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MLB Wild Card Game Rules: How the One-Game Playoff Works

The MLB Wild Card Game is still fairly new and unfamiliar to some fans. 

This is now the sixth year of baseball’s most un-baseball experiment, the one-game playoff. For those unfamiliar with this relatively new development, here’s how it works.

Beginning with the expansion era in 1994, MLB realigned each league into three divisions, meaning it needed one “wild card” team (i.e. the best team in the league not to win its division) to round out the playoff format. The wild card would face the highest-seeded team in its league in the newly created Division Series. 

In 2012, baseball added a second wild card and the two wild card teams play one game at the home stadium of the team with the better record. The winner advances to face the top-seeded team in the Division Series. In the event that the two wild card teams have the same record—as the Blue Jays and Orioles did in 2016—the tie is broken by head-to-head winning percentage. 

Yankees wild card roster | Twins wild card roster

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Because the Wild Card Game is considered its own playoff round, each team sets a roster for that game only—they’re not bound to use the same roster in the Division Series if they advance. That means teams can leave their starting pitchers off the roster and load up on bench hitters and relief pitchers. It also means that teams are less likely to let their starting pitcher go deep into the game, unless they’ve got a true ace. Madison Bumgarner has picked up complete game wins in his two Wild Card Game appearances, but Buck Showalter pulled Chris Tillman after he allowed two runs in 4 1/3 innings in last year’s AL game.  

Wild Card teams have fared pretty well in the postseason since the introduction of the new system. In 2014, both World Series teams—the Royals and the Giants—advanced out of the one-game playoff. Last year, the Blue Jays went on to sweep the Rangers in the ALDS before falling to the Indians in the ALCS. 

The new format has been popular with viewers, as last year’s NL game between the Giants and Mets was ESPN’s top-rated game since 2003. Reducing a team’s 162-game season to just 27 outs may seem cruel, but fans love it.