The St. Louis Cardinals saw their season slipping away and fired manager Mike Matheny just before the All-Star break. The Cards are 48-46 and have fallen 7 ½ games off the pace in a NL Central that now has the focus exclusively on the Cubs and Brewers. But St. Louis is still within four games of a wild-card spot. And if anyone in St. Louis has forgotten 2011 (and we doubt anyone has), it can be pointed out that their record on this day of that year was a quite comparable 50-46. This Cardinal team has what it takes to go on a similar late-season run.
St. Louis has exceptionally reliable starting pitching. The emergence of Miles Mikolas and Jack Flaherty to go along with Carlos Martinez give them three starters with ERAs ranging from 2.79 to 3.24. When Michael Wacha gets back from an oblique injury later this month, he’ll make it four.
They’ve given another young arm, 25-year-old John Gant, six starts and gotten a 3.49 ERA as the result. The Cardinals’ starting rotation ranks second in the National League. There is still no other organization that churns out young pitching like this one and no asset is more likely to key a major August-September surge.
Offensively, St. Louis has struggled, ranking 10th in the National League in runs scored, but the weapons are there. Matt Carpenter is having an outstanding season and seems to lead off most every game with a home run or double. Jose Martinez is emerging as another complete hitter, and 35-year-old catcher Yadier Molina still has power, slugging .474.
Where the Cardinals are falling short is with underachievement from their entire outfield and poor bullpen work. In the outfield, Marcell Ozuna, Tommy Pham and Dexter Fowler are all having very poor years and all have shown themselves more than capable of doing much better. The biggest flaw in St. Louis’ offense is an inability to hit doubles (last in the National League) and all of these players should be able to drive the ball in the gaps more consistently.
Finally, we come to the bullpen. There’s no area of a team that a manager can have a quicker impact on, with all the moving parts and matchups to work with in the course of a game. The fact the Cardinal bullpen is one of the worst in the National League is what cost Matheny his job and what they do the next two months will determine the fate of interim manager Mike Shildt.
To be fair to Matheny, there isn’t anything in the pen that excites you. Bud Norris has been functionable as the closer, but I doubt any opponents feel like a game is over the minute they see him emerge from the bullpen. There is no one else having a quietly lights-out year. If the Cardinals are serious about making late summer push—and the firing of Matheny clearly indicates they are—you have to think there’s going to be some trades made to strengthen this area.
On the surface, the firing of Matheny seemed an exercise an impatience—after all, the man never had a losing season, made the playoffs four of six years, won a pennant in 2013 and is only two years removed from a 100-win season in 2015. But I understand why St. Louis did it. The trend has been downward. And there is more than enough talent on this team to at least make the playoffs and be a major threat when they get there.
The St. Louis Cardinals have missed the playoffs each of the last two years and that’s just not something that happens very often. In fact, only once in the 21st century, have the Cardinals finished out of the money in two straight years (2007-08) and never in the new millennium have they missed October baseball three straight years. That track record of consistency is what’s on the line this year and in a packed National League landscape, we’ll take a look at the Cardinals chances of returning to the postseason.
St. Louis is currently 28-23, five games back of Milwaukee in the NL Central, and are currently in the midst of a three-games series up in Miller Park. This weekend, the Cards visit the Pirates, one of several teams—including the Cubs—that are bunched up in the overall wild-card race.
Starting pitching has carried St. Louis to a winning record so far and it’s the reason they will at least remain in the conversation for the rest of the year. The Cards are second in the National League in starters’ ERA and that’s even with staff ace Carlos Martinez missing a couple turns due to a strained lat. Martinez, aka, “Baby Pedro”, is expected back this week and in his eight starts, he’s posted a 1.62 ERA.
Baby Pedro has gotten plenty of help, with Miles Mikolas sitting on a 6-0 record and 2.58 ERA. Michael Wacha is at 2.88 and 22-year-old Jack Flaherty has gotten five starts and put up a riveting 2.15 ERA. This organization seems to have the ability to just bring up young arms and watch them immediately step in. Flaherty fits that mold.
