- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 3, 2006

This could be the 2006 World Series: Oakland vs. San Diego.

Would they even care on the West Coast?

Baseball purists who complain that only rich teams can reach the World Series would be pleased by that matchup, but Fox television executives would do T.O. overdose impersonations if it actually came to pass.

The Dodgers against the Yankees? Now we’re talking Fall Classic.

But it very well could be the A’s and the Padres. That is the risk of the five-game Division Series: The best team doesn’t always win. Instead, the team that wins the first game often takes the series.

The seven-game League Championship Series sometimes weeds out the least, but not always. If that doesn’t happen this postseason, we face the risk of the Padres-Yankees series — a series that could be over in three games.

This is why baseball commissioner Cadillac Bud Selig has pushed for the expansion of the Division Series to seven games, an idea that may surface in the offseason as a bargaining issue in baseball’s labor talks.

Cadillac Bud, though, won’t have to convince just the players. The owners are a tougher sell because any such expansion likely must be accompanied by a reduction of the regular season.

That’s right, a 154-game season. As if baseball records aren’t murky enough already.

The regular season consisted of 154 games from 1904 to 1961. It then expanded to the current 162-game format in the American League to coincide with the entry of two new teams, the Los Angeles Angels and the new version of the Washington Senators.

The National League followed suit the next year, adding the New York Mets and the Houston Colt 45s and expanding the schedule.

The schedule has remained at 162 games ever since.

However, two layers of playoffs have since been added to the postseason. Further expansion of the playoffs would require either a November finish to the postseason or an early March start to the regular season — something Cadillac Bud has made clear he doesn’t want for fear of weather problems in open-air ballparks.

The alternative is shortening the regular season, a move that would amount to four home games lost per team. It isn’t clear how much revenue would be lost and whether the owners would demand a corresponding cut in salaries. That remains a very tough sell.

Until then, the Division Series remains five games, and today’s start by Johan Santana of the Twins likely will dictate who wins their series against the A’s. The Twins must win every game that Santana pitches in the postseason, particularly in their home park. Oakland loses today, and it is more than just one loss. It is a hole they have to dig out of.

The Twins contest features some of the brightest young stars in baseball: Santana, perhaps the best pitcher in the game; Twins catcher Joe Mauer, the AL batting leader; and probable Most Valuable Player winner Justin Morneau. It isn’t a marquee matchup, but it may be the best baseball to be played.

The marquee contest, in prime time tonight, is the Yankees’ series with the Detroit Tigers.

But the curse of the five-game series could haunt the Yankees if somehow the Tigers can win the opener at Yankee Stadium. That would put Detroit up 1-0 with their best pitcher, Justin Verlander, throwing in Game 2 against an inconsistent Mike Mussina. That could be a problem.

Still, it’s tough to pick against the Yankees, and it probably will be the two best teams in the league, the Yankees and Twins, in the ALCS — providing the five-game series doesn’t throw a curve.

In the National League, the Mets go into the Division Series against the Dodgers without their ace diva, Pedro Martinez. The Dodgers’ pitching, with Derek Lowe and Greg Maddux, looks stronger but not overwhelming.

The Mets’ offense seems strong enough to get by with competent pitching from Orlando Hernandez, Steve Trachsel and Tom Glavine.

The other series — St. Louis against San Diego — was a mismatch last year, as the Cardinals manhandled the Padres. But the Cardinals barely avoided one of the worst chokes in modern baseball and limped to the NL Central Division title. The Padres’ stronger starting pitching, led by Chris Young, and better bullpen, gives them the edge to meet the Mets in the NLCS.

All this, though, depends on who wins today and tomorrow. The regular season is a marathon, but a five-game Division Series is a sprint.

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