It took until Game 162, but the New York Yankees wrapped up the American League East Division title Oct. 3.
The clinch officially came while their season finale with the Boston Red Sox at Yankee Stadium was still in progress. The Baltimore Orioles were eliminated from contention for the division title when they lost 4-1 to the Tampa Bay Rays.
The Yankees put the finishing touches on the title about an hour later when they completed a three-game sweep of the Red Sox with a 14-2 blowout, powered by two home runs each from Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson.
But New York may not be done with the Orioles just yet. Because of Major League Baseball's new playoff format for 2012, the Texas Rangers will host Baltimore in a one-game wild-card playoff on Friday night. The Yankees, as the top overall seed in the American League, will then face the wild-card winner in the Division Series beginning Sunday, Oct. 7.
But unlike most years, the higher seeds will not start the Division Series at home. Instead, the Yankees won't know where they're going until Friday night then will head to either Arlington, Texas, or Baltimore to open the playoffs Sunday.
Because MLB opted to add a second wild-card team in each league this year, after the television schedules had already been set, it had to eliminate one of the off-days in the Division Series. So instead of the best-of-five series following the familiar 2-2-1 format, with the higher seed hosting Games 1 and 2 as well as Game 5 if necessary, this year the lower seed hosts the first two games, with Games 3, 4, and 5 shifting to the home park of the higher seed.
That sets up a scenario where the Yankees (or Oakland Athletics, Washington Nationals, and Cincinnati Reds, for that matter) could only play one home playoff game despite having home-field advantage.
Manager Joe Girardi had not set the Yankees' playoff starting rotation as of this writing, but it is essential for New York to at least gain a split of those first two games on the road.
Coming home down 0-2 in the series would put tremendous pressure on a team. It's the ultimate nightmare scenario facing the four No. 1 and No. 2 seeds in the playoffs this year.
Only seven teams in MLB history have ever come back from an 0-2 deficit to win a best-of-five series. Those teams include:
- 1981: Los Angeles Dodgers over Houston Astros, NL Division Series.
- 1982: Milwaukee Brewers over California Angels, AL Championship Series.
- 1984: San Diego Padres over Chicago Cubs, NL Championship Series.
- 1995: Seattle Mariners over New York Yankees, AL Division Series
- 1999: Boston Red Sox over Cleveland Indians, AL Division Series.
- 2001: New York Yankees over Oakland Athletics, AL Division Series.
- 2003: Boston Red Sox over Oakland Athletics, AL Division Series.
Those are long odds, indeed. So it would behoove the Yankees to earn at least a split in those first two games scheduled for Sunday, Oct. 7 and Monday, Oct. 8.
Phil Watson is a 20-year veteran of the newspaper business and a longtime New York Yankee fan.