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Critic changes tune: Scramble for division titles makes MLB's new playoff format a success

Jeff Passan
Yahoo Sports

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Winning the AL West crown spared the A's of playing a single-elimination game Friday. (AP)

Look, the whole thing was an accident. I don't want to like this new playoff format. It just sort of happened. Sometimes you can't help yourself. Don't judge. It's election season. Flip-flopping is fashionable.

For nearly three years now, since commissioner Bud Selig introduced the idea of the second wild card, I've railed against it. How it's a shameless money grab. (It is.) And how ending a team's season with a single guillotine game cheapens the 162 games they played to get there. (It does.) How teams barely above .500 were in play for the second wild card. (They were.) And yet I find myself wholly satisfied by wild-card teams entering at a disadvantage, thrilled by the fight in the American League to win divisions and in the National League to jockey for home-field advantage, and entranced by the chaos that could've been.

And I'm almost to the point where I can stomach the idea of the one-game playoff because of all the ancillary benefits the format provides. Almost.

For now, it's what we've got Friday: First an Atlanta Braves team that might be the NL's most talented hosting the defending champion St. Louis Cardinals. Then the resurgent Baltimore Orioles visiting the teetering Texas Rangers for the right to take on the New York Yankees. Four teams. Two mandated do-or-die games. Lots of questions about the fairness of them. None about the stakes in the games themselves.

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It's do-or-die for Rangers Elvis Andrus, left, and Josh Hamilton on Friday against the Orioles. (AP)

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Any time a team is fighting for its season, it ratchets up the game's intensity and verve so much it's easy to ignore that baseball manufactured the entire thing. Welcome to the baseball Matrix. The second wild card is like a circus peanut: a vacuous morsel of prefab Styrofoam that somehow is freaking delicious. You can't argue with delicious.

Between the prospect of those two games as well as what MLB treated us to over the last few weeks, impugning the new format, it turns out, was short-sighted. (Guilty.) The original sin was the original wild card. Once Selig implemented that in 1995, it took the onus off winning the division. The only disadvantage wild-card teams face was lack of home-field advantage.

Now, teams are downright scared to lose their division. The Rangers bungled a massive lead in the AL West and are a bad Yu Darvish start away from their aspirations of three consecutive World Series disappearing over three hours instead of three weeks. The Yankees, meanwhile, compared their last month to an extra round of playoffs, which would be trite if it weren't true. The Orioles never stopped nipping at them, and the Yankees recognized what frittering away the division would mean. So they threw closer Rafael Soriano for a season-high 43 pitches in the season's penultimate game and were ready to use him if necessary the next night, just as the Oakland Athletics called on closer Grant Balfour in its final five games.

The new paradigm is whatever it takes to clinch a division, which is exactly how it should be.

"The one thing you don't want to do is get in a one-game shootout," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "There could be a ball lost in the sun. There could be a wind-blown home run. There could be a guy who makes an error that never makes an error. There could be a missed call. A pitcher could be off that day."

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The one-game playoff's benefits – that all 27 outs represent the final breaths of one team's season and thus are suffused with meaning – also are its detriments. There is going to be a year in which a 95-win team loses to an 85-win team, and there's an inherent unfairness in a team getting small-sample-sized to death. Except the playoffs all are tiny samples, part of the postseason's beauty that rewards the team that's playing best, not the best team.

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The Yankees face the winner of the play-in game between the Orioles and Rangers. (AP)

Because of the one-game playoff's novelty, baseball likely will avoid acceding to the wishes of many, including me and Girardi, and let the wild-card teams play three games. It would start the postseason with as many as six games from non-contenders. It would push a long playoff schedule back even further, often into November. And it would lack the uniqueness of a one-and-done coin flip, which has a chance to be tantalizing theater.

Here I worried the chaos of the new format would leech the fun out of September. Turns out the chaos is the fun.

[Y! Sports Fan Shop: Buy New York Yankees division champs merchandise]

While the end of the 2012 season didn't match 2011 in pure drama – nothing short of a UFO landing in Yankee Stadium and abducting Robinson Cano could have – this year teemed with intrigue nevertheless. Going over all the different scenarios, who plays whom and where and when – that was fun, the sort of thing baseball fans would sop up with a biscuit.

In fact, the way the games played out Wednesday, the old format would've delivered exactly what the new one has: a one-game, winner-takes-all matchup between Baltimore and Texas for the wild-card slot.

It's eminently possible this season has unfolded in the exact fashion Tsar Bud intended, that he's muahahahaing like an evil genius and that future years will devolve into disasters that blow up the veracity of this format. Not yet. I can only render a verdict on what I see now, not what I hypothesize in doomsday scenarios.

And what I see, against all odds, is evident: The new playoff format is a success.

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