By DAVID BRANDT AP Sports Writer
Major League Baseball’s postseason has a little more heft this season.
The playoffs are here, with the first games played on Friday. The postseason begins with a field of 12 teams — up from last year’s 10 — and includes a best-of-three format for the opening wild-card round.
The expanded postseason has produced some spicy early postseason matchups. San Diego’s newly acquired slugger Juan Soto against the 101-win New York Mets? Ageless star Albert Pujols and the Cardinals against Bryce Harper, Kyle Schwarber and the Phillies?
Buckle up, they’re happening this weekend.
MLB’s new wild-card format is similar to the one currently used in college baseball for the NCAA Super Regional round: The three games will be scheduled on three consecutive days from Friday to Sunday at the higher seed’s field. The first team that gets two wins advances.
After that, the playoffs will be business as usual. The division series will be best-of-five, while the league championship series and World Series will be best-of-seven.
Here’s a little more information about baseball’s bulked-up postseason:
WHAT’S NEW IN BASEBALL’S WILD-CARD ROUND?
The best-of-three wild card format is a change from the sudden death one-game format that’s been in place since 2012.
Six teams each from the American League and National League qualified for the postseason, including the three division winners in each league. The three wild-card teams in each league are the teams with the best record that didn’t win their division.
The top two teams with the best records in each league get a bye and don’t have to play in the wild-card round. Those four teams get a few days of rest. That’s the Astros and Yankees in the American League and the Dodgers and Braves in the National League.
The wild-card round will feature four series over the upcoming weekend: Rays-Guardians, Blue Jays-Mariners, Padres-Mets and Cardinals-Phillies.
WHY ARE THE PLAYOFFS STARTING LATE?
October’s postseason festivities will bleed into November before a champion is crowned.
That’s mostly because of the sport’s labor strife that resulted in a work stoppage over the winter. It delayed the beginning of spring training and pushed the regular season back about a week. Baseball players and owners salvaged the usual 162-game season, but to do that, they had to move opening day from March 31 to April 7.
Some of the games originally scheduled for the first week of the season were moved to the end, meaning a season that was originally scheduled to end on Oct. 2 instead ended on Oct. 5.
Hence, a late start to the playoffs.
WHO ARE THE FAVORITES?
The Dodgers have been dominant all season with a lineup that includes Mookie Betts, Trea Turner, Will Smith and Freddie Freeman. They won 111 games for one of the best seasons in franchise history.
Over in the American League, the Houston Astros topped 100 wins as well. They’ve got a loaded lineup that includes Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman and Yordan Alvarez, along with potential AL Cy Young winner Justin Verlander.
New York’s teams should figure into the mix as well. The Yankees were cruising for much of the season — led by star Aaron Judge’s 62-homer campaign — but haven’t played as well since the All-Star break. The Mets have one of the league’s deepest pitching staffs, with two aces on top in Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer.
Then there’s the defending World Series champion Braves, who rallied to win the NL East and still have a loaded lineup that includes Austin Riley, Dansby Swanson, Michael Harris, Matt Olson and Ronald Acuña Jr.