In 1993, the Atlanta Braves and San Francisco Giants staged an epic duel for the National League West title — sometimes called the Last Great Pennant Race — with Bobby Cox’s Braves winning 104 games and going on to the NL Championship Series, and Dusty Baker’s Giants finishing second with 103 wins and going home. The next year, Major League Baseball introduced the wild card, in part to prevent a repeat of the 1993 Giants’ cruel fate.
What we are seeing this year with the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees surpasses even that history-altering episode. Roughly a third of the way through the 2018 season, the AL East rivals are winning at a blistering clip — with the Yankees (40-18 entering the weekend) on pace for 112 wins and the Red Sox (43-20) on pace for 111. The standings, though, showed Boston with a half-game lead entering Friday, owing to the fact they had played five more games than New York.
With 13 more head-to-head meetings between the teams — including a season-ending three-game series at Fenway Park on the last weekend of September — this divisional race sets up as a potentially unprecedented battle of rival titans. In the divisional era (since 1969), no two teams from the same division have ever won even 105 games in the same season.
And like the Braves/Giants duel of 25 years ago, this one has the potential to prompt a major change to MLB’s playoff schedule — which, since the introduction of the second wild card in 2012, has pitted the two winningest non-division-champs in each league in a one-game playoff to advance to the Division Series.
As a result, the winner of the Red Sox/Yankees race will likely ease into the playoffs as the AL’s top seed, but the loser will be forced to play — and survive — a single-elimination wild-card game. Imagine a 110-win Yankees or Red Sox juggernaut having to face Seattle’s James Paxton, Houston’s Justin Verlander or the Los Angeles Angels’ Shohei Ohtani in a winner-take-all wild-card game, and you can see why this is a fate to be avoided at all costs.
Ever since it was introduced, the wild-card game has struck some as being capricious at best — a 162-game grind of a season distilled down to a single game, with odds of winning that are roughly the same as winning a coin flip — and wholly unfair at worst.
This was never more so than in 2015, when the Pittsburgh Pirates finished with the second-best record in the NL, at 98-64, but were still two games behind St. Louis in the NL Central. Forced into the wild-card game, the Pirates lost to the Chicago Cubs, 4-0, behind a shutout by Jake Arrieta. Season over.
Perhaps because it was the Pirates, the calls for a change to the playoff format to make it more fair never went anywhere. (Understandably, MLB’s response to any complaints about the wild-card game amount to some version of: “If you don’t like the wild-card format, just win your division.”) But as tends to happen in baseball, should a 105- or 110-win Yankees or Red Sox team lose in the wild-card game to a team they outperformed by 10 or more wins in the regular season, you will see a tidal wave of outcry and calls for change.
And it just might work. Many in the game already hate the one-game wild card. And if the league and the union could find room in the schedule for four additional off-days during the regular season — as they did in the most recent labor agreement — surely they can find a way to squeeze in a best-of-three wild-card round.
In the meantime, the 2018 Red Sox and Yankees have no choice but to duke it out under the current format, which means both teams will be highly motivated to win the division and avoid the dreaded “coin-flip game.” That could turn this summer into one of the hottest trade-deadline seasons in recent memory, with both teams seeking to shore up their weaknesses ahead of the anticipated duel to the finish.
For the Yankees, who host the Washington Nationals for a two-game series in the Bronx beginning Tuesday, this almost certainly means adding a starting pitcher from a pool of candidates that could include Texas’s Cole Hamels, Toronto’s J.A. Happ or Marcus Stroman, Detroit’s Michael Fulmer, Tampa Bay’s Chris Archer or San Diego’s Tyson Ross.
“Like every front office,” Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman said, “we’re constantly trying to attack our weaknesses and hope our strengths remain our strengths.”
And for the Red Sox, it could mean adding one or more relievers — although the Red Sox’s MLB-high payroll of roughly $235 million, which already exceeds the luxury tax threshold by nearly $40 million, could present some problems.
There are no guarantees, of course, that both teams can continue to play at such a clip. Take 2002, for example. Through the same date on the schedule, the Red Sox (40-18) were on pace for 112 wins and the Yankees (39-22) were on pace for 104. But while the Yankees more or less maintained that pace, finishing with 103 wins to win the division, the 2002 Red Sox went 53-51 the rest of the way, finished with 93 wins and missed the playoffs entirely.
But as things stand, it has been years — perhaps going back to 2009, or 2004, or 2002, or even 1978 — since the Red Sox and Yankees were both this good at the same time, and just as long since the great rivalry has felt this intense or this essential.
If the purpose of the second wild card — and the one-game wild-card playoff — was to boost the value of a division title and thus reinvigorate the division races, MLB has certainly accomplished that. But should one of these teams, at the end of an epic 162-game march, see its brilliant season end in the wild-card game, the cries for change will be vast, loud and relentless.
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