Game changer: Wild Card format continues to thrill
By Mike Bauman
The Wild Card, once derided as a mere gimmick, has now become an indispensable part of baseball's September landscape.
This year, five of the six division races are all but decided. The Cubs clinched the National League Central after a Sept. 15 loss, and they have nearly clinched home-field advantage through the NL postseason. The Nationals have a comfortable lead in the NL East. The Dodgers have a lead that is only slightly less comfortable in the NL West.
The Rangers, with the American League's best record, are on the verge of clinching the West. The Indians are closing in on their own division title in the Central. The one race that looked like it could be a classic run to the wire, the AL East, saw the Red Sox open up a lead with seven straight victories over division rivals -- four against the Yankees, three against the Orioles.
Where is the vast majority of baseball's September drama; the taut, tight, tense races that are virtually built into the game's calendar? That stuff is in the chase for the Wild Card spots.
There are seven teams still alive in the AL Wild Card hunt for two Wild Card berths. Six of them were within 2 1/2 games of a Wild Card berth after Wednesday night's games. The seventh is the Royals, and if they are on the margins of this race, they are also the defending World Series champions and some respect must still be shown for their demonstrated comeback abilities.
The other clubs, in order of their standing going into Wednesday night, were Toronto, Baltimore, Detroit, Houston, Seattle and New York.
In the NL, three teams -- the Giants, the Cardinals and the Mets -- played their first 152 games to reach a tie for the two Wild Card berths: Two more -- the Marlins and the Pirates -- still have outside shots at qualifying for the postseason.
In total, with 1 1/2 weeks left in the season, there were still 12 clubs in the Wild Card races, meaning 30 percent of the franchises still had postseason hopes not based on division titles.
That kind of thing was the hope when former Commissioner Bud Selig pushed for the Wild Card and an expanded postseason format, which were initiated in 1995. One of the reasons behind the Wild Card concept was the 1993 San Francisco club that won 103 games, but had nowhere to go after it finished second to Atlanta in the NL West.
Wasn't there room for exceptional teams that didn't win a division to reach the postseason? There was and this development turned out to be good for both baseball the game and baseball the business.
The initial criticism, that the addition of more teams would dilute the quality of postseason play and cheapen the competition, was basically erased by the postseason performances of the Wild Card teams.
Of the 21 World Series played since the Wild Card was in place, six have been won by Wild Card teams. The Marlins became the first Wild Card team to win the World Series in 1997. Then they won again in 2003, thus gaining the distinction of being the only team to win two World Series without winning a division title.
The Angels won the 2002 World Series as a Wild Card team, and they had to beat another Wild Card team, the Giants, to do so.
The Red Sox brought their 86-year championship drought to an end by winning the 2004 World Series. That result also meant that Wild Card teams had won the World Series in three straight years.
The 2011 Cardinals also won the World Series as a Wild Card team.
In 2012, the Wild Card was expanded to two Wild Card teams in each league. This meant that five teams in each league, or one-third of all teams, would qualify for the postseason. There were renewed complaints that the postseason field would be diluted, although these complaints were not as widespread as they had been in the mid-'90s.
Again, Wild Card teams outperformed the criticism, when in 2014 both World Series teams were Wild Card teams. The Giants beat the Royals in a terrific seven-game series and the expanded Wild Card postseason was once again on very solid ground.
In addition to the six times when Wild Card teams have won the World Series, there have been six times when Wild Card teams reached the World Series and lost. They were the 2000 Mets, '02 Giants, '05 Astros, '06 Tigers, '07 Rockies and '14 Royals.
The Wild Card has worked, in September and beyond.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.