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Angels and Athletics are best, but second is no consolation

Oakland Athletics' Jon Lester works against the Minnesota Twins in the first inning of a baseball game Thursday, Aug. 7, 2014, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

Oakland Athletics' Jon Lester works against the Minnesota Twins in the first inning of a baseball game Thursday, Aug. 7, 2014, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

In 2001, the Oakland Athletics won 102 games, seven more than the third-best team in the American League. They still finished in second place by 14 games because they happened to play in same division as the 116-win Seattle Mariners. Fortunately for Oakland, the A’s clinched their spot in the playoffs with a dozen games left. The second-place wild-card team that season, the Minnesota Twins, won only 85 games and played out the string.

Thirteen years later, the same kind of race is brewing. It will unfold in a far different manner. At the top of the American League West, the A’s and Angels own the two best records in baseball. The A’s lead the Angels by three games, and the Angels lead a motley pack of wild-card contenders by 6.5 games.

In 2001, the A’s coasted into the playoffs, and the Twins went home. This season, the loser of the A’s-Angels race could get picked off in a one-game playoff by the Royals, Yankees, Blue Jays or Mariners.

It would not be equitable to pit, say, a 98-win team against an 87-win team in a one-game crapshoot. The A’s or Angels would end their season like Little Bill Daggett in Unforgiven, wounded and whimpering, “I don’t deserve to die like this.”

The thing is, William Munny was right. Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.

The system in place would not be fair to a team that, like the A’s and Angels, pulls away from the rest of its league but can’t win its own division. So what? It’s professional sports. We’ll take fascinating and entertaining over fair every day.

With the old single wild card, any drama in the American League West would be about which team gets home-field advantage in the division series. Yawn. Now it promises to be thrilling theatre for the next two months – Mike Trout, Albert Pujols and the star-studded Angels fighting for their postseason lives against Oakland’s beefed-up rotation and Bob Melvin’s wicked-genius platoons.

It already has injected excitement into the season. After years of near-misses in the postseason, the thinking goes, Oakland General Manager Billy Beane wanted to retool his rotation with Jon Lester, Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to avoid another early exit. So he sacrificed uber-prospect Addison Russell and slugger Yoenis Cespedes with October in mind.

That’s wrong. Beane moved his chips to the middle of the table because he knew he needed to fend off the Angels to guarantee just getting to the postseason. Under the old wild-card format, the A’s could have safely cruised into the playoffs as a wild card even if the Angels passed them. Beane made his moves – and therefore electrified the trade deadline – because he knew the A’s couldn’t waste a chance to win the division.

There is one factor that could make the play-in game unfair. In the final week of the season, the Yankees, Royals, Mariners or Blue Jays could break away from the pack while the Angels and A’s remain in a dead heat. The King of Mediocre could set its rotation so its ace could pitch the one-game playoff. The powerhouses would need to claw against each other until Game 162 and pitch whomever’s next in the play-in game. That would be a cheesy side effect of a system that otherwise maximizes drama between the best teams.

But if the more worthy team goes home, so be it. We’ll see you in October, Will Munny.

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