AL 3-way wild-card tie is big worry

As the AL wild-card gap shrinks, baseball officials are sweating out the possibility of a three-way tie that could wreak havoc with next week's American League Division Series.

The Boston Red Sox hold a 2½-game lead over both the Tampa Bay Rays and Los Angeles Angels. And if all three wind up tied after 162 games, the options aren't good.

First, they would be looking at a three-team playoff over two days, with the Angels facing the possibility of having to play games on both coasts on back-to-back days.

Then, for the team that survives, life won't get any easier. Both American League Division Series are scheduled to begin Sept. 30, but a three-way tie would push Game 1 of both series back a day to Oct. 1.

If that happens, baseball most likely would eliminate the off-day between Games 2 and 3 of the ALDS in order to get those series back on schedule.

So if the Angels were to win the wild card, they could find themselves playing Wednesday in California; Sept. 29 in Boston; Sept. 30 back in California; the opening of the ALDS Oct. 1-2 in New York; then Oct. 3-4 in California -- with no travel days.

In that scenario, the Angels almost certainly would lobby MLB officials to eliminate the off-day between Games 4 and 5 of the ALDS instead, because that off-day wouldn't be a factor if there is no Game 5.

But it might not be possible to make that change because of television requirements.

Either way, a three-way tie in the American League has long been baseball officials' biggest worry ever since the postseason schedule was tightened this year.

In the past several years, there has been a two-day hiatus between the end of the regular season and the start of the postseason. But this year, in an effort to address complaints about the drawn-out postseason schedule, there is only a one-day gap in the AL, and two days in the National League.

Also, because the Yankees have clinched the AL East and wouldn't be allowed to face either the Red Sox or Rays in the ALDS, both division series would have to be held up as long as the Angels are also involved.

Finally, the schedule for a three-team tiebreaker hasn't been determined, either. Here is how that would work:

The Rays will have first choice of potential tiebreaker scenarios, because their combined 16-10 record against the Red Sox and Angels was the best head-to-head winning percentage of the three teams. So they would have two options:

• Let the Red Sox and Angels play an elimination game Sept. 29 -- then face the winner of that game Sept. 30 on the road, or

• choose to play two elimination games, the first at home Sept. 29, and the second (if they win) at home again Sept. 30.

The Rays likely would decide to play just once, naturally. So the Red Sox would get the next choice because their 12-14 head-to-head record was better than the Angels' 6-10 record.

Boston would have the choice of playing both elimination games at home or playing the first at home and the second on the road, and clearly would opt for the two home games.

Meanwhile, there is still potential for a three-way tie in the National League wild-card race among the Atlanta Braves, St. Louis Cardinals and San Francisco Giants. If that happens, the Cardinals get first choice, the Braves second.

What happens in case of two-way ties? They would be decided in a one-game playoff the day after the regular season. Here is how they would work:

• The Rays would host the Red Sox or the Angels;

• Angels at Red Sox;

• Giants at Braves;

• Braves at Cardinals;

• Cardinals at Giants.

Baseball has held eight one-game tiebreaking elimination games since the start of division play in 1969. It has never had to face the mess that a three-way tie would create, but suddenly, that mess could be looming -- as soon as next week.

Jayson Stark is a senior baseball writer for ESPN.com