The American League playoff race got a little bit of clarity this week thanks to some decisive results in showdown series, but the once-clear National League suddenly has a wild finish on its hands. While the division titles are all firmly in hand, as Washington, Cincinnati and San Francisco continue to run away with first place, and the first wild card is under solid control by Atlanta, the second wild-card now has at least five viable contenders.
Philadelphia & Milwaukee are whom we have to thank for this exciting mess, as the Phils & Brewers—the teams with the best records in the National League a year ago—have caught fire since making trade deadline dumps (the Phils ridding themselves of Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence, the Brewers dealing Zack Greinke). The Phils are 72-72 and four back of St. Louis for the final spot. Milwaukee’s a bit better at 72-71 and 3.5 back. Each team has taken a divergent path to get here.
It can’t come as any surprise that the Phils have done it with pitching. It was the strength of the team even before the trade deadline moves gutted the starting lineup. It also can’t come as any surprise that the Big Three of Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee are a combined 14-6 since the All-Star break. But it will surely come as a surprise that it’s Kyle Kendrick who’s turned into the ace of the staff, on a 7-2 run with a 2.34 ERA in the season’s second half. Offensively, the return of Chase Utley (.375 OBP/.491 Slugging) has given them just enough offense to get by.
Milwaukee’s done it with the bats, the path that would make the 1982 Harvey’s Wallbangers pennant-winners proud. The Brewers lead the National League in runs scored for the entire year and have naturally been even hotter since the All-Star break. Ryan Braun is putting together another MVP-caliber season, and he’s currently getting a lot of help from Corey Hart and Aramis Ramirez—the latter in particular, has slugged .609 since the break, a positively scorching number. But no turnaround has mattered more than that of Rickie Weeks. The second baseman, the best in the National League at his position a year ago spent most of 2012 in a funk that made you wonder if he’d become a zombie. In the season’s second half, Weeks is back to his old self, with a .357/.491 stat line.
If the Phils or Brewers are to complete this miracle run they’ll need to become more complete. The Phillies can’t afford to drop a couple 3-2 games in a row, nor can the Brewers blow the leads their offense gives them—even in the second half the atrocious Milwaukee bullpen has still blown 13 saves, second-worst in the National League. But that we’re even having this conversation about both teams right now is amazing enough and even if a playoff run comes up short, a winning season would be a big deal.
Philadelphia has a four-game series with Houston this weekend—they dropped the opener last night to temporarily halt their momentum, but it’s still as ideal a schedule spot as you could want. Milwaukee hosts the Mets, who’ve dropped six in a row.
The Phils & Brewers need to win because this is a weekend where someone at the top of the race for the second wild-card is going to win. St. Louis is in Los Angeles for a four-game series that started last night against the Dodgers and the Cards edged out a 2-1 win behind Lance Lynn, restored to the starting rotation. Josh Beckett pitched well for Los Angeles, but only went 5.1 IP and we’ve seen little evidence that the Beckett who once worked into the seventh and eighth innings for Boston is ready to be his old self again. The Sunday finale for this series features an Adam Wainwright-Clayton Kershaw showdown. It would have been a nice choice for Sunday Night Baseball instead of Washington-Atlanta. I understand ESPN’s thinking—the Nats and Braves are superior teams—but it seems difficult to argue the point that Washington is going to win the NL East and Atlanta will host the wild-card game. It would take a sweep in either direction to even remotely contest either point.
The two other notable series in the National League are Pittsburgh’s visit to Wrigley Field that starts Friday afternoon. The Pirates were inexplicably swept at home by the Cubs last week and can be thankful they’re still only three back of the Cardinals. And San Francisco goes to Arizona. You can make a case for the Diamondbacks as another longshot comeback, as they’re 71-72 and only 4.5 back of a playoff berth. I’d still like to see them break .500 first.
When the week began TheSportsNotebook talked about showdown battles in the American League, and it was Baltimore and Oakland who came up big. The Orioles swept the Rays, capping it off with yesterday afternoon’s 3-2 win in 14 innings. The A’s took three of four from the Angels, in Anaheim no less. Los Angeles had to rely on Jered Weaver to bail them out yesterday with seven shutout innings that averted a sweep with a 6-0 win.
The consequence of all this is that Oakland the AL East runner-up—either Baltimore or New York, who are currently tied—now have opened up a lead for the wild-card. Los Angeles is 3.5 back of the East runner-up, while Tampa Bay is four back. It sets up a must-win weekend for the Rays, who pay a visit to the Bronx. Winning two of three is an absolute necessity for Tampa, and with just nineteen games left Tampa might need a road sweep.
New York got 7.1 innings of shutout baseball from Phil Hughes last night, as they edged Boston 2-0 and were able to take two of three from the woeful Red Sox. With New York coming home and Baltimore doing a six-game western swing that starts tonight in Oakland, the Yankees have to see this as their chance to put to rest any doubts about them making the playoffs and re-open a lead in the AL East.
The A’s are in command of the wild-card picture and still have their eyes on chasing down Texas, where there’s only a three-game margin. While Oakland battles Baltimore in that Destiny’s Darlings series, the Rangers will be hosting Seattle. The Mariners haven’t gone away quietly this season and at 69-75 still have a shot at .500 and have been a tough out for contenders.
And the much anticipated Justin Verlander-Chris Sale showdown in the Tigers-White Sox finale last night was rained out, keeping Chicago in first place in the Central by a game. Detroit is 5.5 back of the wild-card, so that option is all but done. The teams will take to the road, with the Tigers going to Cleveland the White Sox heading north to Minnesota. The division leaders will then return to the Windy City on Monday afternoon to makeup last night’s rainout, a previously scheduled off-day for both teams.