Thought I’d get up a thread to talk about the nitty-gritty over the next week. I’ll post a few top-line thoughts, and then feel free to comment below as the week goes on!
While the AL is basically set, there are six teams (barring a serious surge by the sub-.500 teams (NYM, COL, WAS, ARI) vying for four spots in the NL playoffs – some teams with multiple routes to consider, some teams with just one path. With just a week to go, I thought we could look at schedules and results. I don’t think I’ll modify this post at all, but I’ll try to post in the comments when there’s interesting stuff going on. So let’s begin.
We’ll start with a reminder, or perhaps it’s news to you, if you’ve not been following. There will be 8 playoff teams in each league: the three division winners, plus the three second-place teams in each division, and the two teams with the best records that neither won their division, nor finished in second.
Here’s a sentence you didn’t expect to read at the beginning of the year:
“Miami is the team best-situated for a playoff berth.”
Of the teams we’re discussing, that’s certainly true. While they trail division-leading Atlanta by three games with seven to play (they do have four against the Braves and could take the division lead with a sweep), they also have second place by a game over the Phillies. The downside? Their seven remaining are all on the road, against superior teams: four at the Braves, followed by three at the Yankees.
It looks like the Cards aren’t quite going to manage to play all 60 games – but they will get to 58. That’s a remarkable feat considering how things started; however, that will necessitate playing 8 in the final week (beginning today, Monday the 21st). They begin with three at Kansas City (coming off a sweep at the hands of the Brewers), followed by five games in four days hosting Milwaukee.
St. Louis, playing only 58 games, gives them fewer games to make up ground if something goes wrong, so that may be something to watch out for. They’re also in the tightest division race: the Central-leading Cubs are up 3.5, but the Cards lead the Brewers and Reds by only a game.
The Phillies have the oddest schedule left: they play seven in seven days… with an off-day. That may be helpful to a bullpen that may be history’s worst. (That link is old, but I couldn’t find the newer one I read last week; the points still hold.)
Philadelphia also has the privilege of playing at Washington, arguably the NL’s worst team, to start the week. Like the Marlins, though, their whole final week is to be played on the road. Not only do they go to Washington; they also go to Tampa, the team with the AL’s best record.
Now, on to the three .500 teams, entering Monday:
Cincinnati is the only team here with six to play in seven days. They host the Brewers for three and close out at Minnesota (a team with probably nothing to play for, as they’ve wrapped up a playoff spot but are unlikely to catch the division-leading White Sox) to end the season.
Cincinnati, like St. Louis and Milwaukee, has multiple paths to the postseason. They are, right now, tied for that final playoff spot. BUT, they’re just a game back of the Cardinals. So second-place is an extremely viable option. However, they have to hold off Milwaukee – but they can, to some extent, at least, control their own destiny in that regard, with the upcoming series hosting the Brewers.
Milwaukee’s schedule is the one full of both the most opportunity, and liability as we enter the season’s final week.
In terms of liability, Milwaukee is one of only two teams (the other is below) having to play eight in seven days. For a team that has traditionally relied on bullpen, that could be a struggle; on the other hand, the starters have been better this year than probably any other in my lifetime, so that’s a positive. But I’m supposed to be talking negatives, too, and there’s a big one: Milwaukee, like the Marlins and Phillies, has no home games to fall back on here in the (in Milwaukee’s case) ironically-named “home stretch.” More like a “road stretch” this year.
In terms of opportunity, though, no one’s path is as clear as Milwaukee’s. No one else is as in-control of their own playoff fortunes. Other teams are, to some extent or other, forced to scoreboard-watch; Milwaukee’s final 8 games are not only against teams they’re trailing in the Wild Card; they’re both division foes. That means Milwaukee’s path to second-place may actually be clearer than either Cincinnati’s or St. Louis’, as Milwaukee plays both teams.
Like the Brewers, the Giants play eight in seven days. Unlike all the other teams featured in this post, the Giants play all eight at home. Having the final chance to bat may, in fact, be a bigger advantage than ever. Not only that, but the teams they play are largely out of it. They begin with a four-gamer hosting the Rockies, who are far enough out that they’d need a sweep to pass the Giants. Then they finish against the Padres (incl. a Friday doubleheader); however, the Padres have the NL’s second-best record, but are very unlikely to catch the Dodgers, and so are almost certainly slotted into their position already, and will probably have nothing to play for. That presents some pretty big opportunities for the Giants as the season comes to a close.
So: to which team do you give the edge? Who can pull it out here at the end of the season? Is it most important to have an off day? To reduce doubleheaders? To play at home? To have an easy schedule? To control your own destiny? It seems to me that how you answer those questions this year, might be every bit as important as the normal stuff, like rotation, bullpen, and lineup strength. In a 60-game season, each game is worth (essentially) 2.5 games: that means we’re basically getting a month of baseball in this final week, and we’re getting it in an extremely tight (if artificially-expanded) playoff race. So feel free to post comments below; I’ll try to check in each day, and I hope we can see some phenomenal baseball to close out the year!