New postseason format lets rivals be rivals
Nailbiter proves credibility of first-round set between divisional foes
BALTIMORE -- On Sunday night, for the first time in the 17-year history of the expanded, three-tiered playoff system, teams from the same division played each other in a Division Series game.
The game these two teams played was a superb postseason contest. Up until the last inning, it was tight, taut, tense, telegraphic; you know, what you hope for, regardless of rooting interest, from October baseball. This game was so good that you realized that something was missing in the Division Series and you didn't even know it.
We can thank the addition of the second Wild Card for this. And we should also thank the Baltimore Orioles and the New York Yankees for providing this world-class competition, which ended with the Yankees defeating the Orioles, 7-2.
The final score did not fully capture the flavor of this event. This game was tied after eight innings. The Yankees broke it open in the ninth in a way that few other teams could.
There were two starting pitching performances that were worthy of the postseason. Baltimore's Jason Hamel matched New York's CC Sabathia in quality, but few can match Sabathia in staying power. Hammel left in the sixth, but Sabathia went 8 2/3 innings, delivering the kind of performance that has defined the better part of his career.
"It's more of a tribute to him than any detraction from our guys," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said.
This entire contest was worth the wait. First there were the 17 years, and then there were the two hours, 26 minutes of a rain delay. From the subsequent look and sound of Camden Yards, not one person in the crowd of 47,841 surrendered to the precipitation and took off early.
From 1995 through 2011, this meeting could not have occurred in a Division Series. Under the previous postseason rules, this game would have been illegal. It would have been illicit. It would have been impossible, too.
Under the previous rules, teams from the same division could not meet in a Division Series. So, if you had a season in which the team with the league's best record and the Wild Card team were in the same division, they could not meet. The team with the second-best record would play the Wild Card team, and the team with the best record would play not the Wild Card team, but the division winner with the third-best record.
There was an argument that even more games between divisional opponents could bring an air of staleness to the postseason's first round. There was also an argument that the old format preserved for the Championship Series -- for instance, the 2003 and '04 ratings/revenue bonanzas: seven-game, high-drama matchups between the division-winning Yankees and the AL Wild Card Red Sox.
But the new format just makes more sense. The team with the best regular season, the Yankees, plays the Wild Card team -- in this case, the winner of the one-game Wild Card playoff, the Orioles. The fact that they are both in the American League East really does not matter. Well, it doesn't matter now.
Asked on Sunday night if the new format is a good idea, Yankees manager Joe Girardi responded: "I think it is. I've wondered for a long time -- if a Wild Card team is in its division and the No. 1 seed is the division-winner -- why they don't play. I've always wondered that."
Girardi was far from alone in that wondering. With the unbalanced schedule, the Orioles and the Yankees played a typical 18 games against one another this season. Under the old format, oh, no, 19 games would be too many for a Division Series.
But you can't have too many games like the one played out. It was a happier event for the Yankees than the Orioles, but that is not the point.
What played out on Sunday night was the healthy notion that the 9-9 record these teams had this season did not breed contempt or staleness, but instead was just the prologue to a truly healthy, competitive rivalry that had been turned up a notch or two by virtue of its appearance in October.
Teams from the same division can play each other in a Division Series. What you get, based on what we all received on Sunday night, is very compelling baseball. This looked like, sounded like and felt like progress.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.