Thursday, September 1, 2011

PawSox commentary: This playoff picture will not take a straight shape

The International League has four-plus days left in a compelling playoff race still featuring four teams with a shot at grabbing one of three available spots.

Unfortunately, a stingy system with a nasty habit of precluding makeup games after a rainout presages a finish to a race without grace. No matter who (Pawtucket, Lehigh Valley, Durham, Gwinnett) comes out with what (division title, wild card, diddlysquat), there will be cause for complaint because at least two horses will not have run the full length of the track.

The Sox were one of 14 I.L. teams who started the 2011 season anticipating 144 games ahead. They are now one of many who will have played fewer than that because one or more rainouts could not be made up.

As it stands right now, the PawSox are steadily maintaining a two-game edge on the suddenly floundering IronPigs. If that were to hold up through sundown on Labor Day, then Pawtucket will have won the I.L. North by a virtual margin of two games and after having played two games fewer than Lehigh Valley.

And that would be just enough cause for griping in Allentown. Logically, in any kind of playoff push in any sport, all teams that are still trying to reach a certain position have the comfort in knowing that they still have games to work with.

By the same token, whoever is holding a coveted spot in the standings needs to remember that they still have an opportunity to mess up their own cause.

In a just world, the PawSox would currently have two games in hand on their immediate trailers with the long weekend short-stacks against Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and Rochester, followed by a makeup with Norfolk and Buffalo.

Accordingly, they would have two extra chances to squander their brittle lead in the division. They might make good to salvage their lead, they might not. But either way, fair is fair.

On the flip side, there is still time for both parties to switch positions over their remaining four games. The Sox have not cemented anything yet. So what happens if they crash and burn out of the playoff picture after having played two fewer games than the tournament-bound IronPigs?

Well, then you’re looking at a legitimate uproar from the McCoy masses. In the event of a hypothetical collapse that has the PawSox finishing one or two games out of the division and wild card, that too will be impossible to swallow.

After all, barring anymore washouts across the slate, Pawtucket is looking at a 142-game schedule for this year while Lehigh Valley and Gwinnett will have each maxed out its 144-game allotment. Why then, shouldn’t the PawSox have had an equal opportunity to prove themselves worthy of a postseason passport?

Yes, it’s impractical to supplement rainouts at this level compared to the Major Leagues, where the regal travel budget grants easier and more abundant make-up opportunities.

But still, there ought to be ways to guarantee a perfectly fair pennant race even in the bus leagues. There ought to be ways to assertively stave off the “due to circumstances beyond our control” and “sorry for the inconvenience” statement that threatens to hit Lehigh Valley and its fan base and could still pound Pawtucket into anguish.

Two prospective solutions would be to either begin or end the season a week later, but the parent clubs would not spring for that. They don’t want to wait any longer to set their own Opening Day rosters or to commence September call-ups.

A slightly more realistic, but still not necessarily savory, option is trimming down the regular-season schedule to, say, 136 games.

One week’s worth of games with a remainder of one would likely make no uproarious difference to the men in uniform. But from a business standpoint, convincing any minor-league front office to sacrifice four openings at their park is like persuading a billionaire Republican to pay 0.5 percent more in taxes.

Then again, it’s not as if you don’t need a certain degree of good fortune to ensure you get those 72 dates in. Only half of the I.L. populace still has a chance to reach 144 games this season.

Meanwhile, Rochester and Syracuse have already permanently sacrificed four games and could still lose more over the weekend. All four of the Chiefs cancellations would have been home games, two versus Durham May 15-16 and a pair with Scranton Aug. 14-15.

Translation: The Jr. Pinstripes were also forced to concede two of their games and effectively ran out of chances to stay in the pennant race earlier than they should have. Meanwhile, the I.L. South-leading Bulls are in the exact same position as the PawSox, looking at the prospect of finishing a tight race ahead of the G-Braves, who will have played two more games than Durham.

So in the end, nobody’s happy except for those who luck out. And something will have to give if the I.L. wants all future pennant races to be mathematically fair and square.