As the Nationals continue to whittle away their magic number for clinching the National League East, it seems like an appropriate time to take a closer look at how the postseason will work in 2012. Major League Baseball has done some tinkering with the format, changes necessitated by the addition this season of an extra wild card team in each league.
Here's the basics you'll want to know (but for reasons I'll explain later, I'd caution against marking them in ink on your calendar):
Wednesday, Oct. 3 - Final day of the regular season.
Thursday, Oct. 4 - Off-day (built into the schedule for tiebreakers, weather-related make-ups that could impact standings, etc.).
Friday, Oct. 5 - Wild card games played in each league (one game, win-and-you-advance format).
Saturday, Oct. 6 - The American League Division Series or the National League Division Series begin, pitting the No. 2 seed against the No. 3 seed. The lower-seeded team hosts the first two games of the best-of-five series.
Sunday, Oct. 7 - The ALDS and NLDS series involving the No. 1 and No. 4 seeds begin at the home of the lower-seeded team, which hosts the first two games of the best-of-five series. Game 2 of the ALDS and NLDS between the No. 2 and No. 3 teams is played at the home park of the lower seed.
Monday, Oct. 8 - Game 2 of the ALDS and NLDS between the No. 1 and No. 4 seeds, at the home park of the lower seed. Travel day for the other series.
Tuesday, Oct. 9 - Game 3 of the ALDS and NLDS between the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds, moving to the ballpark of the higher-seeded team for the remainder of the series. Travel day for the series between the No. 1 and No. 4 seeds.
Wednesday, Oct. 10 - The No. 1 seeds (the teams with the best record in each league) finally realize the reward of a home playoff game as the ALDS and NLDS involving those teams shift to the top-seeded teams' home ballpark for the remainder of the series. Game 4 of the other ALDS and NLDS (if necessary) at the home park of the higher seed).
Thursday, Oct. 11 - Game 5 of the ALDS and NLDS between the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds (if necessary) is played at the home field of the higher seed. Game 4 of the ALDS and NLDS involving the No. 1 and No. 4 seeds (if necessary) is played at the home park of the No. 1 seed.
Friday, Oct. 12 - Game 5 of the ALDS and NLDS (if necessary) between the No. 1 and No. 4 seeds is played at the home park of the No. 1 seed.
Saturday, Oct. 13 - Best-of-seven American League Championship Series begins in the home park of the higher seed.
Sunday, Oct. 14 - Best-of-seven National League Championship Series begins in the home park of the higher seed.
Wednesday, Oct. 24 - Best-of-seven World Series begins in the home park of the NL representative (by virtue of the NL's victory in the All-Star Game).
Got all that?
So, assuming the Nationals win the NL East and hold the best record, they would open the NLDS on the road Oct. 7 against the remaining wild card team. If the Nats win the NL East but don't have the best record, their first playoff game would be Oct. 6, also on the road.
The site and dates of Washington's participation in the NLCS will be determined by what happens with the remainder of the regular season and in the NLDS. But if they reach the World Series, the Nationals would host Game 1 on Oct. 24 at Nationals Park (and, boy, would the Anacostia waterfront and South Capitol Street be rocking). Games 2 and (if necessary) 6 and 7 would also be hosted by the Nationals, with Game 7 scheduled for Thursday, Nov. 1.
Because of MLB rules, MASN won't be able to broadcast any of the games, though the Nationals' regular-season television rights-holder will continue to air "Nats Xtra" pregame and postgame shows. And you'll have the best coverage available of the Nats' playoff run right here on MASNsports.com, which will have staffers with the team every step of the way.
Where can you watch the games? Any tiebreaker games will be broadcast exclusively on TBS, which also will air the Oct. 5 wild card games. TBS will also air 18 of the 20 LDS games, with MLB Network airing its first live playoff games Oct. 7 and Oct. 10 (games to be determined). TBS has the ALCS, while FOX will be home to the NLCS. FOX will present exclusive coverage of the World Series.
Now, here's where things get tricky.
Because the addition of a second wild card team came so late, and because the schedule was already set in stone, there could be complication. Major League Baseball was hoping to create some additional drama in the regular season's final week, but could get more than it bargained for. Example: If more than two teams are tied for the second wild card spot, there could be two play-in games to determine who faces the top wild card team in the one-game playoff. Take a look at the schedule and you'll see there isn't any room built for an extra couple of games, just Oct. 4 for one game.
It's conceivable that a division race might be decided by a tiebreaking game Oct. 4, which could impact the start of the wild card round a day later. The collective bargaining agreement signed before this season mandates certain rest periods, especially when teams have to travel across multiple time zones. It's not out of the realm of possibility that a team finishes its season in the eastern time zone, has to move to the west for a play-in game and then head back east for the wild card round. Right now, there's no telling how baseball would handle that situation.
As you can see from next year's regular season schedule, there will be a little more leeway in 2013. And the LDS rounds will return to their normal 2-2-1 alignments, with the top-seeded teams opening the series at home and hosting a potential seventh games. Likewise, both ALDS and NLDS used to start on the same day, not one series from each league on successive days. That's because the potential for travel nightmares would be too difficult to overcome. And, unlike in previous years, the 2012 schedule permits teams from the same division to play in the LDS rounds (previously, two teams from the same division couldn't meet in that round; now, for instance, the Nationals could play the Braves).
But this year's postseason schedule - as maddening as it might be - accomplishes two things baseball set out to do: make it more difficult for the wild card teams and enhance the value of finishing in first place. Just don't get too attached to this year's routine, since it will change again in 2013 with a compressed regular season schedule to allow for more off-days/travel days during the playoffs.
And, don't even ask what happens if there's a significant weather delay in any round. No one even wants to start thinking about that.