Baseball's wild-card races, though they have been truly indicative of the word "wild" this season, appear nearly wrapped up with all clubs having six games remaining.
Or are they? The only team that's clinched a berth in the winner-take-all wild-card games is the Atlanta Braves, who will host ... someone, late next week. That team could very well be the St. Louis Cardinals, who have just completed a stretch of seven wins in nine games.
But that Star-Trekkian Seven of Nine has been against the bottom-feeders in the NL Central, the Astros and Cubs. Now, the Cardinals must play series against a team that's already clinched a division title (the Reds) and one that's about to (the Nationals, who, with a magic number of three, need to keep winning). Winning those games won't be as easy as it was for St. Louis the last nine days, even though the Cardinals will be playing at home.
Meanwhile, their two remaining pursuers (we'll leave the Phillies and Diamondbacks out of this discussion because they hang by a magic-number thread of one), the Dodgers and Brewers, have what could be considered "easier" series this weekend. Milwaukee hosts the Astros, who have been beyond awful on the road this year, and Los Angeles will play the Rockies (also a bad road team) at Dodger Stadium.
It is not inconceivable, therefore, that the Cardinals, Brewers and Dodgers could be tied for the NL's second wild-card spot after Sunday's action, if three sweeps take place.
The American League scenario is even more interesting. No division titles have yet been clinched in the A.L., and even discounting the tight race in the A.L. East, it's entirely possible for four teams to wind up tied for the two wild-card spots. Here's how the Orioles, Athletics, Angels and Rays can all wind up with 91 wins:
The toughest one of those six-game runs would be for the Angels, since they play no more home games and have the "worst" road record of the four (though still a winning mark, 40-35, away from Anaheim). Winning at Texas won't be easy for the Angels, though they have gone 3-3 there so far this year. Then the Halos head to Seattle, where they are 6-1 this season.
For the Orioles, they host the sinking Red Sox, but then finish the season at Tampa Bay; the Rays are the hottest team in baseball, with eight straight victories entering Friday night's action; the Rays, for their part, continue their series with the White Sox (who also desperately need wins) in Chicago this weekend before coming home for that set against Baltimore.
The A's are home for the rest of the season, first hosting the Mariners and then the Rangers. They're 3-4 against Seattle at home and 4-2 at Arlington against the Rangers... so a 3-3 split of the six games remaining is perfectly plausible.
The four-way tie proposed above is actually easy... well, sort of... to break. You'd have two games, with seeding determined by head-to-head records, then (presumably) the winners of that pair of contests would play each other to determine who's the first wild card and who's the second -- and then those teams have to play each other again in the wild-card play-in game. Or, Major League Baseball could simply declare the winners of the first two games the wild cards and send them directly to the play-in game, hosted by the team with the better head-to-head record.
The problem for the very-carefully-crafted postseason schedule is that such scenarios take at least two extra days, possibly more depending on travel issues, some of which are laid out in this Jayson Stark article at ESPN.com. Stark, though, didn't take into account the Rays, because three days ago, when that was written, the Rays seemed out of contention. By shoehorning the extra wild-card team into 2012 after the schedule was already complete, MLB allowed just one day for tiebreakers.
And all of that doesn't even note the (admittedly unlikely) possibility that the Yankees could go 1-5 against the Blue Jays (in Toronto) and the Red Sox (at Yankee Stadium) and also finish with 91 wins, in a five-way tie. As Stark says, in that case:
Well, the World Series would be over by Thanksgiving.
Enjoy the last six days of the 2012 regular season. You think last year's regular season ending was crazy? This one could be crazier.