For several weeks, the American League has dominated the pennant-race drama. The junior circuit boasts eight contenders for five spots, among them Narrative of the Year favorites Oakland and Baltimore. Three quality teams — the Rays, Tigers and Angels, if the season ended today — will be left out of baseball’s grand tournament.
At first glance, the National League is less captivating. The smallest division lead is 5-1/2 games. Washington, Cincinnati and San Francisco are postseason locks. Atlanta is virtually assured of winning the first wild card, even after clanging last September’s uncontested dunk.
That leaves one lonely bid.
The defending champion St. Louis Cardinals hold it — for now — after salvaging a split of their crucial four-game series in Los Angeles with Sunday’s 5-2, 12-inning win over the Dodgers. But five clubs remain within four games of St. Louis in the loss column: the Dodgers (1 GB), Brewers (2-1/2), Pirates (3), Phillies (4) and Diamondbacks (4-1/2). The Brewers are the most intriguing insurgent, as owners of baseball’s best record (20-6) since Aug. 20.
Some say the second wild card is a hollow prize, offering only one game — on the road, possibly against the opponent’s ace — with the league’s top seed awaiting the winner. No team aspires to that path when the season begins. But it’s also true that merely reaching the postseason is worthwhile for some organizations, managers and players.
The NL’s final playoff spot might be baseball’s best hope for the sort of final-day frenzy we saw last year. And for the teams involved, rarely has the chance to play one postseason game meant so much.
Here’s what is at stake:
The Dodgers’ old/new standing as the Yankees of the West
It’s become fashionable to say the suddenly big-spending Dodgers are impersonating their former New York neighbors. That’s correct, to an extent. But let’s not forget a tenet of the Yankee Way: Thou shall make the playoffs every year. No excuses.
The Yankees have lived up to that commandment in 16 of the past 17 seasons. They’re about to make it 17 for 18. But the Dodgers aren’t certain to join them in October, even after adding a quarter-billion dollars in payroll last month. The Dodgers are 8-13 since the Boston blockbuster.
For Dodgers fans, the weekend offered fresh concern about Clayton Kershaw’s hip along with hope fostered by the ninth-inning comeback to stun St. Louis on Saturday night. Yet, the overarching story remains the same: Their lineup, even with Adrian Gonzalez and Hanley Ramirez, can’t hit well enough when it matters most.
The Dodgers batted .190 (8 for 42) with men in scoring position over their last seven games. They went 2-5 during that span, including three one-run losses and another in extra innings. With two more well-timed hits over the past week, they would be in a playoff spot.
In their defense, the Dodgers would be well on their way to October — and possibly challenging the Giants for the division lead — if Matt Kemp had been healthy all year. Even after his gritty, game-turning play to cut down Yadier Molina at third base Saturday night, it’s apparent that Kemp’s left hamstring injuries have taken away his usual explosiveness. He’s hitting an ordinary .273 with six home runs in 57 games since his first injury in mid-May.
The Cardinals’ reign as world champions — and the cause of inexperienced managers everywhere
The Cardinals are 6-13 over their last 19 games, one of the worst records in baseball during that time. St. Louis players must show up to the ballpark every day and ask one another, "How, exactly, do we still have a wild card?"
Still, this is a veteran team that knows how to finish a season, even if Mike Matheny is managing his first September in pro baseball. Allen Craig, an October star last year, looks like the strongest candidate to carry the offense down the stretch.
If the Cardinals (and Robin Ventura’s Chicago White Sox) reach the postseason, don’t be surprised if teams pick up on the idea of hiring former notable players with little to no managerial experience. Late-inning bullpen maneuverings are important, but it’s even more crucial that a manager establish a winning clubhouse culture.
To that end, the Cardinals are about to get a lift with the expected return of longtime ace Chris Carpenter on Friday against the Cubs. Carpenter, who underwent surgery to repair a nerve condition in his right shoulder earlier this year, hasn’t pitched in the majors since winning Game 7 of the 2011 World Series — on short rest.
The National League MVP
Andrew McCutchen has a lot of fans among those who wish for baseball’s accolades to be free of links to performance-enhancing drugs — real or disputed. McCutchen ranks second to Melky Cabrera in the NL batting race — and is thus baseball’s best hope of preventing a suspended steroid cheat from winning the statistical honor.
And until recently, McCutchen was viewed as the clear favorite to win the NL MVP award. But he’s cooled since the All-Star break, with a .891 OPS compared to 1.039 in the first half. That has allowed Milwaukee’s Ryan Braun — last year’s controversial winner — to re-enter the discussion.
Braun won the 2011 NL MVP in a hairsplitting vote against Kemp; ESPN later reported that Braun failed a PED test during the postseason, tainting the award even though he successfully appealed the suspension to a three-member panel.
Braun may have a stronger MVP argument this year than he did in 2011. He’s leading the NL in home runs and OPS without Prince Fielder hitting behind him, as had been the case last year. Braun’s recent production — including two homers Sunday — is one of the biggest reasons the Brewers have leapfrogged McCutchen’s Pirates in the wild-card standings.
San Francisco’s Buster Posey may be the strongest overall candidate at the moment. But Braun or McCutchen may be able to win the MVP by vaulting his team into the playoffs over the final two-and-a-half weeks.
The Pirates’ franchise recovery
And here we thought this absolutely, positively, was going to be The Year.
Any sports fan with a heart wants the Pirates to win 82 games, thus ending their streak of 19 straight losing seasons. They seemed certain to do it a month ago but are a league-worst 10-25 since topping out at 63-47 on Aug. 8.
The lineup has been inconsistent outside of McCutchen and Garrett Jones, as vital second baseman Neil Walker has struggled amid injuries. (They still lack the big outfield bat that had been on their shopping list before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline.) The starting rotation became much less reliable, as veteran Erik Bedard was released because of poor performance and James McDonald (who nearly made the All-Star team) struggled to a 7.08 second-half ERA.
The Pirates haven’t been able to take advantage of favorable scheduling, going 1-5 against the Cubs — the Cubs! — in two series this month. Some regression from last month’s high point would have been understandable, but they’ve played so badly that the wisdom of the organization’s course is in doubt.
And yet . . . they’re still in the wild-card race, with a chance to validate the plan and (more importantly) reward their long-suffering fans.
The sanctity (or sanity) of the trade deadline
The Pirates were “buyers” at the July trade deadline. At least, they thought they were. Pittsburgh general manager Neal Huntington dealt for starter Wandy Rodriguez and outfielder Travis Snider but has watched his club go 14-28 since Aug. 1.
If the Pirates have buyer’s remorse, they aren’t alone. Consider the July 27 Brewers-Angels blockbuster that sent Zack Greinke to Anaheim.
The deal gave the Angels a postseason-ready rotation. Or so we thought. The Angels are a middling 25-22 since, while the Brewers have stormed back into contention with a 29-18 record. While Greinke has pitched well for the Angels — 5-2 with a 3.78 ERA — shortstop prospect Jean Segura (sent to Milwaukee in the deal) has contributed to the Brewers’ September run.
The Phillies’ wild-card bid lost steam over the weekend with a series loss to Houston, but they have joined the Brewers among the ranks of sellers-turned-contenders. They traded Hunter Pence and Shane Victorino at the deadline and are 27-17 in August and September.
Perhaps there is a message in this for GMs: Don’t be afraid to shake up a struggling club earlier in the season, because younger players could be the spark you need.