Dustin Pedroia of the Boston Red Sox walks back to the dugout after striking out in the eighth inning against the Tampa Bay Rays at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts. The Rays won the game 8-5. (Photo by Darren McCollester/Getty Images)
There have been a number of ties for MLB postseason berths; in fact, there was a tiebreaker game in 2007, 2008, and 2009. All three of those games were decided by one run, and the drama of a win-or-go-home game can hardly be overstated.
There has, however, never in the history of baseball been a three-way tie for any playoff spot. In the National League in 1964, if the Mets had defeated the Cardinals on the last day of the season, we would have had one, as St. Louis won the pennant by one game over both the Reds and Phillies.
Fast-forwarding to 2011, the Mets defeated the Cardinals on Thursday with an unlikely six-run ninth-inning rally, and that hurt St. Louis' chances of winning the National League Wild Card; with a win the Cardinals would have trailed the Braves by just one game, with six games remaining.
However, even at two games back, St. Louis has a shot. And so do the Giants, four games behind. We have a similar (but slightly better) race in the American League, with the Rays two games behind the Wild Card-leading Red Sox, and the Angels -- who also lost in crushing fashion Thursday, on a Blue Jays walkoff home run -- trailing by three games.
For the purposes of considering three-way ties this year, we have one serendipitous bit of luck. None of the six teams involved play each other for the rest of the regular season, so we don't have to consider scenarios involving "Team A defeating Team B so Team C moves ahead of them". Here is one possible scenario for a three-way tie in both leagues.
American League: Red Sox go 1-5 (certainly possible, as they are 5-16 this month and have to visit Yankee Stadium this weekend); Rays go 3-3; Angels go 4-2. That would produce a three-way tie at 89-73.
National League: Braves go 1-5 (again, possible, as Atlanta is 8-13 in September and must play the Phillies); Cardinals go 3-3; Giants go 5-1 (that'll be tough as they have to visit the Diamondbacks, but San Francisco has won nine of their last 11 and the Giants are 9-6 vs. the D'backs so far this year and 4-2 in Phoenix). That would produce the same 89-73, three-way tie as the above AL scenario.
There are a couple of other possibilities, but those seem the most likely. So what happens if one or both of those actually happens? Before 2010, the commissioner's office used to hold coin flips to rank the teams and then set up a round-robin playoff. Last year, they set up a system, still in place, in which the teams will be ranked by head-to-head records among themselves. So how do the six teams involved rank head-to-head in 2011?
In the AL, the Rays are 16-10 against the Red Sox and Angels, the Red Sox are 12-14 against the Rays and Angels and the Angels are 6-10 against the Red Sox and Rays.
In the NL, the Giants are 11-3 against the Cardinals and Braves, the Braves are 7-6 against the Giants and Cardinals and the Cardinals are 7-6 against the Braves and Giants.
The team with the best head-to-head mark -- in this year's scenario, the Giants and Rays -- would get the following choice: they can either choose to play team two at home, and then if they win they'd play team three at home, or they can make the other two teams play first, and then play the winner ... but on the road.
I believe a team should always pick scenario #2 -- even though you'd have to go on the road for your game, you'd be forcing the other team to go through its bullpen and probably use a lesser starting pitcher against you.
(Incidentally, to decide who is Team 2 in this year's NL scenario, you'd need the second tiebreaker, which is divisional record, and in the NL case this year that's still up in the air, as both the Braves and Cardinals have six division games remaining. St. Louis is 40-33 vs. NL Central teams, and Atlanta is 35-31 vs. NL East teams.)
There's one last thing a three-way tie might do, and that is to delay the rest of the postseason schedule. If there's a round-robin tiebreaker tournament in the American League, a Division Series will definitely be delayed for at least one day. There would probably be a delay in the National League, too. Any of which might play havoc with MLB's best-laid postseason TV plans.
So hang on, and if you love baseball history and odd occurrences, root for one of the above scenarios. If nothing else, it might make steam come out of Bud Selig's nose and ears.