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Adding a wild card is ‘going to help us,’ but caution abounds for Nationals

- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 1, 2012

VIERA, Fla. — A warm breeze swirled through Space Coast Stadium, past the osprey nest perched atop the right-field light pole, the youngster scrubbing the dugout roof with a rag and the rhythmic crack of bat on ball.

October's chill felt far away. But the month occupied the minds of the Washington Nationals on Thursday, after news spread that baseball's playoffs likely will expand from eight to 10 teams.

The Associated Press and others reported Thursday that Major League Baseball and its players were closing in on a long-expected deal that would implement the new structure for the 2012 postseason. The teams with the two best records after the three division winners would meet in a one-game play-in. The winner would be the wild card.

The biggest change to baseball's playoff format since the one-team wild card started in 1995 left the Nationals hopeful of increased odds to emerge from the always-difficult National League East.

"It's going to be a little different," starter Jordan Zimmermann said. "But it's definitely going to help us."

Added utility man Mark DeRosa: "I liked it last year, seeing how many teams were in it for the wild card spots. It brings the people to the stadium. No one likes playing in an empty ballpark.... I think it makes for a very exciting season, and there's going to be a lot more intense baseball down the stretch."

Since 1995, the National League's wild card team averaged 90.6 wins; the American League's averaged 93.7 wins. The Nationals haven't won more than 81 games since they arrived in 2005. If the new plan were in place last season, four teams would have been ahead off the Nationals for the two play-in spots.

Caution about the plan's logistics came from veterans such as reliever Brad Lidge. In five trips to the postseason during his 10 seasons, two came via the wild card. He likes the expansion and thinks it's going to generate more fan interest. Practical issues concern him.

"I think it seriously handicaps the high wild card team," Lidge said. "Now you don't have a day off and you have to use one of your best starters. Even if you're able to come out of there with a victory, you're at a disadvantage going into the first round."

Lidge would like the one-game playoff sandwiched between off-days to lessen the impact on travel, planning and pitching rotations.

Manager Davey Johnson wondered about the disadvantage the play-in winner would face in the divisional round if it threw its ace in the game. But Johnson, in professional baseball since 1965, prefers to focus on winning the division. Only when that's removed from the picture does he consider other avenues to the postseason.

On the other side is infielder Anthony Rendon, who hasn't known anything but baseball's expanded postseason. He was 5 years old when the first wild card teams made the playoffs.

"They've had a couple debacles in the past with the Rays and Yankees [and the wild card]," Rendon said. "It makes it more fair now and there won't be any question marks or asterisks next to them.

"The more the merrier. You have those Cinderella stories, those teams that explode at the right time."

But surprise was the biggest reaction, as players gobbled plates of eggs and digested the changes before ambling to the breezy field.

"We were all a little surprised," starter Edwin Jackson said. "The game is full of surprises. It definitely puts a different stroke on things.

"It's a chance for another team to have a chance."

NOTES: Bryce Harper will start in right field and hit third in Friday's 1:05 p.m. exhibition game against Georgetown. ... Matt Purke will start and throw about 40 pitches. ... Adam LaRoche (ankle/shoulder) didn't participate in workouts for the second straight day Thursday. ... Johnson reported that DeRosa (wrist) and Chad Tracy (knee) had no problems Thursday.

c Amanda Comak contributed to this report.

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