Jockeying for position: NL edition
The postseason picture cleared up considerably on Monday night, with three American League teams eliminated despite victories as two other berths were decided. The National League picture was also simplified, as the final division flag was claimed, but the last wild-card spot remained in play — albeit barely — as the Cardinals and Dodgers both won. Most of what is still at stake is simply jockeying for position. While the permutations are too numerous to provide detailed analyses of potential matchups on such short order, here's a quick breeze through the possibilities in play.
In the NL, the Nationals (96-64) wrapped up the NL East for the first time in their history. They did so despite losing to the Phillies, 2-0, because the Braves (93-67) lost to the Pirates, 2-1. After news of the latter game's completion, pandemonium broke out in Nationals Park as fan and players began celebrating the team's first division title in their eight-year history in D.C.; the game in front of them became an afterthought. The Nats didn't even lose any ground to the Reds (96-64) as far as the league's best record goes, because Cincinnati wound up losing to the Cardinals (87-73), 4-2 behind Jaime Garcia, who hit a solo homer and tossed 6 2/3 innings of two-run ball to spoil Reds manager Dusty Baker's return to the dugout following a mild stroke.
The Cardinals' victory assured the defending world champions of at least a tie for the wild-card spot, which would necessitate a Game 163 play-in with the Dodgers (85-75), who staved off elimination via Andre Ethier's two-run homer off Matt Cain, and Elian Herrera's bases-loaded walkoff single. In order to survive, the Dodgers — who have won six in a row — need to win both of their remaining games against the Giants (93-67) while the Cardinals lose both of their remaining games with the Reds; they would then host St. Louis for the tiebreaker on the basis of their 6-5 record in the season series. In all, the Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds give the Dodgers just a 2.5 percent chance of making the postseason — one chance in 40 — half of what it was 24 hours ago.
Not a single playoff matchup is actually locked in as far as the NL slate goes. Either the Nationals or Reds will emerge with the number one seed, and then face the winner of the wild-card game pitting the Braves against either the Cardinals or the Reds in Atlanta. Whichever team finishes with the league's second-best record will face the Giants, and own the home field advantage, though recall that in the first round, that's a whole lot less than it's cracked up to be because the team with the lesser record hosts the first two games.
Looking ahead to potential first-round matchups, from the standpoint of the Nationals, they hold season series advantage against the Braves (10-8), Cardinals (4-3) and Giants (5-1)) but lost out to the Dodgers (2-4), not that any of those are substantial enough to provide much weight; we're in small sample city across the board here. Despite their disadvantage against the Dodgers, they appear to be the more appealing Division Series opponent, because the only way Los Angeles can make it through would be on the coattails of a 10-game winning streak, which isn't likely to be sustained into a postseason series. Furthermore, with Clayton Kershaw scheduled to pitch on Wednesday, the earliest the Nats would face him would be Game 2 of the Division Series. The dropoff from him to the other potential Dodger starters — Josh Beckett, Joe Blanton, Chris Capuano and Aaron Harang — is precipitous, and Beckett, who has at least somewhat rediscovered his form since the trade from Boston (2.93 ERA, 8.0 K/9 in seven starts) is likely to pitch either in Game 163 (on three days' rest) or in the wild-card game, pushing his first Division Series start further back. Among the Nationals starters, Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez and Ross Detwiler all fared well against the Dodgers this year, as did the absent Stephen Strasburg; Edwin Jackson didn't make an appearance against them. Gonzalez was less than sharp in four starts against the Braves (4.57 ERA, 5.8 BB/9) but he shut out the Cardinals in his only start against them. Neither Detwiler nor Jackson fared very well in their starts against the Giants and Cardinals, which may make the Braves their more desirable opponent.