And the starters have to be good, because if St. Louis doesn’t make the playoffs, it will be the bullpen that is the cause. Even in the Cardinals’ best years of recent memory, they often dealt with a leaky pen through the season and managed to use a combination of trade deadline moves, managerial savvy and good old-fashioned luck to put everything together in October. They’ll have to do more of the same this year, because the relievers are 13th in the NL in ERA and have only the possibility of Greg Holland returning from the disabled list to really look forward to.
Overall though, St. Louis can feel reasonably good about where they’re at. They’ve been hit with nagging injuries—you can add Paul DeJong and Dexter Fowler to the list of those already mentioned. They aren’t scoring runs, tied for 10th in the National League. That’s due mainly to a lack of players consistently driving the ball for average and into the alleys. I think it’s safe to say though, that Matt Carpenter’s batting average won’t be .221 at the end of the year and Fowler won’t finish with a stat line of .276 on-base percentage/.288 slugging percentage.
The Cardinals have the look of a team that can fight to the very end as a playoff contender, but is probably not good enough to win a World Series. Funny thing is though, that’s the same thing one might have said in 2006and 2011. And there are championship banners flying in Busch Stadium because they simply got in the dance and put it together at the right time.
There’s no guarantee the NL Central will sweep the wild-cards, nor is there even a guarantee they will get one, with both the San Francisco Giants and Atlanta Braves in the pictures. So the stakes are high for the NL Central’s power trio. The Notebook Nine will focus on the Brewers, Cards and Pirates, with three pertinent thoughts for each team as we head into the homestretch…
*The two key under-the-radar players for Milwaukee are Khris Davis in left field and starting pitcher Mike Fiers. Davis has quietly hit 20 home runs, while Fiers has made four starts and four relief appearances and posted a 1.54 ERA in the process. With Matt Garza on the disabled list and Ryan Braun now hitting like he’s not on PEDs, the bat of Davis and the arm of Fiers will continue to be critical.
*Speaking of Braun, a common theory held at the start of the season was that, if clean, he might prove to be the kind of hitter who would hit .280, hit 20 home runs and finish with 85 RBIs. In other words, still pretty good, but no longer an elite player. Braun’s numbers to date—he’s hitting .277 with 17 home runs and 74 RBIs. Let’s never again here the “he would have been good anyway” argument that gets thrown up the enablers of PED-using players. Clearly, the drugs are the difference between being good and great.
*Braun’s failure to play up to his $10 million per year contract would normally kill a small-market franchise, but the Brewers have gotten big-time production all year from Carlos Gomez in centerfield (.347 OBP/.483 slugging percentage) and catcher Jonathan Lucroy (.367/.481). Both players are showing a little bit of slippage though, and they need to find way to keep producing for one more month.
*The training staff in St. Louis is either the greatest in the world, or they notoriously overstate how bad injuries are. Yadier Molina is the latest to make a faster-than-expected recovery. The catcher, one expected to be out to mid-September at least, and possibly gone for the year, will make his return to the lineup tonight. This comes with the Cardinal offense already improving—they still rank 12th in the NL in runs scored, but that’s after a season mostly spent at 14th.
*Two big keys behind the pickup of the St. Louis offense are shortstop Jhonny Peralta and left fielder Matt Holliday. Peralta began to gain steam prior to the All-Star break after a terrible start, and now has a stat line of .339/.455. Holliday has been effective getting on base all year (.364 OBP), but has finally elevated his slugging percentage past the .400 mark. The Cardinal offense is still far from the force it’s been in recent years, but at least the lineup is no longer doing a fair imitation of the San Diego Padres.
*The trades to bolster the starting rotation have not worked. John Lackey has been disappointing, with five starts and a 4.50 ERA. Justin Masterson has been an absolute disaster, with a 7.43 ERA in his five times to the post. In fact, the Cleveland Indians, who dealt Masterson, appear to be the real beneficiary, as they’ve nudged back into the American League wild-card race since the deal. With Michael Wacha still rehabbing his shoulder, and Adam Wainwright struggling since the break. St. Louis’ starting pitching is in bad shape at a bad time.
