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Single-game showdowns launch MLB postseason

By Larry Fine

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Single-game playoffs have produced some great moments in Major League Baseball (MLB) and a new postseason format for 2012 now guarantees two of them, with Texas, Baltimore, St. Louis and Atlanta all on the spot.

With a second wildcard team added in both leagues, the postseason opens Friday with one-game showdowns between the World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals and host Atlanta Braves, as well as last season's American League champion Texas Rangers against the visiting Baltimore Orioles.

Cinderella teams in Washington and Oakland wait to join the fray along with more familiar powers in the New York Yankees, Detroit Tigers, San Francisco Giants and Cincinnati Reds.

While some baseball purists cringe at the prospect of one game between wildcard teams determining who advances to the best-of-five divisional round, the tension and urgency of such encounters has often produced great drama.

Boston fans still curse the memory of Bucky Dent, the light-hitting shortstop whose three-run homer that scraped over Fenway Park's Green Monster wall in left boosted the Yankees to a 5-4 win over the Red Sox in a playoff in 1978.

Five years ago, the Colorado Rockies beat the San Diego Padres 9-8 in 13 innings in a one-and-done clash, and two years later the Minnesota Twins beat the Detroit Tigers 6-5 in 12 innings to advance.

Those all-or-nothing meetings were only used to settle dead heats in the race for a playoff berth. The new format makes the one-and-done showdown a regular part of the postseason.

POSTSEASON DEBUT

Following Friday's wildcard clashes, the six division champions enter the mix.

The National League's top-seeded Washington Nationals will play their first postseason game ever when the NL East champions travel to meet either St. Louis or Atlanta on Sunday.

"This a great season, great team and a good bunch of guys," Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "We accomplished a lot that we should be proud of, but we have a lot more to accomplish."

The hard-hitting, NL Central-winning Reds open their divisional series on the road against the pitching-rich West champion San Francisco Giants on Saturday.

The home run happy Yankees, who set a franchise record with 245 homers, meet either Texas or Baltimore starting on Sunday.

New York manager Joe Girardi grumbled about having to open on the road despite earning the AL top seeding as East winners.

"It is strange. It's just an odd year because we added an extra wild card team," Girardi said. "To have the best record and not know where you're going is really strange."

To accommodate the extra wildcard game, MLB decided to open these series at the lower seed's home before shifting it for the last three games, thus eliminating a travel day included in the old format where the higher seed was home for two, away for two and back home for a deciding fifth game, if needed.

The Tigers, led by MLB's first Triple Crown winner in 45 years in Miguel Cabrera, slugger Prince Fielder and premier pitcher Justin Verlander, host Oakland on Saturday.

Oakland, a small budget team who dealt away three All-Star players in return for promising youngsters, stunned the baseball world by charging to the AL West title despite featuring four rookies in their five-man rotation of starting pitchers.

In the wildcard match-ups, the Cardinals travel to Atlanta to open the postseason in what looms as a tantalising pitchers' duel in the National League wildcard playoff between Kris Medlen (10-1) and Kyle Lohse (16-3).

Besides pitching splendidly since joining the Cards' rotation on July 31, Medlen has been a good luck charm for St. Louis, who have won 23 games in a row that he has started dating back to 2010.

The Rangers, who won the last two American League pennants and came within one strike in two different innings from winning their first World Series last year, host the Orioles.

Texas, overtaken in the AL West by Oakland in the last days of the season, are starting Japanese import Yu Darvish (16-9).

The Orioles, appearing in the postseason for the first time in 15 years, are expected to use left-hander Joe Saunders, who was 3-3 after coming from the Arizona Diamondbacks in a trade, as their do-or-die starter.

(Editing by ......)

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