The St. Louis Cardinals played the Pittsburgh Pirates tough during the regular season…so tough, they’ve compiled an 11 – 8 record against their persistent challengers in the NL Central division title race. That record includes a three-games-to-one series win July 7th through the 10th. It also includes a late-season, three-game sweep of the Buccos from September 1st through September 3rd to put the Pirates in a daunting hole to finish the year.
But all that may be for naught if St. Louis and Pittsburgh finish the month tied atop the Central.
In years past, head-to-head records served as the tie-breaker for just such a situation. Under those rules, the Cardinals would win the division based on their winning record against the Pirates during the regular season. But in 2012, MLB added a second Wild Card spot in both the American and National League. They also changed the tie-breaking rule.
Now, when two teams finish with the same record, they’re required to play a one-game play-in game to determine who ACTUALLY won the division. The loser, if not one of the top two records in the National League among non-division winners, is eliminated.
That’s it. Goodbye. No more baseball for you.
The rule change has been criticized by those concerned that the extra game played for the losing team — presumably a subsequent Wild Card team — creates a grueling gauntlet of playoff-intensity games before ever reaching a Division Series.
Shouldn’t the team that beat the other team during the regular season get the upper hand?
Is it fair that the team that fought all season long to prevail over their biggest challenger could now be eliminated based on one game, especially if playing that game hamstrings both teams going forward by forcing a top-of-the rotation pitcher to throw before an LDS?
But don’t look at the 2014 Cardinals and Pirates to justify your case. In fact, this head-to-head match-up may be exactly the kind of series this rule was created to resolve.
Yes, the Cardinals have an 11 – 8 winning record against the Pirates. But each team has won an equal 3 series apiece against each other since April.
Sure, the Redbirds posted an impressive three-games-to-one series victory in July and a three-game sweep in September…but the Pirates have actually out-scored the Cardinals 69 to 62 in their face-to-face contests this year.
And don’t forget that tense best-of-five series in last year’s NLDS, a series that could’ve gone either way. That same Pirates team is now another year stronger with a bit of postseason experience under their belts. If played today, that 5-game series could go either way.
All the criticism of the tie-breaking rule for division winners is valid. It disregards head-to-head match-ups over the course of nearly 20 games — a format much more representative of baseball in general than a one-game, winner-take-all play-in contest — and it puts a legit division winner at an unfair disadvantage when that team faces their opposition in the NLDS.
But all that aside, this match-up — the Pirates and Cardinals — may be exactly the kind of scenario the framers of the rule envisioned when they created it in 2012.
Besides, if the Cardinals want to avoid a one-game elimination scenario, all they have to do is take care of business between tomorrow and the end of the season against sub-.500 teams. If they don’t, they have no one to blame but themselves.
— GO CARDS!!!