*Your key under-the-radar contributor in Pittsburgh is third baseman Josh Harrison, at .338/.494. We’ve also seen a good year from Starling Marte in left, with a .349 OBP and Neil Walker continues to be a steady offensive producer at second base.
*Pittsburgh has had pitching problems all year, but perhaps their rotation is coming together while St. Louis’ falls apart. Gerrit Cole is back off the disabled list. Francisco Liriano has been better of late, and Vance Worley seems to have again found the form that made him a rising star in Philadelphia. In fact, every single Pirate starter has an ERA in the 3s. There’s no real ace, but Pittsburgh can expect to be in the game each night.
*Could Andrew McCutchen steal another MVP award? He’s not gotten a lot of media attention, with the focus going on Giancarlo Stanton in Miami and Clayton Kershaw in Los Angeles. But what if the writers take their usual route of deciding they don’t want to vote for a player on a non-playoff team (presuming Stanton’s Marlins can’t make up the 5 ½ games separating them from the postseason) and they don’t want to vote for a pitcher? McCutchen, with shiny numbers of .402/.537, stands ready to win the award again if the Pirates at least get a wild-card.
At the start of the season, I picked St. Louis to win this division, Milwaukee to make the playoffs and Pittsburgh to be strong enough to get into the playoffs, but knocked out by the strength of the division’s schedule. If the Brewers and Cardinals just flip and the Pirates stay where they’re at, we’ll have an unprecedented situation—I’ll have been right. Just for that alone, I’ll stay with my preseason picks and call that as the final outcome, with Atlanta riding the weak NL East into the second wild-card slot.
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It’s been a week of conflicting news for the St. Louis Cardinals. On the one hand, the Cards have held steady on the field and the sudden slump of the NL Central-leading Milwaukee Brewers has allowed St. Louis to move within two games of first place in a division that has four teams tightly packed.
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On the other hand, the Cardinals got word that Yadier Molina is out with a torn thumb, gone to at least mid-September and possibly the rest of the regular season. It’s one more problem to an everyday lineup that has not lived up to expectations.
The reason St. Louis is not in first place right now, and the reason they’re stuck in the middle of a logjam of teams, is that there’s been a serious power outage in the lineup. The Cardinals rank 13th in the National League in runs scored. It’s not because they can’t fill the basepaths—the team is 5th in on-base percentage. But cashing in has been another story. St. Louis is 12th among NL teams in slugging percentage, mainly because they are the worst National League team at hitting home runs.
St. Louis has hit 55 home runs, the worst in their league by nine. Chew on that for a moment—the San Diego Padres, a notoriously weak lineup that has three-quarters of its infield on the disabled list, and plays in one of the deepest pitchers’ parks in existence, has gone deep nine more times than a St. Louis lineup that is usually seen as American League-caliber in terms of its depth and power. Which then begs the question—who’s to blame?
We can start with Allen Craig, though it might not be entirely fair. Craig missed all of last September when his foot was in a boot and he was seriously limited in the postseason because of it. While he’s back playing rightfield, his bat has never really come back and you have to wonder if he’s really got his lower body beneath him. Craig is woefully unproductive in all phases of offensive baseball right now, coming off a stretch where he was one of the game’s more complete, and underrated hitters.
Then we move to Matt Holliday, who is a much purer microcosm of the team as a whole. Holliday isn’t having a lost offensive year—his .371 OBP is solid. But there’s no power to speak off, the slugging percentage a woeful .377. If he were a modestly paid leadoff hitter with good speed, this would be fine. As a well-compensated corner outfielder that doesn’t run well, this won’t cut it.
St. Louis invested heavily in shortstop Jhonny Peralta, a move that was not well-received among the fan base, and for most of the first half, Peralta’s poor play seemed to demonstrate that this is indeed one of the smartest fan bases in the game. The shortstop has started to pick up. A .440 slugging percentage isn’t great, but it’s gaining steam and his 13 home runs lead the team.
