The most significant change to MLB's playoff format this year will be seen in the divisional series round.
Both the AL and NL Division Series will be played in a 2-3 format with the higher seed playing the final three games of a series at home, rather than the traditional 2-2-1 format that's traditionally been employed. The change was made to eliminate a travel day between Games 4 and 5, which was necessary to accommodate the one-game wild-card playoff games.
MLB has the option of returning to the 2-2-1 format next year, so this could be a one-year quirk in the playoff schedule. But the change is a controversial one because teams that finished the regular season with a better record have to play the first two games of their Division Series on the road. That could result in higher seeds falling behind 0-2 in a series and having to win three straight at home to advance.
The New York Yankees and Washington Nationals finished with the best records in the AL and NL, respectively. Could this new playoff format result in the No. 1 seed in each league losing in the Division Series, the first round of the MLB playoffs?
Well, maybe. I'm not so sure the 2-3 format will affect the Nationals.
Washington only played the Cardinals three times at Busch Stadium, winning one of those games. But the Nationals had the best road record in MLB this season at 48-33. That's a .593 winning percentage. The Nats won nearly 60 percent of their road games. Traveling to St. Louis to play the first two games of their NLDS shouldn't faze them.
As NL East rivals, the Nationals and Braves played each other 18 times this season. Washington went 5-4 in Atlanta but also 5-4 at home. Perhaps the Nationals didn't have an advantage at home, but they didn't seem overwhelmed by playing at Turner Field either.
Atlanta could be a relatively familiar environment for the Nationals, given that they played nine games there. They know the travel routine, they're acclimated to the layout of Turner Field and know the Braves quite well by now. Playing Games 1 and 2 of the NLDS in Atlanta should not be an especially disruptive experience.
But how could the 2-3 format affect the Yankees?
The Yankees played only three games at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington this season, going 1-2. But they had a good record on the road, as you would expect from a team that finished with the best record in its league.
Playing the Rangers, who were nearly the AL West champions and the league's top seed, will be difficult for the Yankees regardless of whether the games are in Arlington or the Bronx.
The Orioles present a different obstacle, however. The Yankees split their 18 games vs. Baltimore this season, finishing 9-9 against their AL East rival. Going to Camden Yards shouldn't be a daunting prospect for the Yankees. They went 6-3 in Baltimore this season. So they can win the first two games of their ALDS there.
Yet the Yankees were 3-6 against the O's at Yankee Stadium. Baltimore was the best road team in the AL this season at 48-33. Playing in the Bronx doesn't appear to scare them very much. Sure, the postseason is a different circumstance and pitching in Yankee Stadium with higher stakes will be formidable.
But the last time the Orioles had to play in the Bronx, they trailed the Yankees by three games for the AL East lead. Baltimore needed a series win to slice at least one game off that margin. The O's won two of three games to close within two games of first place. This team has faced pressure while playing at Yankee Stadium and succeeded.
The worst-case scenario for the Yankees is for the Orioles to win the AL wild-card game. Yet they ultimately might not have to worry about it.
Baltimore is going to have a difficult time beating the Rangers in the wild-card playoff. The O's will be starting Joe Saunders, who has an 0-6 record and 9.38 ERA at Rangers Ballpark. Texas will counter with Yu Darvish, their best starting pitcher. Overall, the Orioles went 2-5 vs. the Rangers this season.
Of course, the Orioles have defied expectations all year long. The popular prediction was for them to finish last in the AL East this season. Making the playoffs as a Wild Card was completely unexpected. So who's to say they can't get past the Rangers, especially in a one-game circumstance?
That possibility should make the Yankees nervous. The Yanks could be the team that gets bitten by this 2-3 format, becoming the No. 1 seed that loses because they had to play the first two games of their ALDS on the road.
The Nationals are probably a bit anxious about this as well. And if both top seeds lose in the divisional series round, it's a pretty safe bet that MLB will go back to the 2-2-1 format next year, in the interests of fairness and preventing their best teams from early playoff exits.
Baseball's first big postseason change went well. Adding a second wild-card team in each league made for an exciting end to the regular season. MLB and commissioner Bud Selig are surely hoping the other significant change to the playoff format is equally successful.
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