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Big League Stew

Game 163: The playoff system’s forgotten victim?

Big League Stew

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Matt Holliday's slide in the 2007 NL Central tiebreaker was legendary. (AP)

There have been six tiebreaker games since the wild card system was implemented in the early '90s and there's no doubt the success of those contests led to the adoption of baseball's new 10-team postseason system. Three of the contests were decided by only a run and two went into extra innings with a postseason berth on the line. Bud Selig and Co. surely saw the unbelievable moments those Game No. 163s produced — from Matt Holliday's controversial headfirst slide in 2007 to Jim Thome's titanic home run in 2008 — and wanted to guarantee a chance to create them every season.

And so we'll have the equivalent of two Game 7s at the end of every season with the winner advancing to a date against the highest seed in the playoffs. I like the system because it enforces the importance of winning you division and because, as Newsday's Ken Davidoff wrote this morning, more servings of high-adrenaline baseball is always a good thing.

But what becomes of those Game 163s? Will the new system strip them of the great theater that led us to this point of postseason expansion? Will they retain the sense of importance they possessed before?

Or are they the unnoticed victims as Selig strives to keep more markets in contention?I believe it's that last one. As I've written on the Stew before, part of the night's magic was derived from the fact that it was a wonderful bit of serendipity. Everything had to go right for the two teams to finish their first 162 games with the same record and now everything was being laid on the line in the most proper way to settle such a matter.

We'll now get two of those games every year, but the formula will hardly be the same. Under this new system, it'll be possible to have one team facing off against another that finished four or five games behind them in the standings. They'll be equals in the fact that they're both jockeying for the one spot on the life raft, but maybe not in ability.

What's more, there will always be a chance that this play-in game is contested after a do-or-die Game 163. If you go back to 1995, you'll find that three races for the fifth-best record would have ended in a tie. It's also possible that a fourth might have occurred had the 1996 Seattle Mariners played all 162 games instead of neglecting to make up a rainout and finish on 161. The Mariners would have ended the season tied with the Red Sox and White Sox had they lost their final game to finish with an identical 85-77 record. (Seattle would have at least been involved in two other fifth-place tiebreakers, a situation that could have caused nightmares for schedule makers considering the city's relative distance from the rest of the league.)

I think it's safe to say those fifth-place contests would've been lost among the other 34 regularly scheduled tiebreakers. Can someone without a horse in the race really get that excited over a Game 163 elimination game knowing that one of the two teams will be in the same position a day or two later?  I'd say that the answer is no.

In the end, though, I think it's a price worth paying. Feeling like we rolled all our numbers right to land on a Game 163 was a great sensation, but two guaranteed everything-on-the-line games each season — plus the excitement of more teams being involved in a postseason chase — will make up for it.

And it's not like Game 163s will cease to exist, they just won't be in a position to produce as much great baseball lore as these added contests will be.

The new system has reduced them to just a nice opening act.

* * *

The list of tiebreakers that would have been necessary for the second wild card since 1995:

• Detroit-Seattle (2007)
• Boston-Seattle (2002)
• Los Angeles-New York (NL) (1997)
• Seattle-Chicago-Boston (1996)*

*Seattle played only 161 games in 1996. A three-way tiebreaker would have been necessary had they played and lost Game 162.

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