On a less surprising level, Matt Carpenter’s slugging percentage has tailed off. Last year, he slugged .481, thanks primarily to driving the ball in the alleys. While it’s not unthinkable he could do that again, Carpenter is more of a pure line-drive hitter and table-setter. His .378 on-base percentage is still very good and it’s gotten him to Minneapolis next week for the All-Star game. Any power from Carpenter is a bonus.
Other regulars—second baseman Kolten Wong, centerfielder Jon Jay and new catcher Tony Cruz don’t hit for power and aren’t expected to. While Molina wasn’t having a dynamic offensive year, he wasn’t doing badly either and there was at least the hope of a hot second half. With Cruz, that really doesn’t exist.
Therefore, an offensive revival in St. Louis really comes down to Craig coming back to life, Holliday finding his power and Peralta continuing to gain steam.
The rest of the team remains good enough to win. Adam Wainwright is having a big year, leading the staff with 11 wins and a 1.79 ERA. Michael Wacha has been out with a shoulder injury, but he is expected to come back and the hero of last year’s run to the National League pennant had a 2.79 ERA in 15 starts. The bullpen is respectable, ranking 7th in the NL in ERA and fifth in the more important category of save percentage. First baseman Matt Adams is the one unequivocal bright spot on the power front, with a .536 slugging percentage.
But without Craig, Holliday and Peralta driving the ball for power, the Cardinals won’t be able to elevate past the logjam of teams hoping to sneak into the playoffs. There’s nothing wrong with that, and a lot of fan bases would love to have it. But St. Louis has established a higher standard in recent years and they have the talent to attain it.
I picked them to win the World Series here on TheSportsNotebook, and off the record in conversation, I’ve said I think they’ll go back-to-back in 2015. It starts with the Underperforming Power Trio getting back on track.
The American League playoff field is complete, as the Oakland A’s clinched the final wild-card spot and still have a shot at winning the AL West. The A’s beat the Rangers last night 4-3 in front of their home wins. Meanwhile, the St. Louis Cardinals moved to the brink of closing out the National League field, with a 4-2 win in Cincinnati. The Cards now lead the Los Angeles Dodgers by two games with two to play, as the MLB playoff picture comes into sharp focus.
Oakland’s centerfielder and leadoff hitter Coco Crisp has swung a good bat in the latter part of this season, reawakening offensive potential that was first seen in him in Cleveland in 2005, before he regressed into being a defensive specialist. Crisp had two hits last night, scored the game’s first win and had a key RBI later on, as the A’s jumped on mediocre Texas starter Martin Perez. We noted in yesterday’s post that Texas does not have Yu Darvish or Derek Holland lined up to pitch in this series. Ryan Dempster, scheduled for the Wednesday finale, has been inconsistent. Therefore, it behooves the Rangers to clinch the AL West tonight, lest it come to a winner-take-all battle on Wednesday night.
St. Louis sent Jaime Garcia to the mound and had every reason to be happy with the lefthander’s work as he pitched 6.2 IP and gave up just two runs in Cincinnati. But they were surely surprised at his bat. Garcia hit a home run to the tie game 1-1 early on and the Cardinals never trailed again. Carlos Beltran and Matt Holliday each had two hits, while Allen Craig delivered a clutch RBI double that gave St. Louis a lead it never relinquished. The Cardinal clinching celebration was at least delayed when Aaron Harang threw six sharp innings for the Dodgers and bested Matt Cain in a win at San Francisco. The Dodgers got a home run from Andre Ethier and a couple hits from Adrian Gonzalez.
Two division titles were put on ice last night. Detroit, as expected, took care of business in Kansas City and won the AL Central. Miguel Cabrera’s 44th home run was a part of a five-inning barrage in the sixth that wrapped it up. Cabrera now leads the American League in all Triple Crown categories, something that hasn’t been done since Boston’s Carl Yastrzemski did it in 1967. And even though Washington lost to Philadelphia, Atlanta could not capitalize and lost to Pittsburgh, ensuring the Nats would win the NL East. Atlanta can now focus on hosting Friday’s NL wild-card game.
