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September 28, 2000

The Daily Prospectus

September 29, 1996

by Joe Sheehan

A lot of my mail today has been asking about or offering opinions on the status of next Monday's schedule Oakalnd/Tampa Bay game. People want to know whether the A's will have to play the game if they and the Mariners have already clinched playoff spots, even if the game would decide the AL West title.

To be honest, I don't know right now, although a few BP staffers are looking into it. What I can tell you is that making the A's fly 3,000 miles to play what amounts to a seeding game would be a hardship on them, and that no gain--from wild-card to division champ--would be worth the trip.

More stathead, never-played-the-game nonsense? Nope. We have a great example of how real teams would act in a situation in which a division title--but not a postseason slot--was on the line.

On September 29, 1996, the last day of the 1996 season, the Padres and Dodgers were in a flat-footed tie for first place and scheduled to play each other at Dodger Stadium. The winner of that day's game would be the National League West champion, while the loser would be the NL wild card. Both teams were guaranteed to play beyond that afternoon, but they were still playing for a division title.

So what did they do?

The Padres passed on letting #2 starter Joey Hamilton start on three days' rest, instead using #4 starter Bob Tewksbury, who hadn't started since September 17. The Dodgers, on the other hand, started their nominal ace, Ramon Martinez...and pulled him after one inning for their #4 starter, Pedro Astacio.

The teams traded 42 outs without scoring. In a tie game in the eighth inning, with a division title on the line, the Padres brought in Dario Veras, who had 26 innings of major-league experience at that point. Keep in mind that the Padres had a deep bullpen in 1996; both Doug Bochtler and Tim Worrell had ERAs around 3.00 with good peripherals, and Trevor Hoffman was devastating in the closer role.

Two innings later, the Dodgers removed the runner-up in that season's MVP voting, Mike Piazza, with the game still scoreless. With the game still tied, the Dodgers inserted rookie middle reliever Chan Ho Park in Piazza's lineup spot.

Division title on the line, scoreless game, extra innings...two tenth-pitcher-and-beyond arms in the game.

The Padres would go on to win the game and the division. 2-0. Both teams' seasons would end less than a week later in the Division Series, with the two combining for one win.

Should the Indians fall from the picture and both AL West teams clinch playoff spots with the division crown in doubt, ignore all the talk about how important a division title is and watch their actions. As the Padres and Dodgers showed four years ago, a division title means nothing in the wild-card era. It's just another playoff slot.

Joe Sheehan can be reached at jsheehan@baseballprospectus.com.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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