Mark Wiedmer: MLB Managers would make wildcard different

Mark Wiedmer: MLB Managers would make wildcard different

September 17th, 2012 by Mark Wiedmer in Sportscolumns

Atlanta Braves' Chipper Jones, right, celebrates with teammate Freddie Freeman after the Braves defeated the Washington Nationals 5-1 in a baseball game Sunday, Sept. 16, 2012, in Atlanta.

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

ATLANTA - If the National League baseball playoffs began today instead of Oct. 5, the Washington Nationals would receive the No. 1 seed, since they currently own the NL's best record.

But where would the Nats play the first game of their best-of-five division series against the NL wildcard game winner?

"On the road," said Washington manager Davey Johnson late Sunday afternoon at Turner Field as he stood in the visitor's dugout, hours before the Nationals' 5-1 loss to the Atlanta Braves.

"You'd think the team with the best record would open at home, wouldn't you? But I try not to worry about things I have no control over. It is what it is. I understand they'll look at it again after the season. Right now, I just want to make sure we win the division."

A lot about the wildcard round perplexes, beginning with the fact that it's a single-game playoff. So if the Braves continue to hold their comfortable lead over St. Louis and the LA Dodgers for the first wildcard spot rather than the second, they'll host the team with the NL's fifth best record on Friday, Oct. 5. The winner advances to the best-of-five division series on Sunday, Oct. 7.

And should that NL No. 1 seed continue to be the Nationals, the Braves would welcome NL East brother Washington to the Big Peach for the first two games of the division series, with the final three -- if necessary -- being played in Washington D.C.

That in itself is awkward at best, since division teams have always been put in the opposite side of the draw since the wildcard spot was first instituted during the 1995 postseason.

But at least they're following seeds, which are based solely on a team's record.

As Atlanta's Chipper Jones noted, "If you both keep winning, you're going to have to play them eventually."

But, really, one game to decide who advances after battling for 162 regular-season games just to get to the playoffs? After 162 games, MLB couldn't at least make the wildcard round best-of-three, which would presumably favor the better team?

"Obviously, I wish there'd been a fifth team last year," said Braves skipper Fredi Gonzalez. "We would have made the playoffs.

"And I think it's great for fan interest. Here we are a couple of weeks from the end of the season and you've got six or seven teams still battling for those last couple of spots. That's good for the game."

But that doesn't mean Gonzalez thinks the current wildcard format is good for a team like the Braves, who could easily finish seven or eight games clear of the team that would need but one good performance to send Atlanta home for the winter.

"I definitely don't like the one game," he said. "I'd rather it be a 2-out-of-3 series. I think the higher seed deserves that. But I also think the division winner deserves advantages, too. Winning a division is a prestigious accomplishment. It should carry some advantages."

Under its current format the only advantage the highest seeded division winner has over the wildcard winner is that the final three games of the best-of-five would be played on the division winner's home field.

That's assuming, of course, that the division series reaches a fifth game.

Yet ESPN analyst Orel Hershiser sees a completely different reason for adding a second wildcard team other than to draw in more fans and make the regular-season more interesting.

"If you're an owner, it doesn't cost as much to make the playoffs," said the 1988 NL Cy Young winner. "You can just aim to have the second best wildcard record. That could be a big difference from having to win your division to reach the postseason."

Even the controversy over whether the wildcard playoff should be one game or best-of-three could come down to money.TV money.

The opening games of the four best-of-five division series contests last season earned an average TV rating of 2.4. The deciding Game Five of the Philadelphia-St. Louis series drew a 5.1 rating.

Americans like all-or-nothing drama. It's one reason why the NCAA Tournament, the NFL and college football earn the TV ratings they do. You win or you go home, your season done. No second chances.

Even a few of those who don't like this year's wildcard format admit they understand why it was introduced this way.

"I don't like it," said Braves reserve slugger Eric Hinske. "I think it needs to be a two-out-of-three series. But adding another team is great for fans, and that's good for baseball."

Unless you're the fan of the team whose playoff run is done after one.