Monday was a good night for New York. The Yankees started by beating up on Boston 10-2, under a massive offensive barrage in the second, where they hit four home runs and scored nine times off Clay Bucholz. Then they got help from Tampa Bay, who beat Baltimore 5-3 behind seven strong innings from Alex Cobb.
And even the Texas loss worked in the Yanks’ favor. Thanks to New York’s winning the head-to-head series over Texas, they hold the tiebreaker for homefield advantage if it comes down to those two teams. Both are 93-67, so the AL’s top seed likely comes down to tonight when the Yanks send David Phelps to face Jon Lester. With the Red Sox pitching Daisuke Matsuzaka in tomorrow’s finale, and a Triple-A lineup behind him, Tuesday is the only game the Red Sox can realistically hope to win.
The AL Central race is all but over after this weekend, and it’s because Detroit’s pitching come through, while Chicago’s big hitters did not. The Tigers won a series over the Twins, while the White Sox dropped three of four from the Rays. The end result is that Detroit is plus-3 games with the same number left.
Detroit got the usual stellar outing from Justin Verlander on Saturday, who pitched seven innings and allowed just an unearned run. Less expected was great work from Drew Smyly on Friday and Anibal Sanchez on Sunday. Though neither went deep into the game—they combined for 11.2 innings—both starters shut down the Minnesota bats, and though Friday’s opener ended up in Twins’ hands, the Tiger bullpen—with help from a big home run by Prince Fielder—delivered the Sunday victory that all but sealed this division title.
Chicago’s bats had a tough task in taking on Tampa Bay in the Trop, and the White Sox hitters certainly didn’t do anything to exceed expectations. The 2 thru 7 hitters on this team are Kevin Youkilis, Adam Dunn, Paul Konerko, Alex Rios and A.J. Piersynzki, and together they have given Chicago a consistent offense. Over the last four games in Tampa the quintet combined to 14-for-66, a collective batting average of .212. If we mix in the few walks they drew, the on-base percentage is still a terrible .278. Was there any power you ask? Other than a Rios home run, the other hits were all singles. That’s a good way to hit your way home for October and that’s what happened to the Southsiders.
Detroit needs one more win or one more Chicago defeat to make this official. The Tigers are in Kansas City, while the White Sox go to Cleveland for the final series. Let’s note this is the same Indians’ team that just took two of three in Chicago and now needs only one win to end their rival’s season. Let’s further note that if the miracle happens and the White Sox pull back even, it still just means a one-game playoff. And by the way, Verlander would be on full rest to pitch that game. I don’t think it’s jumping the gun to plan on watching the Tigers in action this coming Saturday when the Division Series begins.
Around the rest of the MLB playoff picture…
*Baltimore & Oakland both came up with weekend sweeps. The Orioles pulled even in the AL East with the Yanks and clinched at least a wild-card. The A’s are on the verge of doing the same, holding a three-game cushion on the Angels & Rays with three to play. Coco Crisp came up big for Oakland, with seven hits in the first two games of the wins in Seattle, Brandon Moss had a big five-RBI game on Saturday and Josh Donaldson hit a two-run shot in the ninth inning that same day, a tying blast that set up a later three-run jack by Moss.
Baltimore’s sweep of Boston was aided considerably by Chris Davis, who homered on Friday night and had two hits both Saturday and Sunday. And Jim Thome got two starts in the series and had multiple-hit games both times. The Birds’ sweep went in conjunction with New York splitting four in Toronto and allowing the Orioles to wipe out a 1.5 game deficit. The Yanks had a scare when Robinson Cano needed his hand X-rayed, but they came back negative. Cano otherwise spent the weekend giving Toronto pitching a scare, with a 10-for-16 run through the four games.
Thus, we can realistically conclude that we know the five teams that will be in the American League playoffs. Baltimore, New York and Texas are all clinched. Detroit and Oakland are right on the brink of doing so. But the brilliance of the new playoff format is now shining through, because we don’t yet know who will win the AL East & AL West. The Rangers should take care of business in the West, but they’re still only up two on Oakland and the teams go head-to-head out west. You’d like to say with certainty that Texas will pick up the one win they need to clinch, but they have inconsistent starters Martin Perez and Ryan Dempster scheduled for Monday and Wednesday. And if the Rangers do clinch, they still need to keep an eye on Baltimore/New York, whom they only lead by a game for homefield advantage.
