By Jonathan Bernhardt
There is one thing we know for certain about the National League Central division and wild-card races as we move through the last full week of the 2013 regular season: If they aren't already, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati are going to be downright sick of each other before this is done. Other than that, pretty much everything is still up in the air.
In some ways, the new "wild-card round" of the playoffs is little more than an accounting trick -- it is, after all, not really a playoff "round" but a one-game winner-take-all sudden death match that bears a much greater resemblance to the Game 163s that have been played intermittently throughout the years to settle divisional and wild-card tiebreakers at the end of the regular season than it does to the five-game League Divisional Series that follow it.
The important differences are mostly cosmetic: The league is guaranteed this sort of high-tension put-up-or-shut-up match every year, and teams get bigger windows in which to plan for them and, most importantly, can charge playoff pricing for seats and ads days in advance.
But the fact that these one-game "rounds" are officially part of the playoffs now means one very important and chaotic thing: There's no reason there still can't be a Game 163. Or, in a real doomsday scenario, a Game 164.
MLB.com published the full tiebreaker rules earlier this month. The vast majority of the scenarios listed therein have since been rendered irrelevant -- there will not be, for example, any four-club ties in the National League, and the chances of one occurring in the American League are slim enough not to warrant discussion.
There is one fairly baroque and confusing scenario still worth attention even at this late hour, however: The three-club tie for the division championship and two wild-card spots. This outcome -- which could become irrelevant as quickly as the end of games Wednesday night -- requires all three teams still in contention in the NL Central to finish tied at 93-69.
With four games to play, there are limited ways this can be accomplished. The simplest is for the Reds to take only two of the three games of their current series in New York from the Mets, while the Pirates sweep the Cubs, and then for Cincinnati to take two of three from the Pirates when the two teams meet at Great American Ballpark for the last three-game set of the regular season.
Meanwhile, the St. Louis Cardinals would have to essentially lose out, dropping their last four games, something that seems unlikely, as the final three of those will be against the very Cubs this scenario assumes the Pirates will sweep. Stranger things have happened, however.
That outcome would lead to a pair of games, the first on Monday, Sept. 30, and the second on Tuesday, Oct. 1 (tentatively) to determine who the division winner is and what seeding the remaining two teams would have for the wild-card "round."
On Monday, one of the teams (Club A) would host another one of the teams (Club B), and the loser of that game would be named one of the wild cards. Then on Tuesday, the winner of Monday's game would host the remaining team (Club C) for the division, with the loser being the second wild card. Note that by rule -- at least as explained in the tiebreaker guidelines -- the loser of Monday's game would not automatically be the second wild card. Additional tiebreakers would come into play to decide who would get home field in the wild-card "round."
But how to decide which team is Club A, which is Club B and which is Club C? That would be fairly simple (or at least, not as complicated as it could have been).
The rules look at winning percentage in head-to-head matchups against the other two teams to decide who gets best position, and in our scenario the pecking order is clear, with St. Louis (20-18, .526) being designated "Club 1," Pittsburgh (19-19, .500) being designated "Club 2" and Cincinnati (18-20, .474) being designated "Club 3." In that order -- Club 1, Club 2, and Club 3 -- the teams would choose what seeding they'd like -- Club A, Club B or Club C.
Club B is in the worst position, both being guaranteed to start on the road and to have to play two games to win the division. The Cardinals will mainly be choosing between either playing up to two games with guaranteed home-field advantage as Club A, or knowing that they'll be on the road as Club C, but have to win only one game to take the division.
Club C is probably the best choice, since it gives the team a day off and forces the other two teams to juggle their pitching around even further, so assuming the Cardinals front office agrees with that logic, if the three teams tie at 93-69 to end the season then immediately following the end of their three game series on Sunday, Sept. 29, the Pirates and Reds would leave Cincinnati and fly back to PNC Park to play their seventh and most important contest of the past two weeks on Monday.
If the Pirates won, they'd stay put and host the Cardinals on Tuesday. If the Reds won, they'd fly back to Cincinnati to host St. Louis instead.
And that would finally settle the issue of who won the National League Central. It would leave up in the air, however, who the first and second wild-card seeds would be. Who would host the wild-card game that by this point would have presumably been moved to Wednesday, Oct. 2.
That would be left up to head-to-head tiebreakers: If the two wild cards are Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, then in our scenario Cincinnati would host (if the Cardinals win the division outright but the Pirates and Reds still tie, this could go either way depending on the exact games both teams win and lose over the next couple days).
If the two wild cards are St. Louis and Pittsburgh, the Pirates would host. And if the two wild cards are Cincinnati and St. Louis, the game would be played at the Cardinals' home park, Busch Stadium.
Of course, it's far more likely that St. Louis will win the division by a couple games and either the Pirates and the Reds will end a game ahead of the other in the rankings, creating a clean, un-confusing wild-card round (which will still be the seventh and most important game those two teams will have played in the past two weeks) with the winner going on to face the team with the best regular season record in the National League in the divisional round -- which, for all we know right now, could be the Cardinals, since there's no longer any prohibition about the wild-card team playing the winner of its own division in the LDS.
But what fun would that be?
The new rules were designed to create a system susceptible to chaos. I'm hoping the National League Central will give it all the chaos it could ever want and more.