Divisional games important with new playoff format

Although teams can come back, early rivalry domination helps clinch division titles

Divisional games important with new playoff format

Managers and players always like to take it "one game at a time," often noting that games in April mean just as much in the standings as the seemingly more pressure-packed September matchups.

And while that's true, games against division rivals are more important than ever -- especially with the new playoff format, where winning the division means avoiding the Wild Card Game.

It's only June 20, and 25 of the 30 teams enter play Friday within six games of a Wild Card berth, but early on, it appears the outcome of two division races could come down to one rival dominating the other.

The Braves have the Nationals' number for the second straight year, holding a 6-1 edge over the Nats after opening a four-game series on Thursday in the nation's capital with a 3-0 win. It was Atlanta's 19th win in its last 26 games played against Washington -- including last year's 13-6 edge for the division winners.

Thursday's victory put the Braves just a half-game behind first-place Nationals in the National League East.

"It was a game where we got outpitched and we got outhit. Most times when that happens, you lose that game. It's the way it is," Nats first baseman Adam LaRoche said Thursday. "[The Braves] play us tough. It's plain and simple."

On Thursday in the American League East, the Blue Jays dropped their franchise-record 16th straight game in the Bronx, dating back to 2012. Toronto's record in New York gets even worse when dating to 2011, with a total of two wins in 27 games. The Jays have lost 10 consecutive season series at Yankee Stadium, with a 29-66 record over that span.

The Yankees hold a 5-1 edge this season over Blue Jays, whose division lead over New York is now down to 1 1/2 games.

"It's a big stage here. You have to perform here," Toronto manager John Gibbons said. "Whether you like it or not, whether you're struggling or not, you have to be able to scratch out a win somehow, because that's what the great teams, the teams that go on to win, do. The next time we come to town, we have to change that around a little bit."

Do they really, in order to have a shot at the AL East crown?

Well, it sure as heck wouldn't hurt. But it's not exactly mandatory.

Dominating divisional opponents always helps. That's part of the reason the Tigers were able to hold on to the AL Central title by one game last season, going 15-4 against the second-place Indians -- who lost in the AL Wild Card Game.

It also helped Detroit in 2012, when the Tigers won the division by three games over the White Sox. Detroit had a 12-6 edge over Chicago -- which also stumbled late, going 13-18 in September and October.

The Twins raised the AL Central flag in 2010, winning the division by six games and going 13-5 against the second-place White Sox, while in 2009, the Dodgers won the NL West by three games over the Rockies, thanks in large part to a 14-4 edge over Colorado.

But it's not all doom and gloom. Just look closer at that 2010 season.

The Reds won the NL Central by five games over the Cardinals, despite going 6-12 against St. Louis. The Giants also struggled against the Padres that season, going 6-12 against San Diego before winning the last game of the season against the Friars to clinch the NL West.

Those Giants, if you recall, went on to win the World Series. So even if the Nationals and Blue Jays continue to struggle against the Braves and Yankees, there's still a chance they can win a division title … or more.

Cash Kruth is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @cashkruth. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.