Friday March 2nd, 2012

JUPITER, Fla. -- To no franchise is the wild card so meaningful as it is to the Florida Marlins.

Five wild-card teams have won a World Series since the addition of the extra playoff team in 1995, but the '97 Marlins were the first to do so. The 2003 Marlins also did the trick, leaving Miami (né Florida) as the only franchise to have done so twice.

Now, with Major League Baseball adding a second wild card for the 2012 season, the Marlins -- who make their home in baseball's toughest top-to-bottom division, the National League East -- may again be one of the primary beneficiaries.

"It's another chance to get in," Miami ace Josh Johnson said on Thursday, "just in case we don't reach our ultimate goal, which is to win the division."

Interviews with a half-dozen Marlins players indicated similar support for the playoff expansion, even though winning the NL East crown -- something the Marlins have never done -- is clearly their primary concern.

"I came here to win the division," new manager Ozzie Guillen said. "That sounds arrogant, cocky, but if I say I could aim for the wild card, what message is that going to tell my players?"

The Marlins won only 72 games last year, but spent lavishly on free agents Bell, Jose Reyes and Mark Buehrle, not to mention the addition of their confident new manager. And the stakes for this club are higher than most, as it's opening a new ballpark in a market that hasn't historically been too supportive of baseball, and many of the big free-agent contracts are backloaded, appearing to be bets hedged against future attendance.

Winning a division title in the NL East will be a tall order. The Phillies, the reigning five-time champs, are fresh off a 102-win season; the Braves won the wild card two years ago and missed it by only one game last year; the Nationals and Marlins made major offseason moves to complement their young core players; and the Mets, though playoff longshots, will benefit from the return of several injured stars.

Winning one's division has also never been so important in the wild-card era. No longer will a wild card enter the playoff mix as one of a league's semifinalists with no other punishment other than playing the top seed without homefield advantage. Now, the two wild cards will face each other in a winner-take-all, one-game playoff to determine who draws the No. 1 seed.

"I'd rather have another chance than no chance," Guillen said. "It's like boxing. You have one night to be the champ."

Avoiding the wild card, however, will be paramount in evading a situation in which the whole season comes down to one game, when the team may not have its best starting pitcher properly rested, be stricken with an unexpected injury or illness, or could just have a bad day.

"It makes you want to win the division, because one game doesn't always determine the better team," right fielder Giancarlo (né Mike) Stanton said. "It's whoever plays better that one day. That's why there's usually a series. Winning [the division] is going to mean a lot more. Rather than being like, 'We're in the playoffs as the wild card, we'll turn it on when we get there.'"

Support for the second wild card is not universal, even within the stacked NL East. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that the Braves oppose such a plan, with Chipper Jones summarizing the club's feelings by saying, "It makes no sense to me whatsoever."

Back in Marlins camp, however, the involvement of more teams in the playoffs -- and even just in the annual September playoff race -- generally drew raves for the excitement it will create for those teams and their respective fan bases.

"It's going to be great for the game," new Marlins closer Heath Bell said. "Nobody wanted the wild card in the very beginning, and everybody loves the wild card now.

"Sometimes when your team is five to eight games back in September, clubs are like, Well, we're over. We're not coming back. They don't have that push.

If we have that extra team, that [could] make it like they're only three games back instead of that six or seven."

Bell, whose 2010 Padres would have been the second wild card had the system been in place, had only one concern about expanding the playoffs: making sure that the division champs didn't have too long to wait before their first games. That the portal for wild-card entry is just one game should mitigate too much idle time (not to mention stack the deck for the division champ, who is less likely to see a wild card team's ace in Game 1 of the Division Series).

"We just have to make sure we don't have too many off-days in the playoffs," Bell said. "We play a day game or a night game and then we have fly to the other coast to play a game during the regular season. Why not do it in the playoffs? We have to get our playoffs back to October, because everybody in October is starting to talk about football again."

Research done by the Washington Post illustrates how much the bar for being a playoff team might be lowered by the second wild card: In the 16 seasons with a 162-game schedule and the current three-division format, the wild cards have averaged 94 regular-season wins, while the 32 hypothetical second wild cards averaged 89 wins.

A look at last year's standings (which, admittedly, were a bit anomalous) illustrates how many more fan bases could be involved in the new-look playoff race. As of the morning of Sept. 1, there were no teams within seven games of either wild-card leader, while each league had five teams either leading or within 6 1/2 of the hypothetical second wild card. Those are 10 more teams within reasonable distance of a playoff berth.

(The primary reason why last year's stretch run was so exciting was that the Red Sox and Braves both blew historically large leads, and such never-has-happened-before disintegrations can't be counted on routinely.)

By the standards listed above, the Marlins would need a 17-win improvement to reach the 89-win historical threshold for the second wild card, not that they'll settle for that when they believe they can take the division.

"I think, from the bottom of my heart, that we have a good chance to compete [for the division]," Guillen said. "You're not good if you don't beat the best ones. Hopefully this is our chance. It's not going to be easy. It's going to be a good fight."

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