The playoffs have already started

For a few minutes there I thought we had time-warped back to 2003 or 2004, with the Red Sox and Yankees playing a big game in October, Yankee Stadium shaking with noise, Derek Jeter watching intensely from the top step of the dugout.

Then I saw Bobby Valentine trot out to the mound to make a pitching change and was snapped back to reality.

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The playoffs don't officially start until Friday, but it has certainly felt like playoff atmospheres all over ballparks these past few days, from Monday night's raucous affair in Oakland, to the tense 1-0 duel between James Shields and Miguel Gonzalez in St. Petersburg on Tuesday, to the game in the Bronx between the Yankees and hapless Red Sox.

The Orioles had already defeated the Rays despite a superlative effort from Shields, maybe the most dominant pitching performance I saw all year in terms of command and stuff. The Orioles had no chance as Shields struck out 15, allowed two hits and walked nobody. But he made one mistake: Chris Davis crushed a 1-1 changeup to Pensacola in the fourth inning. As Jason Collette tweeted, there have been just 28 performances since 1918 when a pitcher threw a complete game with at least 15 K's and two or fewer hits. Shields joined Floyd Youmans and Jim Maloney as the only three to lose such a game.

The win kept the Orioles in the hunt for the American League East title, and as the Red Sox took a 3-1 lead into the bottom of the ninth, it appeared the O's and Yankees would head into Game 162 tied for first place -- exactly the dream scenario baseball envisioned with the creation of the wild-card game. No more coasting into the playoffs, not caring whether you won the division title or finished second and won the wild card. Facing the prospect of that do-or-die wild-card game that every team wants to avoid, the Yankees had to go all-out, and the fans cheered like it was a playoff game.

Let's just say nothing Valentine did this year quite worked out the way he intended. Lefty Craig Breslow breezed through a 13-pitch eighth, but even with Curtis Granderson and Ichiro Suzuki due up in the ninth, Valentine went to closer Andrew Bailey and his 6.00 ERA. Granderson lined a single to right field, Raul Ibanez lined a pinch-hit home run to right-center and you knew the Yankees would eventually win the game.

Which they did, after Joe Girardi used closer Rafael Soriano for two innings and 38 pitches (the horror!), Ibanez rolling a soft grounder through the left side of the infield in the 12th to score Francisco Cervelli, who had walked with two outs in his first at-bat of the season. It was the Yankees’ first win all season when trailing entering the ninth inning. Now 1-58; they had been the only team in the majors without such a comeback win. By the time they scored the winner, Yankee Stadium was half-empty on a chilly, wet night, but the fans celebrated and the Yankees acted like ... well, like they'd just won a playoff game.

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Unfortunately, that win ruined the possibility that the Yankees, Orioles, Rangers and A's would all enter the final day of the season with the same record, with everything from the No. 1 seed to the No. 5 seed on the line. Talk about playoff atmosphere.

We can still get a tie in the East, of course, but at this point you have to like the Yankees' chances of beating Daisuke Matsuzaka and his 7.68 ERA. The Yankees start Hiroki Kuroda. In St. Petersburg, the Orioles will send Chris Tillman against Jeremy Hellickson. You can watch both those games Wednesday night at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN (Boston-New York) and ESPN2 (Baltimore-Tampa Bay), respectively.

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Back to Oakland, scene of Monday night's fun. The A's weren't done. Needing two more victories to somehow catch the Rangers and win the West, Travis Blackley pitched six solid innings and then that lights-out bullpen trio of Sean Doolittle, Ryan Cook and Grant Balfour did the job again. A's 3, Rangers 1. How in the name of baseball is this happening?

Bob Melvin certainly managed that game like a playoff game. Balfour pitched for the fourth consecutive day for the first time all season. Cook pitched for the fourth day in a row for the first time. They can smell the division title now and so can their fans. The A's drew 30,000 fans on Tuesday -- a large crowd for them that included 12,000 walk-ups. And those fans were loud. Balfour pumped his first and stalked off the mound after a dominant 10-pitch ninth inning like the A's had clinched the division.

They haven't done that just yet, but the fact that Game 162 matters is a small miracle. "We're still shocking people," designated hitter Jonny Gomes said after the game.


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The critics might point out with those four teams all bunched together, we'd still have the same level of excitement even if one wild card existed. That's not quite true; with one wild card, the Yankees wouldn't have much at stake on Wednesday. With 94 wins, they'd be guaranteed a playoff spot since the Rangers and A's can't both finish with 94 wins. They'd be in, they'd start Freddy Garcia, they'd rest their bullpen and Jeter and Alex Rodriguez and get ready for the postseason.

Now they have to win. Will Soriano be available? How quick of a hook do you have with Kuroda? The Rangers have to win. They throw Ryan Dempster against A.J. Griffin. The A's have to win. Will Melvin use Cook and Balfour for a fifth consecutive day? The Orioles know they have to win, just to have hope.

The playoffs have definitely started.

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Meanwhile, the Detroit Tigers can sit back and relax and watch these other four teams -- all with better records -- scramble and burn out their bullpens and rotations.

Nobody said this system was more fair.