With the importance of the World Series and the excitement of the league championship series (the Final Four of baseball), the division series often gets overlooked. Sometimes it’s for good reason, but not always. The division series marks the beginning of the baseball postseason and is about a month away. It’s only a best-of-five series and many times is over in the minimum games. But there is an excitement to the division series and is slowly developing its own history. The World Series began in 1903. The championship series began in 1969. The division series is only 15 years old, having begun after the 1995 season (technically, it would have begun after the 1994 season if there hadn’t been a strike).
Major League Baseball has just the right amount of playoffs. There’s not too much like the NHL and NBA and there’s not too little like college football. The NHL and NBA welcome 16 teams into its playoffs while college football only has one game to determine the national champion.
Unfortunately, much of the division playoffs are over far too soon. Eight teams make it to the major league playoffs; four from each league. There’s the three division winners and one wild-card team. The division winner with the most wins in each league plays the wild-card team, unless that team is in the same division as the team with the most wins. In that case, the team with the most wins plays the division winner with the least wins.
Since the division series began in 1995, there have been 60 series. Of those 60, 25 (42%) of them have been sweeps. Only 13 (22%) of the division series have gone to a deciding game 5. This can be compared to baseball’s championship series, which was a best-of-five series until it was changed to best-of-seven in 1985. From 1969 through 1984, 10 of 32 championships series (31%) went to a fifth game.
There is a lack of excitement in the first round of playoffs. Is it because the best teams are just that good? The team with the best record in its league has a 20-10 series record in the first round. Among those 20 wins, the top team in each league hold a 57-6 record. In the 10 series losses, the top team’s record is 13-33. When the favorite team wins the division series, it does so quickly most of the time. Yes, there are upsets, but the seeding in the playoffs seems to fit well.
When the division series begins in early October, I’ll be hoping for as many five-game series as possible (minus the Twins). Never has all four division series in a year gone five games. In 2001, three series went to a deciding game 5. That was the only time three series went that far. Two series in each 2002 and 2003 went five games, but those were the only years more than one series went beyond four games.
If it’s excitement baseball fans are looking for in the division series, a big thanks needs to go out to the Oakland A’s. For four straight years (2000-2003) the A’s took their respective division series to the fifth game … and lost every one of them. In 2001 and 2003, Oakland won the first two games and then dropped three straight.
Although the Braves played in the division series every year from 1995 through 2005, they didn’t make things all that interesting. Only three times did Atlanta take the series to five games and they lost all three times from 2002 through 2004. From 1995 through 1999, the Braves dominated the division series with five series wins and a 15-2 record. Beginning in 2000, it all fell apart for Atlanta as it would win only one series in the next six years and compile a 10-15 record.
The Minnesota Twins would love to say it had 10 wins in the division series, but they’re far from that. After a surprising 3-2 series win over the A’s in 2002, Minnesota has lost four straight division series and a 2-12 record. The Twins’ last division series win was the first game of the 2004 postseason. They have lost nine straight since then.
The greatest division series is arguably from its first year when the Seattle Mariners defeated the Yankees on an exciting fifth game. After losing the first two games in New York, the Mariners stormed back to win all three games in Seattle (in the first three years of the division series, the top-seeded team would play all three of its home games in the final three games, if they were necessary). Ken Griffey Jr.’s mad dash from first to home on a double by Edgar Martinez in the bottom of the 11th inning at the Kingdome has become part of baseball legend. The second game of that series went 15 innings where New York eventually won while the fourth game was tied 6-6 before the Mariners would score five runs in the bottom of the eighth to help Seattle to an 11-8 victory.
It’s difficult to pick a best game of the division series. There are no Major League Baseball “Best of the Division Series” DVDs or highlight shows on ESPN Classic. The division series is largely forgotten after it’s done. The championship series doesn’t get the hype the World Series gets, but there have been many memorable moments documented on film. The one division series game that sticks in my mind was the fourth game of the 2003 series between the Giants and Marlins. Florida was up 2-1 in the series after losing the opening game. Playing in Miami, the game was tied 5-5 going into the bottom of the eighth. Two quick outs were recorded before Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez singled. Derek Lee was hit by a pitch, putting Pudge on second. Miguel Cabrera lined a single to right field. The throw home beat the runner, but Rodriguez put all of his pudge into catcher Yorvit Torrealba and knocked the ball loose allowing Lee to score as well.
The Giants needed two runs to keep the game going in the top of the ninth and it looked like they might get both of them after pinch hitter Neifi Perez doubled and J.T. Snow singled to score the runner. The next two Giants batters were not able to advance Snow on their outs, but Ray Durham did the hard way when he was hit by a pitch. With the tying run on second, the go-ahead run on first and two outs, Jeffrey Hammonds stepped up for San Francisco. His single on a line drive to left field gave the Giants a chance for revenge on Rodriguez. The throw arrived ahead of the runner, but J.T. Snow had the same idea Pudge had a half-inning earlier – knock over the catcher and get the ball loose. But Pudge is not known as one of the greatest catchers of his generation for nothing. Pudge held the ball for the final out of the division series and began his celebrating laying on his back, clutching the ball and screaming at the sky while his teammates hog piled on top.
Many see the division series as a formality before the championship series. It doesn’t have to be this way. It’s still a do-or-die situation for every team. So let’s root for as many five-game series as possible. There’s not much baseball left in the year once the division series rolls around, so let’s get the most we can while we can. The first round of the playoffs should be remembered because without winning the first round, you’ll never get to the World Series.