EVER SINCE THE second wild card was added in 2012, baseball fans have been rooting for tiebreaker chaos, with multiple playoff spots still in need of resolution into the final day of the season -- or beyond.
So far, there have only been three occasions for tiebreaker games required since 2012. In 2013, the Rays and Rangers played for the second wild-card spot in the American League. In 2018, the Brewers played the Cubs for the National League Central title, while the Dodgers played the Rockies for the NL West crown, with the losers of those two games both advancing to the wild-card game.
But this year, we have a pretty good shot at a fourth tiebreaker contest. Entering the final day of the season, both AL wild cards are in play, with the potential for various tiebreaker scenarios among four teams. The Giants' extra-inning loss on Saturday to the Padres combined with the Dodgers' victory (Julio Urias won his 20th game) keeps the NL West title in play as well.
Every game Sunday starts at 3:05 p.m. or 3:10 p.m. ET, so no team gains an advantage knowing what has happened in earlier games (as was be the case previously). There's a lot at stake, and it's hard to keep track, so we're breaking it all down: Who's in with a win, who needs help and which teams have the best chance to wreak chaos on the field.
Here's what you need to know.
AMERICAN LEAGUE WILD CARD
OK, here's what can happen:
1. If the Yankees and Red Sox win, or if they lose and the Blue Jays and Mariners both lose, as well, it's Yankees-Red Sox in the wild-card game on Tuesday at Fenway Park. (The Red Sox won the season series 10-9.)
2. If there's a two-team tie for the second wild card, the two teams will play a tiebreaker game Monday to earn a chance in Tuesday's wild-card game. The home team will be the squad with the better head-to-head record. Scenarios in play: Yankees at Blue Jays, Mariners at Yankees, Blue Jays at Red Sox, Mariners at Red Sox.
3. If three teams end up tied for two wild-card spots, teams are given A, B and C designations based on combined head-to-head winning percentage. Club A hosts Club B on Monday, and the winner is one wild-card team. The loser then travels to Club C to determine the second wild-card team (in this scenario, the wild-card game is pushed back to Wednesday). The team with the best percentage gets first pick on its designation, etc. Scenarios in play with order of winning percentage (presumably, the team with the first pick would choose the A designation, giving it two chances to win one game):
4. If there's a three-team tie for the second wild card, teams are given the same A, B and C designations. Club A hosts Club B on Monday and the winner of that game hosts Club C on Tuesday, with the wild-card game again pushed back to Wednesday. Scenarios in play with order of winning percentage (so the team with the best percentage chooses between winning two games at home or winning one game on the road):
5. If there's a four-way tie for two wild cards -- that would require the Blue Jays and Mariners to win, and the Yankees and Red Sox to lose -- teams are given A, B, C and D designations. Club A hosts Club B and Club C hosts Club D, with the two winners advancing to the wild-card game. FiveThirtyEight gives this an 8% chance of happening. The order of selection goes Boston, Toronto, New York and Seattle, so Boston and Toronto would play home games, leaving the Yankees to choose between playing at Boston or at Toronto. How fun would that be?
Here are the games that matter on Sunday:
After winning eight of nine, the Yankees entered the weekend needing just one win to secure a wild card -- and proceeded to lose 4-3 on Friday and 12-2 on Saturday as a chorus of boos rained down from the Yankee Stadium crowd. Nonetheless, with a win they're in, and they're guaranteed at least a tiebreaker game on Monday.
"Here we are going into Game 162, not knowing what the future is," Yankees outfielder Brett Gardner said after Saturday's loss. "It's not ideal. But it's nice knowing that we still have a chance. The way the season has gone, it kind of makes sense that it would come down to the very last day. Seems about right."
The Yankees had originally slated Luis Severino to start in what would have been a bullpen game, but manager Aaron Boone announced Saturday that they would shift back to Taillon, who had aggravated an ankle injury in his previous start on Tuesday but threw a successful bullpen session Friday.
Still, look for Boone to manage this tilt like a bullpen game, with a quick hook on Taillon if he's scuffling. Over his past seven starts, Taillon has a 6.75 ERA with seven home runs allowed in 28 innings, and the Yankees would love to avoid having to play on Monday, which means starting Gerrit Cole instead of saving him for the wild-card game.
The Rays have already secured the No. 1 seed, which means they play the wild-card winner in the division series. Really, the biggest advantage they can look forward to is having as many tiebreaker games as possible so that those teams burn through pitchers before getting to the ALDS. With three days of rest before Game 1 on Thursday, Kevin Cash should have all his top relievers available, although he isn't going to let any of them run up a pitch count.
The Red Sox controlled their destiny before losing two of three to the Orioles, but they've rebounded by taking the first two games against the Nationals. The offense has been in a mini-slump over its past eight games (especially considering five of those came against the O's and Nationals), hitting .226/.303/.389.
Despite the offensive troubles, the Red Sox will be heavy favorites in this one. Sale, making his ninth start since returning from Tommy John surgery, faces the 23-year-old right-hander Adon, who will be making his major league debut. Sale is 5-1 with a 2.90 ERA and has topped out at six innings and 90 pitches so far, so he might not go too deep. Adon, meanwhile, spent most of 2021 at Class A Wilmington, where he had a 4.97 ERA in 17 starts, before making two starts at Double-A and one at Triple-A. He is the Nationals' No. 22 prospect, according to MLB.com. "He's one of our young, up-and-coming guys, so I want to see how he does," Nationals manager Dave Martinez said of Adon. It feels like Martinez is handing the Red Sox a bit of a gift here.
