Wild finish in store for MLB fans

Extra wild-card spot means more teams have a shot, and more interest for fans, writes Gregg Patton.

Jayson Werth, right, and Ryan Zimmerman are two of the reasons the Washington Nationals are climbing back into the play-off race in the National League. Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP Photo
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No doubt this is what baseball had in mind when it expanded the play-off structure to include two wild-card teams instead of one.

More teams involved. More fans in more cities paying attention to September baseball.

More meaningful games.

“It’s nerve-racking, it’s a lot of things,” the Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona told the Plain Dealer after a victory last week over Kansas City Royals, one of his American League wild-card rivals. “But it’s a lot of fun to be a part of.”

The new system began last year. The Indians are among six AL teams whose post-season chances are more realistically tied to capturing a wild-card spot instead of one of the three division titles.

With two weeks to go, Boston Red Sox, Detroit Tigers and Oakland Athletics have put themselves in commanding positions atop their respective divisions.

Cleveland, Kansas City, Tampa Bay Rays, New York Yankees, Texas Rangers and Baltimore Orioles still have a chance as well.

With two weeks remaining in the regular season, one timely winning streak, or one disastrous slump, can be the difference between reaching the play-offs and missing out.

The extra play-off spot has kept some unlikely teams in contention – small market, such as Cleveland and Kansas City, as well as the ultimate big-market franchise, the Yankees, who have been burdened by key injuries since the beginning of the season and spent the summer on the fringes of the play-off picture.

“It’s just battle, figure out a way [to win],” the veteran pitcher Andy Pettitte of the Yankees told Newsday. “We’ll keep pushing, no matter how you lose a game here or there, until the schedule says there aren’t enough games left.”

In the National League, the lug-nut-tight Central Division race among Cincinnati Reds, Pittsburgh Pirates and St Louis Cardinals looked like it would produce both wild cards.

But the underachieving Washington Nationals, pre-season favourites to play in the World Series, have been sizzling since August 7, going from six games under .500 to 78-70 and just 5.5 games out of the second wild-card spot.

It is still a tough task, but now the Nationals need to pass only one of the three Central contenders to finish off an improbable comeback to the play-offs.

“Nothing is over, yet,” the outfielder Jayson Werth said after his team won a sixth consecutive game last week. “But we’re in a bad spot, for sure.”

Bad, but not hopeless, so baseball gets its wish – keeping one more city engaged.