In contrast with the American League, where seven teams are within four games of first place in their division, things in the National League appear fairly settled. The closest divisional race is the West, where the Giants lead the slumping Dodgers by seven games, and the wild card-leading Braves are 6 1/2 games up on the third-place team in that race (also the Dodgers). Still, there's one race in the Senior Circuit that is not only close, but is getting closer by the day and is starting to suck previously dismissed teams back into the playoff hunt. That race is for the second wild-card spot, and with the Cardinals, who currently sit in that position, having lost six of their last seven, and eleven of their last 15, it is suddenly wide open.
Here are the wild-card standings in the National League following Wednesday night's action, which saw the top four teams below all lose and the bottom four all win:
|NL Wild Card|
The general trends in that picture are that the Cardinals, Dodgers, Pirates (and Diamondbacks, for what it's worth) are sinking, while the Phillies, Brewers, and Padres (yes, the Padres, who just swept the Cardinals and have gone 16-5 over their last 21) are surging. The result is a wild-card race that looks more like something from the first week of June rather than the second week of September.
When former Baseball Prospectus statistician Clay Davenport simulates the remainder of the season a million times every morning to determine each team's chances of making the playoffs, the Postseason Odds I've been citing liberally of late, one thing he makes note of is the average number of wins by the two wild-card entrants in each league. When he ran his simulations Wednesday morning, he found that the second National League wild-card team averaged 87 wins across those million simulations. Here's what the seven teams above would have to do over the remainder of the season to finish with 87 wins:
|To Finish With 87 Wins|
Looking at things that way, it's easy to see why the Braves look like a lock for the first wild-card spot (a dangerous statement given their finish to last season, I realize), but what are the chances of any of those other teams matching that performance down the stretch? Certainly the Padres aren't going to sweep the rest of the season, and the Diamondbacks aren't making any waves as it is. However, the Brewers have gone 14-5 over their last 19, and 18-5 over their last 23, while the Phillies have gone exactly 15-4 over their last 19. What's more, for every game that the Cardinals and Dodgers underperform the records above the rest of the way, that allows their challengers additional wiggle room. So, while Davenport's Postseason Odds on Wednesday morning still had St. Louis at 74 percent, the Dodgers at 12 and everyone else at or below five (led by the Phillies, not the Pirates, it should be noted), there's reason to believe that the race is a lot closer than that.
Of course, the key to the entire thing is the Cardinals. Despite their recent skid, they remain in the driver's seat. Playing .600 ball the rest of the way wouldn't require them to play that far above their ability, and any failure by their rivals to achieve the loftier goals above would let them come in that much further below .600. It could well be that, as unexpected and compelling as the clumping of these wild-card contenders might be, it might be happening a bit too late in the season for anything to come of it. With no more than 20 games left for any of these teams, the Cardinals could just win the wild card by attrition.
Indeed, none of these contenders has a pure patsy schedule the rest of the way. The Phillies have nine games left against the Nationals and Braves. The Pirates have nine against the Reds, Braves, and Brewers. The Brewers have 10 left against the Nats, Reds and Pirates. The Cardinals have ten against the Nats, Reds, and Dodgers. The Dodgers have 13 against the Nats, Reds, Cards, and Giants. The softest schedule of the lot may belong to the Braves, and they still have three-game sets against the Nationals, Pirates, and Phillies. All of which is to say that these teams are going to be bloodying each other down the stretch in a nasty battle royale for that second wild-card spot. That melee starts Thursday as the Cardinals travel to Los Angeles for a four-game set against the Dodgers, a potentially fascinating series given the recent struggles of both teams and the potential for the Dodgers to take over that second wild-card spot by winning three of four at home.