New York and Baltimore both have tougher challenges, particularly the Orioles who go to Tampa. The Yanks theoretically have it easier with a home series against Boston, but the Red Sox have Jon Lester and Clay Bucholz set for Monday and Tuesday and all it takes is either pitcher to perform to his ability one time and the Yanks could find themselves in a one-game showdown come Friday. As a Red Sox fan, hoping for such an outcome is all I have left this season.
Over in the National League, Washington isn’t quite there in the NL East, but they are up three on Atlanta. The Braves are playing Pittsburgh, a dead team walking, so Washington likely needs to take care of its own business one time against Philadelphia at home. The Nationals are tied with the Reds for the top overall seed, a factor that can impact pitching decisions on Tuesday and Wednesday if the NL East doesn’t get settled tonight. The #1 seed doesn’t open Division Series play until Sunday, while the #2 seed plays on Saturday.
The only postseason berth really left up in the air is the final NL wild-card, which has been narrowed to St. Louis and Los Angeles. The Cards are still in firm control with a two-game cushion. They play at Cincinnati, while the Dodgers host San Francisco. In theory, both division leaders can spoil the postseason hopes of a rival they hate. In practice, Johnny Cueto for Cincy pitched yesterday and won’t see the mound in this final series.
If Los Angeles can push this race to the final day, they have Clayton Kershaw set to pitch on Wednesday against a San Francisco team that is all but locked into the #3 seed. Still, making up two games realistically requires a sweep and with Matt Cain making his last regular season start tonight that’s a lot to ask. I know it’s not over, but I’ve already started to look forward to a Cardinals-Braves wild-card game on Friday.
Every team in baseball has two series left as the MLB playoff race hits its final week. Let’s take a look at how the races shape up, who plays who and what we have to look forward to in these closing days…
AL CENTRAL: The Chicago White Sox are fading fast, having lost seven of nine, a stretch that includes series losses to Kansas City & Cleveland. Meanwhile, Detroit took advantage of the chance to play the Royals in rattling off a four-game sweep. Detroit now leads the division by two games. They close on the road, but the trips are to Minnesota and Kansas City.
Justin Verlander is scheduled to pitch Saturday, a circumstance that means he could come back on short rest for Wednesday’s season finale if necessary. Meanwhile, the White Sox are in red-hot Tampa, then go to Cleveland. The most high-stakes race in baseball—its winner-take-all, with no wild-card cushion—could be over by the end of the weekend.
AL WILD-CARD: Tampa Bay and Los Angeles have played their way back into this race right now, and only trail Oakland by two games. Baltimore currently holds the top wild-card spot, and the Rays get the Orioles in a home series to end the season. But both challengers have tough schedules. Tampa has the aforementioned matchups with Chicago and Baltimore, while LAA has to deal with Texas—a team that still has to clinch the AL West—this weekend, and then a road trip at pesky Seattle. The Angels have to face Felix Hernandez on Monday, and as NFL fans now know, some strange things can happen in Seattle on a Monday Night.
AL EAST: Baltimore’s not just looking over their shoulder in the wild-card race, they’re looking ahead in the division race. New York lost the opener of a four-game set in Toronto last night and the Yankee lead is back to a single game. The Yanks will finish out their series north of the border, and Baltimore has that tough series in Tampa ahead. That leaves the Boston Red Sox to possibly settle the division, as they pay a visit to Camden Yards this weekend and the Bronx next week. The pitching for Boston has Clay Bucholz and Jon Lester pitching against the Yankees, and while they doesn’t mean the same this year as it has in years past, I’m sure it’s not a situation Joe Girardi finds idea.
The Yanks, meanwhile, have to feel heartened by the strong outings from Andy Pettite and C.C. Sabathia of late and these two, along with consistent Hiroki Kuroda, will pitch four of the remaining games. Any time a race is this close, anything can happen, but the matchups—plus having the one-game edge—work in New York’s favor.
