A three-team playoff. Baltimore vs. the Yankees in the American League Division Series. The return of November baseball.
All of these scenarios are possible with the new playoff format, a frantic postseason ride with new rules and new pitfalls. Here's a step-by-step explanation of how the 2012 postseason unfolds:
Oct. 3 – Regular season ends: San Francisco and Cincinnati have already clinched their divisions, and Washington and Texas are close to doing so, too. The real races are between the Yankees and Baltimore in the AL East and the Chicago White Sox and Detroit in the AL Central. But it's entirely possible that either of those divisions remain tied at the end of the day. And that's okay, because...
Oct. 4 – Tiebreakers: If needed any tiebreaker games will be played with a one-game winner-take-all affair. Unlike previous seasons, where division titles were sometimes decided by head-to-head record or other inane methods, the advent of the second wild card—and the added difficulty of being a wild card—has triggered this rule change. But it's still not so simple.
For instance, the Yankees and Baltimore may be tied for the division and also lead the Wild Card standings. In that situation, the two teams would play a one-game playoff, and the loser would then play another one-game playoff the next day against the second Wild Card.
There's also the scenario that three teams could be tied for a Wild Card spot (think the Los Angeles Dodgers making a late charge in the NL or the Rays picking it up in the AL). In that case, the two teams with the best head-to-head record against each other play a tiebreaker. The winner of that game gets one of the Wild Card spots. The loser then plays the third team (which had the worst head-to-head record) for the second Wild Card spot. Then the two Wild Cards play each other again to determine the eventual Wild Card. If you're head is spinning, you're not alone.
Oct. 5 – Wild Card games: If all goes according to plan, the first and second Wild Cards from each league will play each other on this day. But there's still some intrigue. Teams can set their rosters just for this one game and will be able to select a new roster for the Division Series. That means goodbye excess starting pitchers, hello bullpen help, pinch runners and pinch hitters. Think “Managers Gone Wild.”
Oct. 6-7 – Division Series' begin: The No. 2 and No. 3 seeds in each league begin their division series on Oct. 6, and the No. 1 seed plays the Wild Card winner on Oct. 7. There are some quirks here, too.
For one, MLB has eliminated the rule that the Wild Card winner can't play a team from its own division. If Baltimore wins the Wild Card and the Yankees have the best record in the AL, the the two teams would have to square off in the first round. There's also scenarios for a Washington-Atlanta series and a Cincinnati-St. Louis series.
Additionally, the Wild Card winner hosts the division winner with the league's best record for the initial two games of the Division Series before the No. 1 seed closes out the best-of-five series with three games at home. It's a one-year fluke due to scheduling, and next season the format goes back to the typical 2-2-1.
There is also no off day between ALDS Game 5 and ALCS Game 1, creating a quick turnaround and a possible disadvantage for any team whose series that goes the distance.
The Wild Card games, ALDS and NLDS will all be broadcast largely on TBS, with some games on MLB Network.
Oct. 13-14 – Championship Series' begin: The ALCS begins Oct. 13 on TBS and the NLCS starts Oct. 14 on FOX. Nothing crazy here. A normal best-of-seven series.
Oct. 24-Nov. 1 – World Series begins: The World Series starts Oct. 24 on FOX and, if it goes the full seven games, would stretch into November. Only three World Series' have lasted into November: 2001, 2009 and 2010.