Yei Chen or Jason Hammel continue to surprise and toss a gem in a one-game playoff?
This matchup would be a victory for any fan who dislikes money determining who gets the best players and puts together the best teams. The small-market team rises!
No matter who the Pittsburgh Pirates might play in a one-game wild-card playoff, they will be the story. Ending a 20-year postseason drought would be a victory regardless of the result.
But if the Pirates are just happy to be there, their postseason won't last very long. That will be especially true if they face an experienced playoff team like the defending World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals.
A Pirates-Cardinals playoff would be a matchup of new guard versus old guard.
The postseason would be an entirely new experience for a Pittsburgh team full of unfamiliar names and budding stars. The Cardinals, of course, are all too familiar with playoff pressure. They beat three favored opponents and fought through a grueling seven-game World Series on their way to a championship in 2011.
What if A.J. Burnett gets the start for the Pirates in this one-game playoff? He seemed to buckle under the pressure of heavy expectations with the New York Yankees, yet pitched well in his ALDS appearance against the Tigers last season. Will he thrive as the ace of a playoff team? This would be further validation for him.
Of course, if the Cardinals quickly ended the Pirates' postseason run, it could be seen as the baseball world order being restored—or maintained. St. Louis could keep the postseason safe from brash upstarts like the Pirates.
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