The consensus in the National League playoff race is that we know the five teams that will qualify, and all that’s left is for the three NL Central contenders (St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati) to sort out who plays in the wild-card game and who advances directly to the Division Series.
I won’t dispute that, but let’s at least keep an eye on the Washington Nationals and Arizona Diamondbacks, who still have a puncher’s chance of running down a wild-card spot. The purpose of today’s MLB coverage will be to assess what kind of chance—if any—we should give the Nats or D-Backs of making it to October.
Let’s begin by noting that Cincinnati is the only team either one has a reasonable chance to catch. It’s the Reds who hold down the last wild-card sport, with Arizona six games back and Washington 6 ½ off the pace. But not only are the Reds the closest team to the playoff border, they also have the most potential vulnerability, thanks to injuries in the pitching staff. Any comeback effort at this stage of the game is going to require a vulnerable leader and Cincinnati might be that.
THE ROAD AHEAD
Arizona and Washington have schedules that make the first part of September opportunity time. Here’s who they play…
*The Diamondbacks have seven games against now-lowly San Francisco and three more against last-place Toronto. September 8 is a good benchmark point for Arizona—that’s when they begin a stretch of playing the Los Angeles Dodgers seven times in eleven games and if Arizona hasn’t made a real cut into their six-game deficit by the 8th, it’s probably not going to happen.
*The Nationals have an even juicier schedule, living on a diet of Mets, Phillies and Marlins between now and September 15. Here again, if that lead isn’t narrowed to 2-3 games by mid-September, you have to assume Washington missed their chance.
In either case, a significant move by either contender with two weeks still to play would up the pressure on the Reds, a team dealing with the burden of losing three straight playoff games at home to San Francisco last year, any one of which closes out a Division Series win.
PITCHING CAUSING THE PROBLEMS
Both teams have been let down by their pitching, especially after the All-Star break. The Diamondbacks rank 10th in National League ERA over that timeframe, and have only closed 5 of 12 save chances. Heath Bell finally lost the closers’ job, and Brandon McCarthy has been a big disappointment, with a 5.13 ERA since the break.
Arizona also seen ace Trevor Cahill spend a sizeable chunk of time on the DL, and they weren’t able to keep the race close until he got back, something I was counting on as one who had picked them to win the NL West. Whatever happens in September, the D-Backs aren’t catching the Dodgers, where there’s a 9 ½ game gap.
Finally, Patrick Corbin, the rookie who made a run into Cy Young contention in the first half, has cooled off since. Corbin still has a respectable 3.99 ERA in seven post-All Star starts. It speaks well to his ability to continue as a quality starting pitcher in the major leagues. But it was a dropoff from where he was, and no one else on the rotation was able to pick up the slack.
The Diamondbacks struggling with pitching is disappointing, but not surprising. Washington, on the other hand…this is a big shock. Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmerman, after brilliant years in 2012, have been poor this season. Just since the break, Gonzalez’s ERA is 4.98, with Zimmerman at 5.87. Washington’s staff ERA is a stunning 12th in the National League in the second half, and they’ve coughed up a third of their save chances.
Each pitching staff has wasted some strong showings from their offense. Arizona, led by MVP-worthy first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, is third in the league in runs scored since the break, and the NL’s best in on-base percentage. Washington, since getting Bryce Harper, saw its own offense take off, and they rank 4th in the post-ASB period with the NL’s best slugging percentage.
A CLOSING PUSH?
If Arizona can make first cut into the deficit by September 8, and then hold serve through September 19, when their stretch against Los Angeles concludes, the D-Backs will have a shot. They get seven games in a row against the Rockies and Padres.
Washington has a tougher row to hoe after September 15. While a series with Miami provides some respite, the Braves and Cardinals are also on the docket. Ideally, you’d like to see them shave five games off the lead by 9/15 and then grind it out the rest of the way. A tall order to be sure, but the very premise of this entire conversation is a tall order for either team.
And if both the Diamondbacks and Nationals make a run at it, and go into the final weekend with a chance? Then they close the season with a head-to-head series in the desert, one of them guaranteed to pressure Cincinnati each day. It would make for an exciting finish, but there’s no time left to lose for the NL’s last two hopes of playoff race excitement.