The Twins witnessed that harsh reality just last year.
It was Sept. 30, 2008, and Minnesota had just come off a win over the Royals in game No. 162 to stay alive and live to face the division-rival White Sox in a one-game playoff.
They pitched well, they fielded well. But one mistake from starter Nick Blackburn in the seventh, one solid swing by veteran Jim Thome and 103 spectacular pitches by White Sox lefty John Danks -- en route to eight shutout innings -- sent Minnesota packing, and Chicago to the postseason.
"You never want to put 162 games into one game," first baseman Justin Morneau said that night. "But that's what ended up happening. You don't want to come down to one shot, but that's what [happened]. We're going home, and they're going to the playoffs. It's going to hurt for a while. It's going to be a long night for sure."
They are a rarity, but when they occur, these winner-take-all, one-gamers have a possibility of becoming epics.
Back when the top team in each league went directly to the World Series, the NL used a three-game format if two teams in that league were tied for first place at the end of regulation. There were four of those, the first in 1946, the last in 1962, and including 1951, when the Giants' Bobby Thomson hit "The Shot Heard 'Round the World" against Brooklyn's Ralph Branca in the third and decisive game.
The AL always used a one-game tiebreaker and there was only one, in 1948, before the League Championship Series was adopted in 1969.
WINNERS TAKE ALL
|Major League Baseball is the only major sports league that decides whether teams that are tied for a single playoff berth advance or go home the old-fashioned way: on the field. Other leagues, such as the NFL, NBA and NHL, deploy a series of statistical tiebreakers, such as head-to-head matchups and divisional records. Baseball's on-the-field solution has led to some of the sport's most memorable games.
Four tiebreaker games were to decide division titles, three were for the Wild Card and one was for the World Series.
Four were in the American League, four in the National League.
Most consecutive seasons a tiebreaker game was needed: three (2007-09).
Most consecutive seasons not needed (since LCS was adopted in 1969): 14 (1981-94).
Teams with home-field advantage have won four of the eight games, with all of those victories coming within the last five tiebreakers.
ONE-GAME TIEBREAKER RESULTS
|Sept. 30, 2008||AL Central||White Sox 1, Twins 0|
|Oct. 1, 2007||NL Wild Card||Rockies 9, Padres 8, 13 innings|
|Oct. 4, 1999||NL Wild Card||Mets 5, Reds 0|
|Sept. 28, 1998||NL Wild Card||Cubs 5, Giants 3|
|Oct. 2, 1995||AL West||Mariners 9, Angels 1|
|Oct. 6, 1980||NL West||Astros 7, Dodgers 1|
|Oct. 2, 1978||AL East||Yankees 5, Red Sox 4|
|Oct. 4, 1948||AL pennant||Indians 8, Red Sox 3|
|HOW THE WINNERS FARED|
|1948||Indians||Won World Series|
|1978||Yankees||Won LCS, won World Series|
|1995||Mariners||Won ALDS, lost ALCS|
|1999||Mets||Won NLDS, lost NLCS|
|2007||Rockies||Won NLDS, won NLCS, lost WS|
|2008||White Sox||Lost ALDS|
Since then, if a tiebreaker had been needed, it's been a uniform one game for both leagues. There have been only seven since 1969, with four determining division titles and three the Wild Card winners.
These extra-curricular affairs, which count as regular-season games, have produced some of baseball's most memorable moments: Bucky Dent's homer at Fenway Park in 1978, giving the Yanks the AL East title and sending Red Sox fans on to another generation of heartache, and 2007's first-of-the-21st-century battle in the Rockies that see-sawed all night until Colorado won with Matt Holliday's game-winning ghost tag of home plate.
"If that had been a Yankees-Red Sox game, it would be considered one of the greatest of all time," said Ted Leitner, a long-time Padres announcer.
But there have been some duds along the way, too: blowouts by the Astros over the Dodgers (1980), the Mariners over the Angels (1995) and the Mets over the Reds (1999).
And there have been some anomalies.
From 1946-80, the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers were involved in the first five of the eight playoffs involving NL teams -- two of them heartbreak losses to the rival Giants in 1951 and 1962. In the AL, the Red Sox took part in the first two one-gamers in 1948 and 1978, also losing in 1948 to the Indians at Fenway Park.
There have only been four such playoffs for postseason berths in the AL and eight in the NL.
Since 1994, when the leagues split into three divisions each, the Wild Card berths were adopted and Division Series were added to the postseason mix, it has been much more difficult to tie for a division title.
By rule, if two teams tie for the division title on the final day of the season and the Wild Card winner doesn't come from another division, there is no playoff. Tiebreaker rules are used with the head-to-head record between the two teams during the regular season as the primary consideration.
This has already happened three times.
In 2001, the Astros and Cardinals tied for first in the NL Central with records of 93-69. The Astros won the division and the Cards won the Wild Card. In 2005, the Yankees and Red Sox each finished 95-67 in the AL East. The Yankees, having posted the better head-to-head record, won the title, the Red Sox the Wild Card. And in 2006, the Padres and Dodgers finished tied with records of 88-74 in the National League West. The Padres won the West and the Dodgers the Wild Card.
There was one departure, though, under the most recent playoff format: in 1995, the Mariners, after a spirited September comeback, found themselves tied with the Angels at 78-66 atop the AL West in a season shortened at the outset by a players' strike that also knocked out the end of the 1994 season and playoffs. The Yankees, at 79-65, won the Wild Card. Thus, the Angels and Mariners had to play a one-game playoff for the division title.
