WHEN BASEBALL added another layer of postseason playoffs, letting in "wild card" teams that hadn't even won their division championships, there were many, we among them, who thought it was a bad thing. After all, we argued, the long baseball season is a test of a team's worthiness for the championship. If the league's finest, who have proven themselves over 162 games, can be eliminated in a five-game series by some second-place finisher, then excellence goes unrewarded.
On the other hand, excellence, schmexcellence -- sometimes it's best just to let 'em play. This year, the second-place teams are stealing the show. The New York Mets took just four games to eliminate the Arizona Diamondbacks, winners of a hundred this season (perhaps a just fate for a team whose luxury-class customers loll in a swimming pool beyond the outfield fences when they should be sweating in the bleachers). The Boston Red Sox came from two games down to defeat the Cleveland Indians Monday night and provide another national stage for their astonishing pitcher, Pedro Martinez.
Boston had been pretty much written off when Mr. Martinez left with a bad back halfway through the first playoff game. But thanks to the contributions of some of their numerous unsung players and their only other star -- Nomar Garciaparra -- the Red Sox came back to tie the series at 2-2. Then, on Monday night, with hitters for both teams tattooing the walls and the score tied 8-8 after 3 1/2 innings, the Red Sox brought the sore-backed Pedro Martinez in to pitch. The hyperactive fans in Cleveland didn't get it; they chanted his name derisively, as if he were some nervous, overrated kid. Mr. Martinez, the game's best pitcher by far, coolly shut down the Indians without a hit for six innings.
Now the ancient Yankees-Red Sox rivalry will be played out again in a century-ending finale, possibly to be followed by an all-New York Subway Series. Meanwhile, the Atlanta Braves -- baseball's best team with 103 wins in the regular season -- have been unable even to fill their own stadium for the early playoff games. So far as the East Coast media complex is concerned they're little more than a distraction right now -- although a really excellent one, to be sure.