Monday September 19th, 2016

With just two weeks left in the 2016 season, these are the three teams left standing in the National League wild-card race.

The Mets, who just lost Jacob deGrom for the rest of the year and whose rotation now features rookies Seth Lugo, Robert Gsellman and (probably) Gabriel Ynoa;

The Cardinals, who have just one qualified starter—Carlos Martinez—with an ERA+ of league average or better;

The Giants, who finished the first half with the best record in baseball (57–33) and who have gone an incomprehensible 22–37 since the All-Star break.

Two of those teams will make the playoffs.

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Granted, the playoffs for one of those teams will consist of just the wild-card game, and the other will be rewarded with a short series against a Cubs team that is barreling its way toward 100 wins. But the reality remains: The NL wild-card race is a mess and the teams in it are a mess, and yet two of them will get to call themselves playoff teams when it’s all said and done.

Do any of them deserve that postseason trip? The Mets, at least, have made an effort in the second half despite losing multiple starters to injury throughout the season. Along with deGrom, the Mets have been without Matt Harvey for the entire second half and without Steven Matz since Aug. 14. Every member of the starting infield has missed time, with David Wright and Neil Walker both done for the year and Lucas Duda only just now returning from a back injury that has limited him to 39 games and sidelined him since May 20. In their stead has been a cast of unlikely saviors: the likes of Lugo and Gsellman in the rotation; T.J. Rivera and James Loney and Jose Reyes taking important at-bats down the stretch.

Despite that motley crew (the replace-Mets, if you will), New York has kept its head above water. The Mets are just 33–28 since the All-Star break but have won 11 of their 16 games in September, including a six-game winning streak that helped pull them ahead of the Giants and Cardinals to take over first place in the wild card. But a lot of New York’s success has come thanks to the schedule: Of those 16 games this month, only six have come against a team above .500—the NL East-leading Nationals. In essence, the Mets have fattened up on the league’s bottom feeders, and they’ll get to do so for the rest of the season: After completing this weekend’s three-game sweep of the hapless Twins, New York finishes the year with 13 games against the Braves, Phillies and Marlins, all under .500.

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Still, the Mets have made the best of their situation, which can barely be said of St. Louis and San Francisco. The Cardinals have more or less tread water since the start of August, going 22–22 in that span, and they’ve won just one series in September. Like the Mets, the Cardinals have been bulled over by injuries: Aledmys Diaz, Michael Wacha, Matt Holliday, Matt Adams, Jhonny Peralta and Matt Carpenter have all missed substantial time. That’s on top of closer Trevor Rosenthal pitching so poorly that he lost his job in July; rookie slugger Randal Grichuk and second baseman Kolten Wong both getting sent down to the minors for long stretches over the summer; and veterans Adam Wainwright, Mike Leake and Jaime Garcia all carrying ERAs above 4.50.

This is a far cry from the St. Louis team that led the league in wins last year with an even 100, but given that long list of injuries and underperformances, it’s practically a miracle that the Cardinals are even in contention for the wild card. Part of that can be attributed to the usual St. Louis dark arts that result in cast-offs like Jedd Gyorko and Brandon Moss combining for 63 home runs or in career nobodies like Diaz or Jeremy Hazelbaker coming up from the minors and providing solid at-bats. Part of that is getting All-Star caliber seasons from the likes of Martinez, Stephen Piscotty, Carpenter and new closer Seung-hwan Oh to make up for down seasons from Wainwright, Holliday, Rosenthal, et al. And part of that is that the universe conspires to keep the Cardinals in the playoffs no matter what.

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But the Cardinals are an inconsistent bunch at best. They have one trustworthy starter in Martinez; a lineup full of power (an NL-high 208 home runs) but slumping badly in September (.222/.296/.384 on the month); and a defense that has been one of MLB’s worst in turning batted balls into outs (St. Louis’ .681 Defensive Efficiency is 26th in baseball). Again, imagining a postseason without the Cardinals makes a “404 page not found” error pop up in your brain, but this isn’t a team that looks like a real contender.

But that’s more than can be said about the Giants. San Francisco has crashed and burned harder than any other team in baseball in the second half, plummeting from what seemed like a guaranteed NL West title to a sweaty, fidgety grip on the second wild card after splitting a four-game weekend set with St. Louis. Absolutely nothing has gone right for the Giants since the All-Star break. They have a mere .707 OPS in the second half; they’ve won only three of 19 series since July 15; and their bullpen has spent most of August and September blowing just about every lead its been handed. The primary arsonist: closer Santiago Casilla, who has nine blown saves on the year and a 5.06 ERA since the start of August.

What’s truly amazing is, despite putting up the worst record in baseball in the second half, the Giants are still holding onto a playoff spot. Even more incredible, they still have a chance (albeit a tiny one) at dislodging the Dodgers from the top of the division, as the teams still have six head-to-head games left (including three to start this coming week). But assuming that doesn’t come to pass, then the Giants will spend the final two weeks of the season enmeshed in one of the dumbest playoff races in recent memory—one that someone has to win but that no one seems capable of doing.

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