New wild-card format makes final games of season a wild, wild ride

St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Jon Jay and third

St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Jon Jay and third baseman David Freese celebrate their win against the Chicago Cubs. (Sept. 22, 2012) (Credit: Getty)

David Lennon

David Lennon has been a staff writer for David Lennon

David Lennon has been a staff writer for Newsday since

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The Empire Strikes Back, Wrath of Khan, The Dark Knight -- all instances where the sequel was better than the original.

So for everyone who marveled at the heart-stopping finish to the final day of last season, get ready for Game 162, or Revenge of the Wild Card, coming to a ballpark near you Wednesday, Oct. 3.

A year ago, both the Red Sox and Braves completed dizzying collapses by losing the final game, and as a consequence, thrusting the Rays and Cardinals, respectively, into the playoffs. The fact that all of the AL East permutations were decided within minutes that same night enhanced the evening's mythology.

Hoping to make that magic an annual event, as well as attach more significance to a division title, commissioner Bud Selig added a second wild-card for 2012, a move that also spun off a one-game, do-or-die, first-round playoff between those two clubs.

In doing so, Selig may have created a monster, at least from a logistical standpoint. With 15 or fewer games remaining in the regular season, 18 teams were within 5 1/2 games of a playoff spot. Only two had locked up postseason berths -- the Nationals and Reds -- and every other division still was in play.

"It's been amazing," Selig told Newsday's Marc Carig. "The first thing I do every day -- I did this morning, at 6 to work out -- was to see who won. It's fascinating to watch the different things that happen. We really have a little bit of everything.

"But I've always said, you really judge how well you've done by the number of teams, Labor Day and then post-Labor Day, that are still in the hunt. And, I mean, even I didn't think we could do this well. It's surprising."

But here's the tricky part. With the revamped schedule, which was done on the fly to accommodate the reformatted playoffs, it doesn't leave much room to settle tiebreakers, i.e., play-in games, should they be necessary. Those will have to be shoehorned in on Oct. 4, with the wild-card games scheduled for the next day.

Look at what could happen to the Cardinals. In one possible scenario, St. Louis would have to fly to Los Angeles to face the Dodgers, win that tiebreaker, and then travel back to play the Braves. That's two elimination games, on other sides of the country, in 24 hours.

With the wild-card winner hosting the first two games of the divisional round, however, that would eliminate the Cardinals potentially needing to fly back again to San Francisco immediately afterward.

That's one interesting wrinkle the new format has created, which would further escalate the heightened drama building for the end of the regular season. And drama makes for good TV, something that Selig is always mindful of when it comes to his broadcast partners.

"I couldn't be happier," Selig said. "I couldn't even tell you it could work out this well. It's been remarkable. And the interest is tremendous -- attendance-wise, television-wise. It couldn't have worked out any better than it has."

Selig's modification also added more integrity to the late-September schedule. Without the wild card as a safety net, there's no more "coast season" for some teams -- such as the Yankees -- who are desperately fighting to stay out of that elimination game. The prospect of one-and-done is tough to stomach after an exhausting 162 to get there. "We know what we have to do," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "We have to win every day."

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