The second wild card was supposed to inject excitement into the MLB postseason race. And it has. More teams than ever are in the hunt, at least theoretically, which means more intrigue, more pressure-packed matchups and more fan enthusiasm.
This season, though, it's also set up a nightmare scenario for one of the American League's two best teams.
Entering play Thursday, the Oakland A's and Los Angeles Angels owned the best and second-best records in baseball, respectively. They'll face each other 10 more times in the season's final two months, which means this race will likely go down to the wire.
And the stakes couldn't be higher.
Barring a precipitous slide, both the A's and Angels will qualify for the postseason. Yet while one team would take the AL West crown and a guaranteed spot in the division series, the loser would face a one-game, do-or-die wild-card matchup.
If the season ended July 31, that game would be played between Los Angeles and the Toronto Blue Jays. The Jays are certainly a formidable opponent (really, any team is scary in a one-game, anything-can-happen scenario).
But there's an even more ominous possibility.
Lurking on the edge of the wild-card picture is a third club from the loaded AL West—the Seattle Mariners and their ace in the hole, Felix Hernandez.
Imagine it. The A's and Angels go at it neck and neck through September, trading blows. Then, when the dust settles, the team that comes up short finds itself staring at none other than King Felix himself.
After 162 games of struggle and success, it'd all hinge on beating one of the toughest pitchers in the game.
The Angels and A's have aces of their own. Just as no one wants to see Hernandez in a win-or-go-home contest, no one wants to see Jered Weaver. Or Jeff Samardzija. Or Jon Lester, now that the A's have consummated a swap for the All-Star left-hander (along with outfielder Jonny Gomes), sending Cuban slugger Yoenis Cespedes to the Boston Red Sox, as first reported by WEEI.com's Alex Speier.
That's the point, though. For both teams involved, the wild-card matchup is the ultimate crapshoot—with everything on the line.
Fox Sports' Dave Cameron makes the case for how wide the gap has become between division winner and wild-card qualifier:
The reward for even winning the wild card used to be a best-of-five series that would likely result in at least two home playoff games, a nifty little reward for a team's fan base. Under the new system, however, the carrot at the end of the wild-card stick is just a single-game winner-take-all affair, with the loser only extending their season by one additional day.
Or what about this crazy scenario, posed by Angels catcher Chris Iannetta to Mike DiGiovanna of the Los Angeles Times?
"One of us could take off and leave everyone else behind, or we could hang tight until the end," said Iannetta. "Who knows? Maybe we'll have a one-game playoff. It could be fun."
Fun is one way of putting it. In that case, the loser of the one-game division-deciding game would go on to the one-game wild-card play-in. Two games, two sudden-death gut checks.
Of course, it's all speculation at this point. With more than 50 games left to play, a lot can change: injuries, trades, unexpected hot (or cold) streaks. There are a host of variables that could alter the AL landscape in a hurry.
Right now, though, one thing's clear: The advent of the second wild card has endowed the division title with an importance it hasn't had since, well, the advent of the first wild card in 1994.
Count Angels skipper Mike Scioscia among the new format's defenders, even if it could end up costing his club.
"The primary focus of every team in baseball that is contending is to win your division," Scioscia told the Los Angeles Daily News' Robert Morales, "and I think that's a good thing.”
Certainly it's an exciting thing—and an intriguing thing.
But for one of the league's top teams, it might also be a heartbreaking thing.
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