We hope that headline doesn't make us sound like a jaded Yankees fan, especially on a day when the Baltimore Sun has a huge "O's in" headline on its front page. Many teams would love to secure a playoff spot — any playoff spot — and many fan bases go years or even decades without witnessing something like this. (Hell, one of those teams and one of those fan bases is located right here in New York.) But in 2012, there's a big difference between earning a spot in the division series and earning a spot in the scary one-game Wild Card round. The Yankees, thanks to their comeback win in Toronto yesterday and the Angels' loss last night, can officially call themselves a playoff team. But in 2012, "advancing to the ALDS" is the new "making the playoffs," and the Yankees haven't done that yet.
The battle for the top spot in the American League East hasn't been a race with many twists and turns in recent weeks. Over the past month, these teams have remained remarkably close in the standings, and while the Orioles have been even with the Yankees on occasion — the two teams are tied right now, in fact — they've yet to move into sole possession of first place. There last major shift at the top of the A.L. East standings — other than Tampa Bay falling out of contention — was the Yankees pissing away their double-digit lead. But once that had fully evaporated, it's been something close to the status quo for weeks. Two teams, either neck-and-neck or close to it, trying to win a division and avoid that Wild Card game.
And so, with three games remaining, the Yankees have the easier opponent: The last-place Red Sox visit the Bronx, and their season long ago fell apart. The Orioles, meanwhile, travel to St. Pete to play the Rays, who have won ten of eleven and still have a pulse in the Wild Card standings. Boston, needless to say, will want to play spoiler against a rival who, don't forget, got swept by the Rays to close out the 2011 season, helping push the Sox out of the playoff picture. Boston fans, meanwhile, would surely experience new levels of schadenfreude if their team could contribute to the Yankees' falling out of first place despite that ten-game lead earlier in the summer — particularly considering how much jerks like us enjoyed the way the 2011 regular season ended.
The new postseason format was supposed to accomplish two things: It would add a playoff team, thus giving more teams a chance to compete for a playoff berth late in the season, and it put an emphasis on winning the division, because teams would desperately want to avoid the one-game Wild Card game. But imagine what this race would look like in the old postseason format: The Yankees and Orioles wouldn't care as much about winning the division — but they'd both be in real danger of missing the playoffs entirely. (With three games left, they'd be tied for both first place and the Wild Card, with Oakland just one game behind them in the Wild Card race.) Then again, wouldn't losing in that one-game playoff in 2012 really be all that different from missing out on the Wild Card by a game in 2011? We'd argue that it's not. The Yankees have accomplished something by clinching a playoff berth, but that doesn't mean they've accomplished much.