TAMPA, Fla. -- A third-place team winning the World Series?
Joe Maddon thought about the possibility.
"There's no bellyaching," the Tampa Bay Rays manager said. "You know it's a possibility, so why are you going to cry about it at the end of the year?"
First place ain't what it used to be. "Let's win!" has been replaced by "Let's get in!"
Under the new postseason format, a third-place team can squeak into the playoffs in the final wild card spot and 12 wins later be spraying champagne, lifting the trophy and planning a parade. And there's a good chance the extra American League team will come from the wild, wild East, a division where the pitching-rich Rays have upended the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox to win two division titles in the last four seasons.
"It's going to happen," Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira said. "It's not necessarily who has the best record in the regular season, it's who's hot in the postseason."
"Two weeks before the season was over, would anyone have thought that St. Louis was going to win the World Series? But that's baseball. That's the beauty of baseball."
Last year's Cardinals were the fifth wild-card champion, and now more are sure to follow.
Through 1968, the two pennant winners went directly to the World Series. When each league split into two divisions, the postseason doubled to four teams, with a league championship series added in a move that upset tradition-bound fans. The playoffs increased to eight teams in 1995 (a year later than intended, because of a season-ending strike) as each league went to three divisions.
And now, 10 of 30 teams will go to the postseason, still a lower percentage than the NFL (12 of 32) and the NBA and NHL (16 of 30).
Old-style, six-month battles for first, like the 1951 struggle between the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers and the 1978 fight between the Yankees and the Red Sox, are as dated as the dead ball.
Rays senior adviser Don Zimmer, a Dodgers minor leaguer during the '51 race who retired as a player in 1965 after a dozen big league seasons, said the straight-to-the-Series system wouldn't work anymore.
"Oh no. Not now. Too many teams," he said. "I think the more teams go to the playoffs, the more fans come to watch their teams."
Under the new format, the three division winners in each league advance to the postseason along with the two non-division winners with the best records. The wild cards meet in a one-game playoff, with the winner moving on to the best-of-five division series. And the prohibition against teams from the same division meeting before the LCS has been eliminated.
While teams as low as third place have never won the Super Bowl, it's happened twice in the NBA. The 1969 Boston Celtics won the championship after finishing fourth in the East and the 1995 Houston Rockets took the title after coming in third in the Midwest.
There's been one fourth-place Stanley Cup champion, according to STATS LLC, the 1949 Toronto Maple Leafs. Nine third-place teams are engraved on the cup, the last being the 1993 Montreal Canadiens.
The last great regular-season race in baseball was in 1993, when Atlanta (104-58) edged out San Francisco (103-59) -- the Giants had the most wins since 1954 of a team that failed to finish first.
Not since the 1995 Braves has the team with the National League's best record won the World Series, according to STATS. The top AL team has fared better, with the 1998, 1999 and 2009 Yankees winning along with the 2005 Chicago White Sox and the 2007 Boston Red Sox (who tied with Cleveland for the top record).
"I don't think there's a pennant race anymore. That's been extinct since they made the divisions," Toronto slugger Jose Bautista said. "There's division championships that are still employed but there's not a pennant race. That's long gone. When there was just the American League and National League and whoever was on top, that's when it really meant something."
Had the new system been in place, both AL wild cards would have come from the East in three of the last four years, creating wild card matchups of Rays-Red Sox last year and Yankees-Red Sox in 2008 and 2010. The lone exception would have been 2009, when Boston would have played Texas in the wild-card round.
"The way it's played out in the past, it'll just be another game against two teams in this division," Boston pitcher Clay Buchholz said. "So we'll be able to add another team from this division in the playoffs, if everything goes good and the division is still as strong as it has been."
While there's more incentive to win the division and avoid the one-loss-and-you're-out round, even a team like the Baltimore Orioles, in the midst of 14 consecutive losing seasons, has increased hope of October ball.
"It gives a lot of people a little bit of chance," Orioles shortstop J.J. Hardy said. "We all say it -- once you're in the playoffs anything can happen. If you sneak in, as one of the extra wild-card teams, there's no saying you can't win the World Series."
Out of it has been redefined. Among the wild card Series winners, the 1997 Florida Marlins finished nine games out of first. The others -- the 2002 Anaheim Angels, 2003 Marlins, 2004 Red Sox and last year's Cardinals -- all dropped 10-1/2 games back of first at some point, STATS said.
Players and fans sure weren't thinking about that when jumping up and down at the year's final out.
"If you're a World Series champion, you're a World Series champion," Rays pitcher David Price said. "That means you're the best team in baseball, especially that last month of the season. That speaks volumes about your team, the coaching. It's how you're able to put it together that last month."