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Wild Card juggernaut moves forward

Wild Card juggernaut moves forward

If the Chicago White Sox are going to end a drought of world championships dating back to 1917, they will have to put an end to one of the hottest streaks in baseball.

By defeating the St. Louis Cardinals for the National League pennant Wednesday night, the Houston Astros are now in position to make it four consecutive years that a Wild Card team has won the World Series.

It will be a remarkable study in contrasts: The White Sox, an inordinately rested team that led the American League with 99 victories and holds the World Series home-field advantage, against an Astros team that clinched the Wild Card berth on the final weekend of the regular season and has gotten here the hardest possible way.

The Anaheim Angels began this run in 2002 by beating the San Francisco Giants in a seven-game series that marked the first time two Wild Cards had met in a World Series. At the time, it was just the second time that a Wild Card had won it all since the expanded playoff format began in 1995, joining the 1997 Florida Marlins.

Those Marlins made it two straight Wild Card champs in 2003, not only beating the New York Yankees in six but also clinching on the Bronx Bombers' home field. Derrek Lee, then the Marlins' first baseman, said that October that he felt Wild Cards have an advantage because they are more "battle-tested" in today's frantic September chases.

The Boston Red Sox became the third consecutive Wild Card world champ last October, and hardly anyone seemed to notice that fact because so much attention was on the mere fact that they had removed the 86-year-old "Curse of the Bambino." It was the latest sign that it doesn't seem to matter anymore if a team wins its own division.

The Astros will open this series Saturday night at U.S. Cellular Field, because the AL was given the World Series home-field advantage by virtue of its victory in the All-Star Game this past July in Detroit. It will be the third consecutive year that the AL has the home-field advantage, something that used to simply alternate between leagues every year. Now the question is whether this curious streak remains alive.

"People that thought we would be down or flat after [the loss in Game 5] don't understand this team at all," Astros third baseman Morgan Ensberg said. "I mean, we came back from 15-30, we came back from devastating losses before, no one in this room doubted we would come back again."

Those types of comments have become standard fare at the outset of recent Fall Classics. The 2003 Marlins talked at length about how they were going to "shock the world" because they were a Wild Card. Last year's Red Sox had to come back from a 3-0 ALCS deficit to get past the Yankees, and they proudly wore the "Idiots" tag as a club that couldn't care less whether it was a Wild Card or a runaway division winner. This year's Astros club is just the latest example of the undaunted, odds-defying Wild Card contender.

If the Wild Card and extra playoff round was instituted to provide more opportunity to more clubs, then it certainly has manifested itself that way.

Starting with 2000, when the New York Mets rode the Wild Card into a Subway Series against the Yankees, there have been 12 teams in the Fall Classic, and that includes 10 different ones. In fact, the last eight World Series participants, including 2005, come from eight different cities. The last time Major League Baseball went four consecutive years with eight different representatives was 1979-82.

Of those 12 World Series teams in this decade, half have been Wild Cards. Houston is the latest, and now the only question is whether this surprising streak will live on, or whether a more dubious streak involving the White Sox will come to an end.

Mark Newman is an enterprise editor for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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