The end of the 2012 MLB regular season has nearly arrived and both leagues have exciting playoff races that are continuing to heat up.
The Washington Nationals, Atlanta Braves, Cincinnati Reds and San Francisco Giants have all clinched postseason spots in the National League. The American League remains wide open and any team could still be heading home after October 3.
With new playoff rules in place, five teams from each league will make the playoffs as there are two wild cards instead of just one. Competition for those spots will be extremely tight.
Here is everything you need to know about this year’s playoff race.
Winning the Division is Important
One of the MLB’s primary motivations in adjusting the postseason format was to give division winners a marked advantage in the playoffs over wild card teams.
The two wild cards from each league will face each other in a one-game playoff, with the winners moving on to the Division Series against the team with the best record. Under the new format, it does not matter if the two teams facing each other in this round are from the same division.
Previously, it made little difference if a team entered the postseason as a wild card or a division winner. But now, teams that win their division will have the safety of a five-game series to defeat their first opponent, while wild card teams must lay their season on the line in one game.
Currently, the Reds and the Giants are the only teams who have clinched their divisions.
The new playoff format also comes with a new set of tiebreak rules. With each tiebreak scenario, teams will have to earn their spot in the postseason by settling the deadlock on the field.
The simplest scenario involves two teams tying for a division title or a wild card spot, in which case they would simply play one game to determine who receives the spot in question.
But there are multiple headache-inducing scenarios that can arise if three or four teams finish with the same records while competing for a playoff spot.
In these situations, teams will be designated a letter (A, B, C or D) based on several different factors. These letters are a form of seeding teams, and based on how many teams are involved in the tie—as well as whether they are playing for a division title, a wild card spot or both—the teams will play one or two games to determine who makes it to the postseason.
How the Race Currently Looks
If the season ended today, the New York Yankees, Detroit Tigers and Texas Rangers would win their respective divisions, while the Baltimore Orioles and the Oakland Athletics would be the wild cards.
The Los Angeles Angels and the Tampa Bay Rays are two and three games off of the two teams in the wild card spots, respectively. With four teams this close to each other there is a realistic possibility of tie breakers being needed to sort out the wild card spots.
The Chicago White Sox are six games back in the wild card race but are just one game back from the Tigers in the AL Central. The Yankees and the Orioles are also separated by just one game in the AL East, and these two divisions offer the best chances of a tie breaker.
The playoff picture in the NL is significantly clearer than in the AL. The Giants and the Reds have clinched their divisions, while the Braves and Nationals are battling for the NL East title, with the loser earning a wild card spot. This will likely be Atlanta, as Washington holds a four-game lead.
As it stands, the St. Louis Cardinals would receive the last entry into the postseason, with the Los Angeles Dodgers lurking three games back. If a tiebreaker game is needed to settle anything in the NL, it will likely be between the Cardinals and Dodgers for this last playoff spot.
The Milwaukee Brewers are hanging on by a thread, as they sit five games back of the Cardinals with five games to play.