The AL Wild-Card Race: Heading For A Pile-Up

St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Rays catcher Jose Lobaton tags out Detroit Tigers center fielder Austin Jackson at home plate at Tropicana Field. Credit: Kim Klement-US PRESSWIRE

Five teams are within 1½ games of the AL wild-card lead as of Sunday morning. What's going to happen if more than two of them tie for that lead at season's end?

As of Sunday morning, with just about one-third of the season remaining, the American League wild-card race stood this way:

Athletics 58-49 --
Angels 58-50 --
Tigers 57-50 0.5
Rays 56-51 1.5
Orioles 56-51 1.5

Five teams within 1½ games of the two spots, currently held by the A's and Angels, that will meet in the American League wild-card play-in game on October 5. Here, however, is a potential problem:

October 3, 2012
End of 2012 MLB regular season

October 5, 2012
Wild Card playoff games

October 6, 2012
Division Series begins

One day. October 4 is the only day set aside for tiebreaking games; the rest of the postseason is on a very tight schedule, arranged so that Game 7 of the World Series won't run into November (it's set for October 31 under the current scheme, weather permitting).

The five teams currently in that extremely close race are from all three divisions. Only the Tigers, at the present time, are within hailing distance (also 1½ games) of their division lead; the others are all at least 5½ games behind their respective division leaders, although, as we learned in 2011, that sort of deficit is far from insurmountable, especially with nearly two months remaining in the season.

There has never been a tie for a postseason spot involving more than two teams in the history of baseball. That's by sheer luck -- we nearly had one in 2010, when the Giants, Braves and Padres would have all wound up with the same record if the Padres had defeated the Giants on the season's final day; San Diego and San Francisco would have tied for the division lead, and both would have been tied with Atlanta for the wild card. It almost happened in 1964, too; if the Mets had defeated the Cardinals on the season's final day, the Phillies, Reds and Cardinals would have tied for the NL title.

It's bound to happen sooner or later, and with an extra postseason spot in play and so many teams vying for it, this year could be the time. That would make for an exciting stretch run... and a real problem for MLB, because as Jayson Stark points out:

There's now too strong a likelihood that there could be at least one tiebreaker on that Thursday to settle a division or wild-card race. Under this system, remember, virtually every tie would have to be settled on the field, because the difference between finishing first and being a wild card is too significant to be left to any sort of mathematical formula.

If there is, in fact, a tiebreaker Thursday, it would create a serious mess. Potentially, it could force a team to play its regular-season finale Wednesday in one city, a Thursday tiebreaker in another city and the Friday wild-card showdown in a third city.

And that's if there is just one tie to be broken between two teams. Add a third -- or fourth, or fifth -- team into the mix, and you have to play multiple games. It'd be even worse if one or more of those teams is tied for a division title as well as one of the wild-card spots.

No one from the commissioner's office has yet said anything about this possible mess. It's likely if anyone did, you'd hear embarrassed harrumphing instead of a viable solution, caused by trying to shoehorn the two additional wild-card teams into a season where the schedule was already set, instead of waiting for the 2013 realignment.

I'm kind of hoping for a multi-team tie just to see Bud Selig sweat. It'll be an interesting stretch run.

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