Major League Baseball’s postseason format hasn’t really been fair since 1993.
That was the last season in which the two division winners from each league faced off for the pennant and a World Series berth.
After the strike-aborted 1994 season, MLB introduced a third division to each league then gave the best second-place teams the opportunity to do in a five-game series that which it couldn’t do over a 162-game schedule.
Now each league has two wild-card teams play a single elimination game to prove one of them worthy of a divisional series challenge.
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To those who think the 162-game summer gauntlet remains the truest test of a contender’s mettle, the expanded format is unfair and competitively ridiculous.
But here’s the thing: The wild-card era has also made September baseball relevant, compelling and so entertaining.
Consider this: Under the two-division format, Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine had the NL West Division by Sept. 7, 1975, thus relegating the final 20 games of their schedule to exhibition status. But as we head into the final weekend of 2018, two divisional titles and one wild-card spot are still up for grabs, as is home-field advantage for most postseason series.
There are fans in 11 major league cities fully engaged in the outcomes of this weekend’s series of decisive games.
For added entertainment value, the schedule makers have seen fit to pit the contenders against their most heated rivals. The Yankees will try to clinch home-field advantage for the wild-card game in Boston. The Dodgers, who could just as easily be knocked out of the final wild-card spot as win the NL West, will have their postseason fate sealed in San Francisco.
And if the Cardinals are to extend this roller coaster of a season and avoid their third straight October at home, it will be at the expense of the hated Cubs at the Friendly Confines.
As of Monday morning, the Cardinals were in control of their own fate, leading the race for the last playoff spot by a 1-1/2 games over the Colorado Rockies. After being swept in three games at home by the Brewers, they now trail the Dodgers by one game.
There are several scenarios that could play out for the Cardinals over the next three days, each dependent on what the Rockies and Dodgers do. Nevertheless, odds are long that the Cardinals can bridge that gap to the playoffs without sweeping the Cubs.
But we’re still a weekend away from consolation prizes.
The Cardinals barely had their noses above the .500 mark at the All-Star break, saw their manager fired, and have turned over the roster through a string of injuries and disappointing performances. Yet here they are, heading into the regular season’s final weekend, just one game removed from a spot in the playoffs.
If you’re a Cardinals fan, you should thank the expanded playoff format and the wild-card era for what promises to be an epic weekend of baseball.
As unfair and ridiculous as it may be.