SC Staff Writer
Major League Baseball (MLB) threw a curve-ball during the off-season when it announced they would add two extra wild card teams into the playoff mix. Fans and critics were interested how these additions would affect the playoff races down the stretch. What the league and the fans received was an exciting and enthralling final month to the regular season.
What the league didn’t expect was that the final results would be pretty much how everyone expected. The four remaining teams battling it out for the chance to play in the World Series are teams that were expected to make it this far during spring training.
Before this season, only eight teams (six division teams and two wild card teams) would go on to the first round of the MLB playoffs. Four teams from each league would put themselves against each other in a best-of-five series. With the addition of two more wild card teams this year, a single elimination game between the two wild card teams would determine the winner of the wild card.
Before the final 30 games of the regular baseball season were completed, two divisions and two extra wild card spots were still up for grabs. The extra wild cards were devised by MLB as a way for teams who just missed the playoffs last year, or teams that never had a shot before, to make a late run towards that extra playoff spot.
In the National League, the Eastern, Central, and Western divisions were all but secured entering the final month by the Washington Nationals, Cincinnati Reds, and San Francisco Giants respectively. The wild card winners came down to a tight race with the Atlanta Braves taking the top spot, and the defending World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals edging out the Los Angeles Dodgers for the second wild card.
It was in the American league where the races remained a bit tighter as the New York Yankees, Baltimore Orioles, and Tampa Bay Rays each battled it out down the stretch for the American League Eastern crown. As the Rays eventually fell out of the race, the Yankees and Orioles would remain tied or retain a one game difference over the other during the last few weeks.
The Yanks and O’s split the season series against each going 9-9. It took the Yankees to finish the last ten games with a 7-3 record to edge out the Orioles for the division by two games. The Orioles finished 6-4 over the last 10 games and took the first spot in the wild card.
The American League Western division turned out to be the most interesting and dramatic finish for a division winner in recent memory. As the defending American League champion Texas Rangers dominated the West for the majority of the season, a youthful and resilient Oakland Athletics team barreled its way to the finish line. They finished the second half with a 51-25 record, and swept the Rangers the final three games of the season, handing the defending champs the second wild card spot.
The two wild card elimination games that resulted from the late season madness signaled the start of the 2012 MLB postseason. And wild they were.
The Atlanta Braves and future hall of fame third baseman Chipper Jones hosted the defending World Series champion, the St. Louis Cardinals, in the National League wild card elimination game. What turned out to be Jones’ last game of his career, turned into a shower of garbage and debris from Atlanta fans as umpires botched an in-field fly ball, allowing the Cards to increase their lead and eventually punch a ticket to the National League Division Series (NLDS).
In the American League, the Baltimore Orioles went to Texas to face a deflated Rangers team, who backed themselves into this position by losing the last three games of the season. The Orioles hadn’t played in a playoff game since 1997, but looked calm and collected as their pitching staff stifled the power heavy Texas lineup, handing the American League champions of the past two seasons an early exit into the offseason. Under the new management of veteran skipper Buck Showalter, the Orioles look to be in serious contention to advance to the next round.
If the wild card elimination games were any indication of what was to come, then MLB and its fans were in for a quite a surprise in the Division Series. For the first time in Division Series history, all four series’ went the complete five games.
The Yankees and Orioles met at Camden Yards in Baltimore for the first two games of their ALDS. Game 1 featured a superb pitching performance from each of the team’s starters, as Yankees’ ace C.C. Sabathia and Baltimore’s Jason Hammels each allowed two runs.
A 2-2 tie in the top of the ninth was broken by Yankees catcher Russell Martin, who lifted Baltimore’s MLB leading saves leader Jim Johnson’s 2-0 offering over the left field wall to give the Yanks a late lead. The tight series, which featured two extra-inning games, was marred by both team’s ineptitude to knock in runners in scoring position. The Yankees had a batting average of just .211 for the series, striking out 47 times in five games.
The O’s didn’t fare much better, striking out 42 times and hitting a meager .187, the second lowest team batting average in ALDS history since the 2009 Boston Red Sox’s .158 average. Game 3 was the best game of the series.
Going into the ninth inning trailing by a run, Yankees outfielder Raul Ibanez hit a homerun to tie the game and hit another moon shot in the 12th inning to win the game and give the Yanks a 2-1 games lead. Despite both teams lackluster performance, the O’s forced the Yankees to the brink of elimination, forcing a game 5 in the Bronx. Another stellar start by Sabathia, who pitched a one run, complete game, helped propel the Yanks past the O’s and into the next series, the American League Championship Series (ALCS).
After sending the defending American League champions home early, the Oakland Athletics hosted the Detroit Tigers and Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera in the other ALDS matchup. The magic season of a team comprised nearly of complete rookies had a reality check as they fell behind the Tigers 0-2 in the series.
The magic run of the A’s continued as they battled back to tie the series 2-2 with a dramatic ninth inning comeback in Game 4 off Detroit’s powerful and eccentric closer Jose Valverde to force a deciding final game. Riding the arm of team ace and last year’s MVP Justin Verlander, the Tigers blanked the A’s 6-0 to advance to the ALCS against the Yankees.
The National League Division Series’ offered more of the way in better baseball, featuring more offense and improbable comebacks.
The Cincinnati Reds had a resurgent year finishing 97-65, second best record in the major leagues. The Reds missed the 2011 playoffs after winning the Central division in 2010. This year they faced the 2010 World Series champion San Francisco Giants. The Reds took a commanding 2-0 game lead over the Giants, outscoring their competitor 14-2 over the first two games. The Giants slowly and steadily came back to even the series, and in the final game Giants catcher Buster Posey blasted a grand slam to sink the reeling Reds and earn his team a spot in the NLCS.
Over in the other National League series, the Major League best 98-64 Washington Nationals arrived in St. Louis to prove to the World Series champs that this was there year. After splitting the first two games, the Cardinals showed the Nats they’re still champions by blanking them 8-0. In Game 4 Washington’s Jayson Werth proved to the Cardinals and the world why Washington was a team to be reckoned with. After leaving Philadelphia to sign a $100 million contract with the Nationals during last year’s offseason, Werth and his new organization were criticized by the press for offering a deal worth that kind of money from a team that wasn’t going to compete. Fast forward one year and the Nationals are one win away from advancing to the NLCS against the Giants thanks to a 9th inning walk-off homerun off Werth’s bat. The Nats were one out away with a two-run lead in Game 5 when the Cards mounted an incredible comeback that started earlier in the game. After falling behind 6-0, the Cards inched their way back to a two run deficit heading into the ninth inning trailing 7-5. The Cards finished their comeback scoring four runs in the frame, beating the Nats 9-5 and proving that they’re still the team to beat in the National League.
MLB thought it would be exciting to add more teams into the playoff mix. Teams that wouldn’t have had a shot in past years now have the chance to see where they stack up against MLB’s powerhouse teams—the ones that have the best shot at making the playoffs every year. The only thing is this game isn’t governed by any MLB officials, umpires, players, or even any commissioner. This game is governed by the baseball Gods. Gods who pick and chose the right teams to play every October. Gods that are extremely stubborn. Gods that will cast you out of the postseason if you make one wrong move.
The baseball Gods have chosen their final four teams: The Cardinals, Giants, Tigers, and Yankees. All teams have been here before and won. The Division Series may be over, but the Championship series waits. Let’s see if the Gods are any nicer.
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