One of the original impetuses behind the creation of the the wild card in MLB playoffs (along with both leagues expanding to the point that three divisions were needed) was the sad tale of the 1993 San Francisco Giants, who won an amazing 103 games that year but finished second in the NL Western Division behind the Atlanta Braves, who won 104. The Giants didn't make the playoffs, and a lot of people thought they really should have because they had a better record than the NL Eastern Division winners, the Philadelphia Phillies, who only won 97. I, of course, did not subscribe to that particular line of thinking, but many did. How was it right that a team could win over 100 games in a season - no easy feat in a 162-game schedule - and not be in the playoffs to determine the best team in baseball?
So, after the 1994 strike-shortened season had no playoffs, 1995 brought about the birth of the wild card: out of the three second-place teams in each league, the one with the best record gets into the playoffs as well. Problem solved. The most deserving second-place team gets into the post-season, right?
Part of what makes baseball such a wonderful game is that, although it is a game whose very identity is found in its precise numbers and meticulous statistics, and although every effort has been made throughout the years to insure that the rulebook takes into account virtually any situation that might arise, there remains in every fan, every player, every manager and coach, every umpire, every person associated with the game, the knowledge that each game and each year brings about the distinct possibility that a situation no one ever thought of before could occur. It took 15 years for the Grand Old Game to show us that the wild card slot indeed does not insure that every deserving team makes the playoffs, but show us it did. Just ask the Detroit Tigers.
After the full 162-game season was played, only seven of the eight playoff berths were determined. Both leagues' wild card teams were already decided. The only spot not decided was the pennant winner in the AL Central Division. The Tigers, who had been in first place needing to win only one of their final four games to secure the pennant, and the Minnesota Twins had finished with identical 86-76 records, tied for first place.
Today, they played their 163rd game of the regular season to decide the victor. After three innings, the Tigers led 3-1 and were cruising along nicely, until the bottom of the 7th, when Twins pulled ahead 4-3. The Tigers promptly scored in the top of the 8th to tie the game at 4-4, and when neither team scored in the ninth, a season that had to go an extra game to decide a winner saw that extra game need extra innings to make that call.
The Tigers scored in the top of the tenth, pulling ahead 5-4, and just needed to set the Twins down in the bottom of the inning to advance to the playoffs. But the Twins wouldn't cooperate. They, too, scored, and the game went on. Two more innings, in fact, when in the bottom of the 12th inning Minnesota's Alexi Casilla singled in Carlos Gomez with the winning run. The Twins took the pennant, and the Tigers - who were in first place until the last half of the 12th inning in the 163rd game of the season - don't go to the playoffs at all.
The Twins certainly proved their worth, having won 17 of their final 21 games to catch the Tigers. And the Tigers did choke in their final four games. They only had to win one of them to have taken the pennant; instead the 2009 Detroit Tigers take their place in baseball history next to the 1993 San Francisco Giants among the best teams not to make the playoffs.