In 2006, the Padres and Dodgers tied for first place in the National League West at 88-74. Since 88-74 was good enough to claim the wild card – there was then only one of those – MLB didn’t ask the teams to play a 163rd game to settle the division title. That was awarded to San Diego, which had won the season series over L.A. Both teams made the playoffs. Both lost in the Division Series.
Something similar had happened the year before. The Yankees and Red Sox tied for first in the American League East at 95-67. The Yankees had beaten Boston 10 times in 19 games – those teams really don’t play one another often enough, do they? – and were declared division champs. The Red Sox took the wild card. Both lost in the Division Series.
MLB’s procedure in the days of the single wild card was to play a 163rd game to determine in-or-out – as was the case in 2007, when the Rockies and Padres tied for the wild card – but not to determine seeding. There was no great advantage to be being a division titlist, as opposed to a wild card, in those days – just home-field advantage in the Division Series, which in a best-of-five really isn’t that big a deal. Today there are two wild cards, and everything is different.
Today is the final day of a six-month season. The identity of the 10 playoff teams is known. The American League side of the bracket is set. The National League is not. All the Atlanta Braves know is that they will not be playing a game Monday. The other four NL qualifiers could be.
The Cubs and Brewers are tied atop the East. The Rockies and Dodgers are tied in the West. If both the Cubs and Brewers win – or if both lose – today, they’ll play a 163rd game at Wrigley Field on Monday. The same applies in the West, where a 163rd game would see Colorado play in Dodger Stadium.
And here’s the weird deal: Any Monday game would not be an elimination game. A Monday game would only determine the opponent for the loser’s elimination game, the dreaded wild card play-in, which would be staged Tuesday.
When MLB moved to the second wild card in 2012 – we around here recall the first-ever wild card game; the infield fly rule was invoked – it created a two-tier system of qualifiers. The six division winners know they’ll get to stick around for at least three games. Half of the four wild cards are gone after one. The baseball writer Joe Sheehan refers to the wild card play-in as the Coin Flip Game. The purpose of any Monday game(s) would be to keep its winner(s) from being at the mercy of what is essentially a heads-or-tails call on Tuesday.
If the NL Central and/or West are tied after the close of business today, this would be the schedule for two of those teams: Play Monday and lose, then play again Tuesday. Tuesday’s survivor would then be thrust into Game 1 of the Division Series on Thursday. No matter what happens today, this is the Braves’ schedule: Play Game 1 of the Division Series on Thursday.
Any game you don’t have to play in October is a massive bonus: That’s a day’s less work for your pitchers, who’ve already been working for six months and could be asked to keep going until Halloween. And it’s unclear how the teams involved in a 163rd game will play it. Do you use a starter in relief Monday just to keep from having to go through another game Tuesday? How much do you invest in a game that wouldn’t bring elimination?
Sunday’s games already seen much tweaking. The Dodgers announced they’ll start Rich Hill, as opposed to the excellent Walker Buehler, who’s now slated to start a 163rd game. The Rockies said they’ll go with Tyler Anderson, as opposed to German Marquez on short rest, after the Nationals announced they won’t deploy Max Scherzer on Sunday. He would have started were playoff qualification an issue for Rockies – the ol’ integrity-of-the-game thing – but it’s not. Nobody can be eliminated Sunday. If there are games Monday, nobody will be eliminated then. If you’re asking if this is unprecedented, the answer is yes.
One of the most famous moments in baseball annals –Bucky Dent’s home run in Fenway – came in a 163rd game. The Red Sox finished 99-64 and were done. The Yankees won the World Series. Back when the leagues had their own commissioners and rules, the National League would stage a best-of-three tie-breaker series; the 1962 playoff between the Giants and the Dodgers was a classic, with San Francisco scoring four runs in the ninth inning of Game No. 165 to advance to the World Series. But such add-ons always carried a hefty penalty: You won or you went home.
If games are needed Monday, somebody will lose – and then go play again. I don’t know of a workaround: A coin flip would be a tough way to decide who’ll have to suffer through a Coin Flip Game. I do wonder how it will look, though.
The Braves, however, won’t care one whit. If anything, they’ll be rooting for a 12-inning games involving the Rockies and Dodgers today and then 12 more innings on Monday. It’s unlikely the Braves will get Games 1 and 2 of the NLDS at SunTrust Park – for that to happen, they have to win today and the Rockies and Dodgers lose – but they should be the more rested side when they get around to playing.