If they need him, the Red Sox have Nathan Eovaldi ready on full rest for a tiebreaker; but like the Yankees with Cole, Boston obviously hopes Eovaldi's next start comes in the wild-card game.
The Blue Jays lost two of three to three to the Yankees during the week before beating the Orioles twice to stay alive. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. homered on Saturday -- he had gone 13 games without one -- as part of a five-homer assault on Baltimore pitching. Guerrero's 47th home run tied him with Eddie Mathews for most ever by a player 22 or younger.
Ryu has allowed 15 runs, including five home runs, over his past three starts and 8⅓ innings, stretched around a 10-day stint on the injured list with a neck strain. With Toronto in a must-win situation, he is going to be on a very short leash -- although bullpen depth is hardly the Blue Jays' strength.
If Ryu doesn't last long, it will be interesting to see how Charlie Montoyo scrambles. Jose Berrios would be the starter available on three days of rest, although you want to have him available for a tiebreaker game on Monday and then Cy Young winner Robbie Ray on Tuesday. But you have to first get to Monday.
Seattle, which entered the weekend tied with Boston for the second wild card, is trying to end the longest postseason drought (since 2001) in any of the four major North American sports leagues (MLB, NFL, NBA, NHL). A tough 2-1 loss on Friday -- the M's had runners on first and third in the seventh with no outs and a leadoff double in the ninth and failed to score both times -- means they now need some help to get into a tiebreaker scenario.
Anderson is 2-2 with a 4.50 ERA in 12 starts since coming over in a deadline trade with the Pittsburgh Pirates, but this is a classic five-and-dive start, even if Anderson is pitching well. Mariners relievers Casey Sadler, Paul Sewald and Drew Steckenrider have been the dominant forces in the team's 19-9 record since the beginning of September, including an 11-2 mark in Seattle's past 13 to get to Sunday. They've also pitched a lot of late and then would have to pitch again on Monday and Tuesday if the team keeps winning. Given the Mariners' lack of offense, that trio has to keep spinning zeroes. Rookie Logan Gilbert would be on tap to start Monday, while Tuesday might have to be Marco Gonzales on short rest (The M's skipped the slumping Yusei Kikuchi last start.)
NATIONAL LEAGUE WEST
It's fitting that this race comes down to the final day. This one is a little easier: If the Giants lose and the Dodgers win, we get a tiebreaker game on Monday at San Francisco. (The Giants won the season series 10-9.)
Here are the games that matter on Sunday:
Padres (Reiss Knehr) at Giants (Logan Webb)
The Giants started ace Kevin Gausman on Saturday, and that was absolutely the right decision. Think about it this way: The Giants could have saved Gausman and tried to win the division without him, but which team does he have the best chance of beating, the Padres or the Dodgers? If San Francisco had topped the Padres, he would have had plenty of rest to line up for Game 1 of the division series on Thursday. It just didn't work out. The good news for San Francisco fans: The Giants will take the division with a win on Sunday, and they've lost two games in a row just once since the beginning of September.
Webb is 6-0 with a 2.52 ERA in the second half of the season, so the Giants are still in good hands -- although the Padres did score four runs off him in four innings two starts ago. The Padres' staff is running on fumes as the rookie Knehr makes his fifth career start. He has a 4.85 ERA and has allowed just 20 hits in 26 innings, but also he has 18 walks.
Brewers (Brett Anderson) at Dodgers (Walker Buehler)
The Dodgers were last tied for first place on Sept. 3 and were up by a half-game on Sept. 1, the only two days they've been in first place since April 28. Yet here they are, with a chance to win the division if they get to Game No. 163. Justin Turner hit a huge three-run home run off Corbin Burnes in the first inning with two outs to spark Saturday's win -- and then the Dodgers caught a break when Burnes was pulled after two innings in his final tuneup before the postseason.
Buehler had been in the thick of the Cy Young race until two shaky outings in September -- one against the Giants and one at Coors Field -- but he looked like his old self while delivering seven scoreless in his most recent start against the Padres. The Brewers are locked into the No. 2 seed, but you have to think they would love to beat the Dodgers and knock them into the wild-card game, where they would face the St. Louis Cardinals in the dreaded coin-flip contest. Given that Brewers manager Craig Counsell didn't use any of his top relievers on Friday or Saturday (except Brent Suter for four pitches on Friday), he might want to give some light work to Josh Hader & Co. out of the bullpen. Or maybe Counsell will just let them rest up even more.
The Dodgers would have Max Scherzer lined up to pitch Monday on four days of rest or the wild-card game on Wednesday. If they lose Monday, Clayton Kershaw's injury creates a tough decision for Dave Roberts. It's either newly minted 20-game winner Urias starting on three days of rest or some combination of Tony Gonsolin/bullpen game.
The presumably would have newly minted 20-game winner Urias start the wild-card game (if they lose on Monday) on four days of rest or Game 1 of the division series (if they win). If there's no tiebreaker game needed, Scherzer is set to start the wild-card game.