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National League's Bryce Harper, of the Washington Nationals, warms up during MLB All-Star baseball batting practice, Monday, July 9, 2012, in Kansas City, Mo. (Associated Press)
National League's Bryce Harper, of the Washington Nationals, warms up during MLB All-Star baseball batting practice, Monday, July 9, 2012, in Kansas City, Mo. (Associated Press)

JEFF BLAIR

Memories resurface with Expos, er, Nationals in playoff race Add to ...

Twenty years after the Toronto Blue Jays’ first World Series win, it is memories of the Montreal Expos that will be invoked more often in the final two weeks of the 2012 regular season. And that can’t be a bad thing, can it? No, really. Can it?

Consider what has happened since Jeffrey Loria and John Henry switched franchises in 2002 as part of a plan orchestrated by commissioner Bud Selig in which the Expos were run by Major League Baseball for a season before moving to Washington, D.C.

Loria, the one-time Expos owner, won a World Series a year later, with the then Florida Marlins, and conjured a new ballpark in Miami. And some time this week the Washington Nationals should secure the franchise’s first playoff berth since 1981, when the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Rick Monday dashed the hopes of Expos fans with a two-out, game-deciding home run in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series.

After being swept in a three-game series by the Atlanta Braves last weekend, the Nationals’ magic number to clinch a postseason berth was three, while their magic number for the NL East Division was 11 games. The Nationals came out of the weekend with the best record in baseball (89-57) and the highest run differential. They have led the division for 150 of 160 days.

There are few ties between the Expos and Nationals, beyond some support staff, club broadcaster F.P. Santangelo, bench coach Randy Knorr and shortstop Ian Desmond, who was taken by the Expos in the third round of the 2004 draft (their last) and played one year in their minor-league system before the team moved to Washington for the 2005 season. But the playoffs are a narrative, and rest assured that some old memories – good and bad – will be front and centre should the Nationals go far.

Baseball instituted the wild-card format after the realignment that followed the 1994 players’ strike, when the Expos had the best record in the – nah, never mind.

Initial opposition from many purists died out due to the quality and success of wild-card teams (five different World Series winners have gone into the playoffs via the wild card since it was instituted in 1995, including last year’s champions, the St. Louis Cardinals). So it was no surprise when baseball decided to add another wild-card team this season. Now, the two teams with the best records among non-division winners will meet in a one-game playoff to advance to a best-of-five division series against the team with the best record within its league.

That has created several talking points. First, the one-game playoff seems an affront to the baseball gods and their 162-game regular season. No other sport challenges its division champions like baseball.

Second, the number of teams involved in the playoff picture has essentially gummed up the major-league trade deadline of July 31, since few teams are willing to dismantle.

Third, the NL finds itself with 10 teams either in first place or within 4 1/2 games of a wild-card berth – four of them with records just two games above .500. It is possible that the NL wild-card team will have fewer wins than the 88 the 2006 Dodgers needed to win their wild-card berth – the lowest historical total in either league.

The expanded playoffs have been a success in keeping up fan interest in several markets, but the slope appears slippery enough that baseball ought to forget about further expansion. It would take too much tinkering to turn the wild-card playoff into a three or five-game series, even if the regular season were decreased to, say, 154 or 160 games, and that doesn’t even begin to take into account tiebreakers.

Right now the Nationals, Braves, Cincinnati Reds and San Francisco Giants are pretty much postseason locks, with the Texas Rangers and New York Yankees looking okay in the American League. There is drama enough for everybody this year. Enough is enough.

FIVE QUESTIONS THAT NEED ANSWERING IN PLAYOFF PUSH

GIRARDI ON HOT SEAT

Could New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi be fired if his team loses a one-game wild card or misses the playoffs? The Yankees lost a 10-game lead between July 18 and Sept. 4, when the Baltimore Orioles tied them for first place in the American League East. If the Yankees fail to win the AL East, it will be only the third time since 1969 they’ve been unable to hang on when leading the division outright at any point in September. Two of those would have been on Girardi’s watch.

BIG SERIES

Friday to Sunday at Yankee Stadium against the Oakland Athletics, who swept the Yankees in a four-game series in Oakland in July.

HELP FOR CARDINALS

Can Chris Carpenter help the St. Louis Cardinals nail down a playoff spot? Carpenter makes his first start of the season on Friday at Wrigley Field two months after surgery to alleviate thoracic outlet syndrome, a nerve issue that leads to weakness and numbness throughout the body. If Carpenter’s back, the Cardinals are armed for a one-game playoff and beyond.

BIG SERIES

Plural. The Cardinals play the Washington Nationals and the Cincinnati Reds, the National League Central leaders, at Busch Stadium to close out the season.

BREWERS ROAD WARRIORS

Can Milwaukee brew up a playoff berth on the road? Doubtful. The Brewers are 28-43 on the road this season and start a 10-game road trip Tuesday night in Pittsburgh.

BIG SERIES

A four-game set this weekend in Washington against the Nationals.

MACHADO MAN

How good would the Baltimore Orioles have been with Manny Machado all season? Before he was called up, Orioles third basemen had 24 errors and were last in the majors with a .914 fielding percentage. The team’s fielding percentage was worst in the majors. Since Machado, who played second in the minors but regularly took infield at third, joined the team on Aug. 9, he’s played every inning at third and made two throwing errors while the Orioles as a team have had the best infield defence in the AL. Play as many one-run games as this team does, and that’s huge. The Orioles would love to win the AL East and force the Yankees to play a one-game playoff.

BIG SERIES

Against the Tampa Bay Rays at Camden Yard Oct. 1-3, the Orioles’ only remaining series against a team with a winning record.

A’S FOR EFFORT

Can the Oakland Athletics and their young staff keep winning? Baseball’s best road team gets a big test: a 10-game road swing starting Tuesday in Detroit with stops in the Bronx and Arlington, Tex., before they finish the season with a series at home against the Rangers. The AL West is the best division in baseball, with the Athletics, Rangers and Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim each owning winning records at home and on the road and against the AL East and Central and in interleague play.

BIG SERIES

A four-gamer in Texas next Monday to Thursday.

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