Friday September 24th, 2010

You know the baseball playoff format needs repair when a division title is at stake on the final day of the season and the right thing to do is to bench your best pitcher.

Tampa Bay ace David Price, who won his 18th game last night, has two starts left this season but in all likelihood won't get the chance to make the second. Price is lined up to start the final game of the season on Oct. 3, but Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon said the only way Price will make that start is "if we need that game to get in" the playoffs. "That's the way we set it up."

Tampa Bay is highly likely to have clinched a playoff spot by then. The Rays are seven games up on Boston for the wild card with 10 to play, leaving a magic number of four to clinch a playoff spot.

And what if the Rays are playoff-bound but the AL East title is still at stake on the final day of the season? Maddon said he will not pitch Price in that scenario -- instead saving him for Game 1 of the Division Series. It's the right thing to do -- even if it might also deprive Price of a shot at winning 20 games.

"I'd like two more," Price said after beating the Yankees Thursday, 10-3, "just because I'd like to pitch two more. And a shot at 20 is cool. But I got to 199 [2/3 innings] tonight. And 200 is big to me. That says a lot."

Meanwhile, the division race and the Cy Young race changed course quickly last night. Price pitched out of a nasty jam in the fifth inning: already down 3-1, two on, no outs and the heart of New York's lineup coming up. And in the next half inning, the Rays hung seven runs on CC Sabathia and Joba Chamberlain.

Price immediately displaced Sabathia as the best challenger to frontrunner Felix Hernandez for the Cy. (Sabathia's 3.26 ERA is almost a full run worse than Hernandez's 2.31.) And the Rays seized control of the division back from New York.

New York and Tampa Bay are tied in the loss column. But by winning Thursday night, the Rays won the season series, thus earning the tiebreaker should the two teams wind up in a tie atop the division. The Rays have 10 games left, all against losing teams: Seattle, Baltimore and Kansas City. Should the Rays finish 7-3 in those games, the Yankees would have to go 7-2 in their final nine, all against winning teams: six against Boston and three against Toronto.

But if the AL East is still up for grabs on the final day of the season -- and with it home-field advantage in the first round of the playoffs and possibly the second, too -- don't look for Price to get the ball.

Listen up, because this is important when it comes to stopping any momentum of a dumb idea. I like the idea of adding a second wild card in each league, as I've written before. But the last thing baseball needs is another series of postseason games. The idea that two wild cards would play a best-of-three series to see who gets to play in the Division Series is everything baseball doesn't need: more off days and more non-do-or-die elimination postseason games.

Here's what could happen with a best-of-three wild card series after the season ends: off day, non-elimination playoff game, non-dual elimination playoff game, elimination playoff game, off day. That's five days while the division winners sit around and do nothing and baseball turns the floor over to second-place teams, including four days when you might not get a sudden death matchup.

The one-game elimination game between wild cards would be the only way to go. No added days to the postseason schedule. The guarantee that you are giving fans two sudden death games every year. It would create the rare day -- similar to the All-Star Game -- when baseball can "own" a day on the sports calendar in which it can promote weeks in advance: Elimination Day, in which four teams face win-or-go home urgency.

Don't listen to managers complain about how "unfair" it would be for their 162-game season to come down to one game. You had 162 games to win your division. And did anybody complain when the seasons of the Tigers and Twins came down to one game in a division tiebreaker last year? No. Think of the two wild card teams as theoretically "tied," if not literally tied. They both weren't good enough to win their division.

Yes, folks, the Phillies are red hot, but let's be honest here: they have capitalized on one of the most fortuitous scheduling runs possible in September. The Phillies beat Jonathan Niese of the Mets and Tommy Hanson of the Braves for the first and latest wins in a 10-game winning streak. In between, they faced eight starting pitchers with nine combined wins the entire season: Andrew Miller, Adalberto Mendez, Jorge Sosa, Jason Marquis, Jordan Zimmermann, Yunesky Maya, Brandon Beachy and Mike Minor. Not exactly the 1970 Orioles.

They played the Marlins without Josh Johnson (hurt), the Nationals without Stephen Strasburg (hurt) and the Braves without Jair Jurrjens (hurt). Give Philadelphia credit for taking advantage of the opening.

And now there is more good news for the Phillies. The entire postseason is set up in their favor exactly as it favored the Yankees last year: the Division Series with the extra off day, home-field advantage in all three rounds and virtually no need for a fourth starter. It's all about the H2O: Halladay, Hamels, Oswalt.

Like the 2009 Yankees, too, the Phillies might not have to push their pitchers hard in the final week. Roy Halladay, for instance, is phenomenal, but manager Charlie Manuel would do well to ease off Halladay a bit in his final two starts. Halladay, 33, is on pace to throw more pitches this year than ever in his career, and pitching in the first pennant race of his life is a new kind of strain for him. In his past six starts, Halladay has a 4.32 ERA and been tagged for a .294 batting average against.

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