Coming down the stretch of the MLB season, the powerhouse New York Yankees and the shocking Baltimore Orioles are deadlocked. It's always exciting when the American League East division crown is up for grabs this late in the season, but the drama is enhanced ahead of the 2012 playoffs even more so.
That's all thanks to the new, fresh, do-or-die nature of professional baseball's wildcard format, and this Yanks-O's finish is immediately justifying the change to the October dynamic.
For the uninitiated, the MLB changed the wildcard this season. Instead of just one wildcard team, there are now two, and those two teams square off in a one-game playoff for the right to face a divisional champion in the Divisional Series.
Who will win the American League pennant?
This is where it gets interesting: since the Yanks and O's are fighting for a division title, the top wildcard is yet to be determined.
The stakes are unimaginably high. The winner of the AL East gets home field advantage in at least one playoff series. That's right, the American League pennant itself is still up for grabs: both New York and Baltimore trail the Texas Rangers by only one game for the top playoff seed.
Here are the current AL standings:
|New York Yankees||92-67||1|
No matter what happens, the loser of the AL East—despite such a hair-raising, close finish in the 162-game standings—gets one shot to play their way into the divisional round against the other wildcard qualifier, most likely the Oakland Athletics.
To recap: in the final three games of the ridiculously long baseball season, there are three teams separated by one game, fighting for the American League pennant.
In the case of the two AL East contenders, however, one of them will be left with the shortest of short ends of the stick. One of the teams could hold home field advantage until the World Series, while the other team may only get to Game 163 and be abruptly sent home despite how close it may have been to sitting atop the entire American League.
In Oakland, the Rangers take on their division rivals, the Athletics. The Orioles remain within the AL East in a road set against the Tampa Bay Rays, and the Yankees square off at home against the Boston Red Sox who are primed to play spoiler to their bitter enemy.
The sooner that Major League Baseball can create a playoff atmosphere around what is usually a fairly monotonous, lengthy regular season, the better. This new wildcard system has managed to do just that.
Commissioner Bud Selig or any of the catalysts behind this new system could not have possibly imagined the raging success that this system would generate so quickly, but it is sure to spark debate, controversy and excitement in a sport that is struggling to maintain its status as America's pastime.
Perhaps this stunning story will generate more interest in baseball as the regular season comes to a climatic conclusion.
The genius move by the MLB to throw a change-up at the wildcard has certainly piqued the interest of at least one former diehard fan overnight.