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McGair: A little tweaking to International League's playoff format would go a long way

September 3, 2013

Top, Pawtucket Red Sox manager Gary DiSarcina will lead his team into Rochester tonight for its semifinal-round series against the Red Wings. DiSarcina’s first season as the PawSox’s skipper has seen the team produce an 80-win season. (PHOTO BY ERNEST A. BROWN)

The Pawtucket Red Sox – correction, the 2013 Eastern Division champion Pawtucket Red Sox – will begin the Governors’ Cup playoffs Wednesday night on the road against wild-card entry Rochester.

Just let that marinate for a second.

The PawSox captured the division flag with the Red Wings ending up 3.5 games off the pace. To borrow from A Few Good Men, “These are the facts of the case. And they are undisputed.”

To that end, why pray tell is this best-of-five first-round series starting at Frontier Field as opposed to McCoy Stadium?
Good question, and below is the actual answer.

On Aug. 23, the International League issued a release that included a breakdown of the playoff format. The opening round would feature the North champ versus the wild card with the West and South division winners squaring off. Never mind that there was still time left in the regular season, or that the playoff field had yet to be finalized. The arrangements had already been predetermined.

It cuts deeper. The wild-card representative has the honor of playing the first two games of a short series at home before the scene shifts to the North champ’s barn. That means Rochester is guaranteed two home contests while Pawtucket – the ballclub that actually accomplished something of note – enters the series knowing that only one home game is assured with an asterisk attached to everything else.

Common sense suggests that this is a flawed system, not mention that it flies in the face of conventional playoff wisdom. Cutting to the chase: McCoy Stadium should be open for business Wednesday night.

With post-Labor Day baseball becoming a staple around these parts, it’s worth examining the postseason course the PawSox have charted during each of the past two years. In 2011, Pawtucket was swept out of the first round by Lehigh Valley. The first two games of the series took place in Allentown, Pa. with the wild-card entry IronPigs rolling out the welcome mat for the North Division conquerors, the PawSox.

Lehigh Valley took full advantage of its “gift” from the International League by winning Game 1 by two runs and Game 2 in 10 innings. Just like that, the PawSox were hanging by a thread as they limped back home, knowing that nothing beyond Game 3 was guaranteed.

Making additional plans to attend games at McCoy was negated thanks to Lehigh Valley starter Brian Bass, whose complete-game five-hitter enabled the IronPigs to break out the brooms in Pawtucket.

Now let’s revisit a more upbeat set of circumstances. The 2012 PawSox were dealt the wild-card route while their first-round opponent, Scranton-Wilkes Barre, earned the North crown. The series started at McCoy Stadium, and much like Lehigh Valley did the previous year, Pawtucket made good use of the home confines on its way to enjoying a two-games-to-none advantage.

Scranton did manage to push the series to a fourth game, yet the task of winning three straight on home soil – ironically, the Yankees’ Triple-A affiliate borrowed Frontier Field for the series as PNC Field was in the midst of a season-long renovation project – proved too daunting. Pawtucket secured a spot in the Governors’ Cup finals courtesy of a convincing 7-1 victory in Game 4.

Given the above examples and the first-round playoff configuration according to the International League, you could make a convincing claim that the PawSox are better off as the wild card. Sure, winning the North Division is a nice feather in their cap, but that also means bypassing a golden opportunity to start a “first team to three wins” series at home.

In rudimentary form, here’s a suggestion that could solve this quandary once and for all. Take the four International League playoff teams and seed the three division winners based on record. The wild card is always the No. 4 seed regardless of whether it finished with a better record than another tournament participant.

The first round would feature the division winner with the best record facing the wild card while the second and third seeds lock horns. Re-seeding for the finals is pretty self-explanatory considering there are only four teams involved.
The higher seed would get to host the first two games before changing venues. Should the need for a fifth and decisive game arise, the teams would return to the ballpark where the series commenced. If that’s the case, it behooves the International League to allow for a travel day between Games 4 and 5.

Shaking up the format would make playoff time in the International League much more simple and straightforward. It’s just a thought as the PawSox – the division champion PawSox – begin the 2013 postseason on the road.

Follow Brendan McGair on Twitter @ BWMcGair03

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