Commentary: Baseball playoffs get bigger but not better

CLEARWATER, Fla. (MCT) — In Charlie Manuel’s perfect baseball universe, the best teams in each league at the end of the regular season would meet in the World Series every year.

That’s the way it was when the Phillies manager was growing up in rural Virginia, and Manuel thought it was a plan that worked well.

“You shouldn’t get nothing for second or third,” he said Wednesday after news spread that Major League Baseball will announce another expansion of the playoffs on Thursday. “Baseball has set it up the way they want, of course, and I have nothing to do with it. I’m not knocking baseball at all, but in my opinion I’d like to see the two ... best teams in baseball in the World Series.”

That train, as Manuel and the Phillies have experienced firsthand the last two seasons, left the station long ago. It was swept away by expansion, perpetually growing salaries, and the financial need to feed the television monster for whatever it was willing to pay billions of dollars.

TV executives love the drama of a one-game elimination round, and that’s what they’ll get with this new format: two wild-card teams playing one game for the right to move on to a division series.

It means that one-third of baseball’s teams will participate in the postseason. It means that for the first time in baseball history a team can finish third in its division and still win the World Series. The other monumental change will come next season when the Houston Astros, a National League team since 1962, move to the American League, creating a scenario in which interleague baseball will be played the entire season.

Interleague games, in fact, will even be played on the final days of the season, which means an American League team could be fighting for a playoff spot in a National League park without a designated hitter or a contending NL team could be forced to use a DH in an AL park.

Baseball’s system wasn’t broken. We saw that on the frenzied final day of last season when four games, including one between the Phillies and Atlanta Braves, determined the outcome of the final two postseason teams. Under the new format, the epic collapses by the Braves and Boston Red Sox and the unforgettable comebacks of the St. Louis Cardinals and Tampa Bay Rays would not have happened.

Manuel’s dream World Series of the two best teams from each league playing for the title hasn’t been around since 1968, and the playoff format did need to expand as more teams entered the picture. I thought one wild card was fine because sometimes two teams from the same division — the Yankees and Red Sox most often — have been better than the two teams that won the other divisions in the American League.

As much as Manuel doesn’t think second and third place should be rewarded, the new format should, in the long run, help big-market teams such as the Phillies more than small-market teams such as the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Of the 24 teams that would have qualified as a second wild card since the turn of the century, 10 ranked in the top five in the payroll department, and 14 were in the top 10. All but five ranked in the top half among baseball’s 30 teams.

A team such as the Phillies can more easily endure a rash of injuries because, with two wild-card teams, the margin for error is greater, and the more often you get into the postseason, the better chance you have to win it all. The Phillies would have reached the postseason in 2005 and 2006 as the second wild-card team.

Some people believe that the road to a World Series title now will be more difficult for wild-card teams, which have won five titles since the wild-card system was implemented in 1995.

In theory, it also should be more beneficial for the team that finishes with the best record in the league, as the Phillies did in 2010 and 2011, because it can rest while awaiting the winner of the wild-card game.

What would be even more beneficial for the Phillies and any other team with a deep starting rotation would be expanding the division series to seven games.

“I would really like to see the seven-seven-seven format for each series (after the wild-card game),” Phillies centerfielder Shane Victorino said.

The Phillies, of course, lost a five-game series last October to the eventual World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals, who reached the postseason as a wild-card team. The Phillies’ biggest advantage over the Cardinals was starting pitching, but they got to use their No. 2 starter, Cliff Lee, only one time in the series.

There is no good excuse for that playoff loss, because the Phillies had their chances to win that series. The point, however, is that a seven-game series better replicates a 162-game season than a five-game series because pitching becomes more important. During the long regular season, pitching means everything.

“It’s hard to swallow sometimes when you play all year and you win a lot of games and you lose to somebody who did not play as good as you consistently all year,” Manuel said. “But that’s the way it goes, and that’s the process we live with, so I’m not knocking it.”

Baseball just got different again. It didn’t get better.