Playoff elimination as easy as 1-2-3 for Cubs, Pirates, Cards

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The Cubs are on track for the franchise’s third-best record in the last 70 years, and at this rate it’ll be worth no more than third place in a five-team division, and a loser-out playoff opener.

“I’m kind of used to it. I like it,” said Cubs manager Joe Maddon, who spent the last nine years managing the little-guy Tampa Bay Rays in the American League East with the payroll-behemoth Yankees and Red Sox.

“I like the fact that we play in the division with the perceived best teams in baseball. I think that makes us better quicker.”

Maddon has been saying that since spring training whenever asked about trying to rise from the ashes in a National League Central Division that includes the juggernaut Cardinals and the young-and-deep Pirates.

But he has never faced this reality: If the world-order in baseball doesn’t change between now and the Oct. 4 season finales, the teams with the top three records in the majors will all belong to the same division.

Nobody has ever faced that before. It hasn’t happened since division formats began in 1969.

In 68 seasons of the two-league format before divisional alignment, the top three records came out of the same league only seven times – just twice (1950, ’62) since World War II.

“I know in the American League East, we might have been close to something like that,” said Maddon, whose Rays were the winner of an AL East in 2008 that had three of the top four American League teams – the closest he has been to experiencing this.

Maddon said he’s not crying about anything being unfair, even though it necessarily means those three teams will face off exclusively the first two rounds of the playoffs until only one survives to the National League Championship Series – the winner of the one-game wild-card seeded against the division winner in the Division Series.

In fact, when he was in Tampa Bay, he adamantly opposed a proposal to re-align the small-revenue Rays with another division, because of his makes-you-better-quicker philosophy. Then he won two division titles, two wild-card berths and reached the 2008 World Series with the Rays.

“Obviously, you get to the end of the year, if we can stay on this pace, and you may look up and say you have the third-best record in baseball and can’t win a division,” he said. “That’s difficult, but on the other hand you knew that going into it. You had every chance to beat the teams ahead of you, and you did not. I’m good with that. I just like the idea that we’re playing well.”

The Cubs are playing well enough that their .586 winning percentage would rank third since their 1945 World Series team to only their 1984 (.596) and 2008 (.602) division winners.

The Cubs get one more shot at doing something about the order – at least as it relates to home field for the wild-card game – when they face the Pirates for three games this weekend, before finishing the season against Kansas City (one game), Cincinnati (three) and Milwaukee (three).

The Cubs, who trail the second-place Pirates by 3½ games, will host the wild-card game if they finish with the same record as the Pirates because they have clinched the season series against Pittsburgh.

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