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Deal with your wild finish if you don't win a division

TORONTO -- When baseball added a second wild-card team to each league in 2012 and opted for a one-game showdown between them, it seemed like it didn't fit. This is a 162-game marathon and to have teams decide it all in nine innings didn't seem right. This isn't the NFL. No less an authority than Commissioner Bud Selig mused that he would prefer to pit the wild-cards into a best-of-three series.

In theory, that would be a little more fair than one game that could be determined by a lights-out pitcher. And making the wild-cards play potentially three games could give even more of an advantage to division winners who could get even more rest. But the schedule goes into November as it is, and rest isn't always a good thing in baseball anyway.

But one game it was, at least to start. Four years and eight games into the wild-card showdowns, it appears the sport stumbled upon something that's here to stay.

The Toronto Blue Jays and Baltimore Orioles kicked off the postseason with the American League Wild Card Game Tuesday in Rogers Centre. The San Francisco Giants and New York Mets will meet in the National League affair Wednesday in Citi Field. The drama and tension figures to be off the charts.

"I understand that baseball doesn't usually have 'one-game knockouts,'" MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said during a pregame news conference here Tuesday. "But these two games get our postseason off to a really exciting start. I have gone to both wild-card games each of the last two seasons and the atmospheres at our ballparks has been phenomenal. It gives a great jump-start to our playoffs."

Previous wild-card games have showcased wild atmospheres in places like Kansas City (2014) and Pittsburgh (2013). The Blue Jays had a roaring sellout crowd backing them here Tuesday after drawing more than 3.4 million fans during the regular season, an ode to their glory days of the early 1990s when they won back-to-back World Series titles.

And while both teams were happy to be in the postseason, the sudden tension of a winner-take-all pressure cooker made for a dynamic this sport isn't accustomed to. As Baltimore manager Buck Showalter said, Boston counterpart John Farrell, Cleveland's Terry Francona and Texas' Jeff Banister were all home watching on TV because their teams got the job done winning their divisions.

"They earned it," Showalter said. "Whether John or Terry or any of those guys who won the division, they had the right to do whatever they wanted to do with their roster the last week when they clinched. If we didn't like it, play better and be that division winner."

Blue Jays manager John Gibbons had a similar feeling after watching his team fritter away a chance at a second straight AL East title with an 11-16 September.

"It's good for baseball because the idea is to win the division," Gibbons said. "If you don't win your division, there's two teams in it and you get a shot at it. You make it really tough to get in there and that's why everybody focuses on winning the division. But the team that does represent the wild-card has fared very well if you look over the last few years."

Gibbons has a point. Think back to two years ago, when San Francisco beat Kansas City in a seven-game World Series that featured a pair of wild-card winners. The Giants blanked Pittsburgh in PNC Park behind a Madison Bumgarner shutout that kicked off his historic October (Bumgarner will try to match that performance Wednesday against Mets ace Noah Syndergaard).

The Royals, meanwhile, wiped out a 7-3 deficit in the eighth inning to beat Oakland, 9-8, in 12 innings in a game generally considered to be turnaround point for a franchise that had gone 29 straight years without making the postseason. The Royals went on to back-to-back World Series berths, beating the Mets last year in five games for their first title since 1985.

The games have often featured great pitching, with four of the eight games ending by shutout and Bumgarner and Chicago's Jake Arrieta both blanking the Pirates. Teams have only averaged 3.7 runs per game in the eight contests, a figure bloated by the 17-run Kansas City-Oakland affair. Strangely though, home teams entered Tuesday just 2-6 over the first four years.

Don't like it? Win the division.

"We just had a final day of the season where you had all sorts of meaningful games and most of those were related to the face you had the second wild-card team," Manfred said. "I think that's very important. The unappealing nature of a one-game playoff encourages teams to play through and win their division. To win the division should be different from finishing second."

Showalter, whose club won the 2014 game over Detroit, knew what to expect.

"I know our guys deserve to get something out of this season. So does Toronto, so do the other eight teams in it," he said. "That's why it's so fascinating for people to watch because you've got all these good teams and someone is going to go away. There's only one team that's going to be happy when it's all said and done and that's going to be emotionally challenging."

email: mharrington@buffnews.com

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