Here are capsules of the seven one-game playoffs since MLB expanded its playoff format in 1969:
Sept. 30, 2008, White Sox 1, Twins 0
Oct. 1, 2007, Rockies 9, Padres 8, 13 innings
The White Sox beat the Tigers in a rainout makeup game, pushing them to an 88-74 record to finish out the official regular season and catapult them to a one-game playoff against the Twins, who were coming off losing two of three to the Royals. With one game deciding the two clubs' postseason fate, it was all about Danks, the White Sox's left-hander who pitched eight shutout innings of two-hit ball. That, and a solo homer by Thome in the seventh off Blackburn -- who made just that one mistake in 6 1/3 frames -- was all Chicago needed to play on in October.
The Padres lost on the final day of the regular season and the Rockies won to finish at 89-73, forcing the one-game Wild Card playoff game at Coors Field. The Rockies held the lead twice during regulation, only to see the Padres come back to tie. In the top of the 13th, Scott Hairston hit a two-run homer off Jorge Julio and San Diego took an 8-6 lead, its first of the game. In came all-time career saves leader Trevor Hoffman, who imploded. The first three batters belted two doubles and a triple, tying the score. Holliday stood on third -- 90 feet away -- with a chance to win the game. He didn't disappoint.
Oct. 4, 1999, Mets 5, Reds 0
Both teams won on the final day of the regular season to finish at 96-66, setting up a Wild Card playoff game at old Cinergy Field (Riverfront Stadium) in Cincinnati. It wasn't much of a battle. The Mets scored twice in the top of the first on Edgardo Alfonzo's two-run homer and never looked back. By the sixth inning, they led, 5-0, with Al Leiter on his way to a two-hit shutout. Pokey Reese and Jeffrey Hammonds had the only hits, both singles. Steve Parris started for the Reds, didn't make it out of the third inning and took the loss.
Sept. 28, 1998, Cubs 5, Giants 3
Both teams lost on the final day of season to finish at 89-73, setting up the Wild Card playoff game at Wrigley Field. The Cubs built a 4-0 lead off Giants starter Mark Gardner. And when they scored a single run in the eighth to make it 5-0, their first postseason berth since 1989 seemed secure. But wait. These are the Cubs. This is the curse. In the ninth, the Giants started picking away, scoring a run and setting up a bases-loaded, no-out situation for Barry Bonds. With the crowd standing and in clear angst, Bonds lined a sacrifice fly to center, scoring the second run against left-hander Terry Mulholland. Rod Beck came in to get the final two outs: a Jeff Kent run-producing grounder and a Joe Carter pop fly to end the game. It was his 51st save of the season.
Oct. 2, 1995, Mariners 9, Angels 1
The Angels had an 11-game lead in the AL West as late as Aug. 9. By Sept. 20, the Mariners had caught them, but the Halos won six of their final seven games, including the finale at Oakland, to keep the two knotted on the final day of the season. Meanwhile, the Mariners lost three of their last five, including their finale at Texas, to set up the one-game playoff for the division title at the old Kingdome in Seattle. The first six innings matched left-handers Mark Langston of the Angels and Randy Johnson of the Mariners in a pitching duel. With the Mariners leading, 1-0, heading into the seventh, the game got out of hand as they scored four times each in the seventh and eighth to win the first playoff berth in franchise history.
Oct. 6, 1980, Astros 7, Dodgers 1
The game at Dodger Stadium wasn't much, but the last weekend of the season certainly was. The Dodgers trailed the Astros by three games in the NL West with three games at Dodger Stadium between the two teams. The Dodgers had to win out and they did, swiping three one-run games in front of frenzied sellout crowds that Steve Garvey dubbed "the 10th man," setting up the one-game playoff as the teams finished at 92-70. Manager Tommy Lasorda had the option of using a 19-year-old left-hander named Fernando Valenzuela in the playoff game, but he chose the more experienced Dave Goltz. Bad choice. The Astros jumped all over Goltz, knocking him out after three innings. Meanwhile, Joe Niekro tossed a complete-game six-hitter for his 20th win of the season, giving the Astros their first postseason berth in franchise history.
Oct. 2, 1978, Yankees 5, Red Sox 4
It had been another year of turmoil in the Bronx. Manager Billy Martin was fired, replaced by Bob Lemon, and rehired effective for the 1980 season five days later. On July 16, the Yanks trailed the Red Sox by a full 13 games in the AL East. Under the calm hand of "Lem," they caught them on Sept. 10 after the famous four-game sweep at Fenway forever known as the "Boston Massacre." It was then nip and tuck, with the Yanks holding a one-game lead from Sept. 13 until the final day of the season, when they lost and the Red Sox won, setting up the one-game division title playoff game between the two 99-63 teams at Fenway Park. The game was as good as the regular season.
The Sox took a 2-0 lead into the seventh off Yanks ace Ron Guidry, when the tables turned. Dent took former teammate Mike Torrez just enough into the netting above the Green Monster for a three-run homer that gave the Yanks a 3-2 lead. Thurman Munson added an RBI double in the inning. And when Reggie Jackson homered to dead center in the eighth, the Yankees' 5-2 lead looked pretty complete. But it wasn't. Rich "Goose" Gossage bailed out Guidry in the bottom of the seventh. He pitched out of that jam, pitched out of his own self-generated jam as the Sox came back with a pair in the eighth, and induced Carl Yastrzemski to pop out in the ninth with runners on the corners to end one of the most thrilling games and races in baseball history.