The Battle of the 2nd NL Wild Card Spot is On
A week and a half ago I previewed the month of September and attempted to divide teams up into Contenders or Pretenders. The National League in particular, had a bunch of teams withing reasonable striking distance of a playoff berth, particularly if everything broke right. Well so far so good, because damn near every team at the top of the running for the NL Wild Card spot is slumping, which means that teams like Arizona, Philadelphia, and Milwaukee have been reawakened from the dead. St. Louis has lost 5 of their last 6, while Los Angeles has lost 6 of 9 since acquiring Adrian Gonzalez in the blockbuster trade with the Red Sox, and don’t even get me started on the nasty slide the Pirates are in. The wheels have fallen off in the Steel City, as Pittsburgh is just 13-25 since the start of August while winning just 2 of their past 10 games. Atlanta is still looking good at the top, so the question is worth asking: does anybody want to win the win the 2nd Wild Card spot? And could one of the long-shot teams entering the month of September (Philadelphia, Arizona, and Milwaukee) sneak in there?
St. Louis Cardinals
Let’s start with the slumping Cardinals, losers of 5 of their last 6 and 10 of their last 14. The Cardinals pitching staff has been at fault recently with their team ERA sitting at 5.44 over their last 15 games. Jaime Garcia has struggled mightily since his return from the DL, and the bullpen has been a sore spot all year, ranking 24th in baseball with a 4.15 ERA collectively. The offense has been passed by Milwaukee by 1 single run for the title of highest scoring in the NL, but they are still very potent and with a cupcake schedule the rest of the way (STL’s opponents have a .464 win %), the Wild Card spot is St. Louis’ to lose. If they continue to struggle and play .500 ball or worse the rest of the way however, they might do just that.
Remaining schedule: 1 game at San Diego, 4 at Los Angeles, 3 against Houston, 3 @ Chicago, 3 @ Houston, 3 against Washington, 3 against Cincinnati
Los Angeles Dodgers
The Dodgers currently sit just a game back of St. Louis, but they are dealing with plenty of their own problems. Adrian Gonzalez is hitting just .227/.288/.348 with 1 homer in 16 games since coming over at the Waiver Deadline. Matt Kemp is dealing with a sore shoulder that’s limiting his production, and pitcher Chad Billingsley is done for the season with an elbow injury. The offense has been a weakness all year, and the mid-season makeover, which was supposed to improve this unit, just hasn’t had time to gel yet. And the news just keeps getting worse for Los Angeles because they have by far the toughest remaining schedule of any team over the last 20 games, with an opponent’s winning percentage of .530. They kick off a monumental 4-game set in St. Louis starting Thursday, one that could decide the fate of the season for both franchises.
Remaining schedule: 1 game at Arizona, 4 against St. Louis, 3 at Washington, 3 at Cincinnati, 3 at San Diego, 3 against Colorado, 3 against San Francisco
Two and a half games back still sit the Pittsburgh Pirates, who are on the cusp of completing their second straight monumental 2nd half collapse. The team had been somewhat of a paper dragon throughout their season, relying on starters who weren’t wanted by their former teams, a strong bullpen, and a healthy dose of Andrew McCutchen. The pitching staff has been showing signs of cracks since the All-Star break, ranking 18th in baseball in ERA (4.22) over the time span. And when MVP-frontrunner Andrew McCutchen’s play began to falter a little bit over the last month, the rest of the house of cards came crumbling down. The Pirates have lost their last 5 games and barring a massive final 3 weeks from McCutchen, coupled with James McDonald finding his first half form after losing it for 2 months, they probably won’t be making it to the finish line.
Remaining schedule: 1 game at Cincinnati, 4 at Chicago, 3 against Milwaukee, 3 at Houston, 4 at New York, 3 against Cincinnati, 3 against Atlanta
Sitting just a mere 4 games back of the 2nd Wild Card spot are the Phillies, who may have the easiest remaining path to get into the playoffs. Philadelphia’s remaining opponents have a .491 win %, but that doesn’t exactly tell the whole story. The Phillies have 6 games remaining against Washington, and all of which may take place after the Nats have clinched a playoff spot. If Washington decides to rest their starters at over the final weekend of the season, a common practice for teams guaranteed a spot in October, Philadelphia could reap the rewards.
The Phillies considerable amount of pitching talent has really shone through in the 2nd half of the season, as they have posted the 3rd-lowest ERA in all of baseball (3.27). Some of the biggest holes in the offense have been plugged by the likes of Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, but neither is hitting the cover off of the ball either. With additional series taking place against Miami, Houston, and the New York Mets coming right up, the Phils will be looking to extend their recent 6 game winning streak.
Remaining schedule: 1 game against Miami, 3 at Houston, 3 at New York, 3 against Atlanta, 3 against Washington, 3 at Miami, 3 at Washington
Milwaukee is another team that’s been red-hot of late, winning 16 of their last 21 games played to get back to .500 for the first time since April 24th, when they were 9-9. Milwaukee, much like Philadelphia, will probably have to win at least 14-15 games out of their final 20 to sneak into a playoff spot, which could be a tall task considering the fact that their remaining opponents have a .503 win %. The team has been absolutely bludgeoning the ball of late however, led by MVP candidate Ryan Braun (.311/38 HR/100 RBI) and a resurgent Rickie Weeks, who’s hitting .265 in the 2nd half after putting up a ghastly .199 batting average in the 1st half. If anything prevents Milwaukee from c0mpleting this comeback it will be their shaky bullpen, which has the 4th highest ERA in baseball because John Axford and Francisco Rodriguez are both having terrible years.
Remaining schedule: 1 against Atlanta, 3 against New York, 3 at Pittsburgh, 4 at Washington, 3 at Cincinnati, 3 against Houston, 3 against San Diego
Finally we have the Arizona Diamondbacks, who refuse to go away despite the fact that they aren’t playing all that well. Arizona is just 19-21 over their last 40 games, and 5-5 in their last 10. The franchise is slightly above average in the National League at scoring runs (6th best) and slightly below average in preventing them (10th best). Three of the team’s four best hitters by OPS+ this year (Jason Kubel, Paul Goldschmidt, and Miguel Montero) have all struck out over 115 times. Arizona’s purported star, Justin Upton, has been down right average this year, hitting .272 with 13 homers. Luckily Wade Miley, Aaron Hill, and Trevor Cahill have been steady performers, which gives the D-Backs a tiny window to sneak through if they want to play meaningful baseball in October. The odds aren’t good, but this team is long overdue for a hot streak, since their longest winning streak of the year is 5 games thus far. Who’s to say it can’t happen over the next 20 games?
Remaining schedule: 1 against Los Angeles, 3 against San Francisco, 3 against San Diego, 4 at Colorado, 3 at San Francisco, 3 against Chicago, 3 against Colorado
I still think St. Louis has to be the odds on favorite to win the Wild Card spot, but the forecast is much, much murkier than it was one week ago. If I had to pick an upset team, I’d go with Charlie Manuel’s group up in Philly over the Dodgers, who just don’t appear to be meshing together properly. The Phillies have 8 straight games against teams with losing records coming up(1 against Miami, 4 at Houston, and 3 at NYM), which gives them a great chance of closing the Cardinals’ lead down to 2 or 3 games, going into the final couple of series, and at that point anything can happen. Remember this is a veteran team with an elite pitching staff that was widely picked to be a strong contender for the NL pennant at the start of the year. It would be unwise to count them out now.