AL WEST: I suppose you can read Texas’ split of a four-game set with Oakland earlier this week any way you want—because the Rangers have a four-game cushion, they held the course and knocked a few more days off the calendar. But if you’re Oakland you look at that three-game home set with Texas to end the year and figure you dodged the bullet on the road and gave yourself a shot for the final games. The Rangers have hot pitchers Yu Darvish and Derek Holland set up to pitch once apiece, while Ryan Dempster will go twice.
NL WILD-CARD: The race that seemed to be heading for a glorious mess suddenly cleaned up and got stable. St. Louis mostly took care of business in games against Houston and Chicago, while Milwaukee and Los Angeles couldn’t keep pace. The Brewers, at four back, are realistically done, while the Dodgers at three out have a tough uphill fight. St. Louis does have to go on the road to play Washington and Cincinnati. The Cards have Adam Wainwright set to pitch twice, and 16-game winner Kyle Lohse goes Saturday, meaning he’s another one who can go on three days rest if need be.
The one caveat in all this is that the Dodgers have three home games with lowly Colorado ahead, while Milwaukee faces Houston & San Diego. It’s hard to see the Cards blowing this, but after last year’s ending, they’re the last franchise that would ever write anybody else off.
NL EAST: Atlanta’s gotten hot and is still chasing Washington at four games back. But unlike Oakland, the Braves don’t get head-to-head games with the leader, so this is a longshot. But Atlanta does have the favorable schedule, playing at home against the Mets, then on the road against the collapsing Pirates whose fans have again forgotten they exist. Kris Medlen, perhaps the hottest starting pitcher in baseball is going on Sunday, which works perfectly for bringing him back on normal rest for the wild-card game on Friday, so perhaps that tells you what manager Fredi Gonzalez is thinking. Washington does have to play at St. Louis this weekend and then hosts Philadelphia, a team they just took two of three from.
HOMEFIELD ADVANTAGE: Texas & Washington are holding down the #1 seeds, although neither one is in the bag. New York is two back of Texas and would win a tiebreaker, while Washington is only plus-one on Cincinnati. Further down the bracket, the AL Central winner is locked into the #3 seed. Over in the NL, Western Division champ San Francisco is two back of Cincy to try and get the two-spot and earn homefield for at least the Division Series.
FIGHTING FOR .500: Nothing can change the disappointment Philadelphia fans over this season, but in the big picture they’ll appreciate it if their 78-78 team can post their seventh straight winning season. Those are the kind of streaks that look very good as they build up, even if some individual years are a disappointment. On that same note, that’s the worst part of the Pittsburgh collapse—at 76-80, the Pirates have to sweep their home games with the Reds & Braves to have their first winning season since 1992, and with just two losses extend their historic streak of losing seasons.
AT THE BETTING WINDOW: Earlier this week, we reviewed how each team was doing against the Over/Under win totals that were posted in Las Vegas at the start of the season. The Yankees, Rays and Brewers were the teams whose number was in serious doubt. If you bet New York to go Over, you’re still sweating, needing them to split their last six. Milwaukee needs to sweep to go Over, although a 5-1 closing record and push is realistic. Tampa Bay’s given their bettors nervous moments, but at 86-70, they look set to go Over the posted number of 87.
LOOKING AHEAD: The wild-card games are both held Friday, with Thursday being reserved for any one-game playoffs. Please note that division races—notably the AL East—that may end in a tie, with both teams going postseason, will now be settled in a one-game playoff. Previous rules had used tiebreakers to see the teams, but with the reward of a division title so much higher under the new format, they now play it off. Any deadlocks that are just over homefield advantage in the Division Series are still settled via the head-to-head tiebreaker system. Division Series play begins on Saturday with the 2 vs. 3 bracket in both leagues, and then the 1-seeds open on Sunday against the wild-card winners.
Here at TheSportsNotebook we’ll chronicle all the races outlined here, and also mix in articles picking a season-ending All-Star team in both leagues, plus separate posts with final MVP selections. All that’s on tap between now and Friday, and then it’s time to start previewing the battles of October.