The Reds played well against the Braves (5-1) and Giants (4-3), but not as well against the Dodgers (2-4), and they're currently down against the Cardinals (6-7) with two games still to play. They'll have home field advantage for their first series regardless of how they finish the regular season, but they have to balance their desire to attain that goal with the danger of tipping their hand too much against a team they may face again later this week. Cy Young contender Johnny Cueto is likely to get the nod in the Division Series opener regardless of opponent, though he was chased after 4 2/3 innings and six runs allowed by the Braves in his only start against them this season, while Mat Latos, Homer Bailey and Bronson Arroyo all held them in check. Latos was lit for a 9.77 ERA in three starts against the Cardinals; he goes again tonight, and it will be interesting to see how long a leash Baker gives him.
The Braves took their season series with the Cardinals (5-1) but split with the Dodgers (3-3). Either way, they have Kris Medlen lined up to start the wild card game, and they have to like their chances behind him. The 26-year-old righty didn't join their rotation until July 31 and has just 12 starts this year, but he has put up a remarkable 0.97 ERA with an 84/10 strkeout-to-walk ratio in that role, with 10 quality starts and only one outing in which he allowed even three runs. The Braves not only won all 12 of his turns, they won the last 10 games he started in 2010 before undergoing Tommy John surgery. His appearances against the Dodgers and Cardinals this season were in relief, totaling all of 6 1/3 inning back in April and May. His use in the wild-card game would actually be a break for the Nats, in that Medlen dominated them, allowing one run in 14 innings while striking out 20 in starts on August 22 and September 14; the latter was a 13-strikeout effort. By contrast, the more experienced Tim Hudson, who would be lined up to kick off the Division Series for Atlanta, was pounded for a 7.71 ERA in three starts against the Nationals. Hudson was touched for five runs in 5 2/3 innings by the Cardinals back on May 30, and in fact has a long history of being roughed up by the Redbirds, with a career 5.78 ERA in 12 starts against them, which may be one reason why Fredi Gonzalez isn't eying him for the wild-card game. Hudson didn't face the Dodgers this year, and faced them just once last year.
Assuming they don't have to play a tiebreaker, the Cardinals can choose between Kyle Lohse, Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright for the wild-card game. Carpenter is the most experienced, but he has just two starts under his belt since returning from surgery to correct for thoracic outlet syndrome, and against weak competition (the Astros and Cubs). Wainwright has been on a roll (a 3.38 ERA and 0.5 HR/9 through his last 20 starts), but it's been suggested that manager Mike Matheny is leaning towards Kyle Lohse, who leads the team in ERA (2.86), innings (211) and quality start rate (73 percent), all by wide margins. Lohse yielded five runs in five innings against the Braves on May 30 opposite Hudson; he had two starts against the Dodgers, one good (July 25, seven innings, two runs) and one so-so (May 20, 5 2/3 innings, 11 hits, three runs).
As for the Giants, they lost out to both the Nationals and Reds, their only two possible Division Series opponents in their season series. They played the latter much more closely (outscored 28-21, compared to 45-24) than the former, and in fact the Nats teed off on both Tim Lincecum and Ryan Vogelsong to the point of hanging double-digit ERAs on them, with none of their combined three starts lasting more than four innings. Lincecum's second start (four innings, four runs) came on August 15, one of his lesser starts amid his second-half resurgence. Matt Cain (6 2/3 innings, three runs on July 5) and Madison Bumgarner (nine innings, one run on August 14) were the only Giants to manage quality starts against the Nats this year, with the latter offset by a July 4 fireworks display in the nation's capitol (five innings, seven runs, three homers). Bumgarner one-hit the Reds in his best start of the year on June 28, while Cain took losses in two starts against them, one quality, one not. Vogelsong had one quality start in two turns against them, while Lincecum didn't face them this season. Barry Zito actually fared the best against the Reds, with two six-inning, one-run turns against them. Barring a surprise from Bruce Bochy, he's not scheduled to start in the first round, though the Giants have won his last 10 starts dating back to August 7. If the Dodgers lose or the Cardinals win on Tuesday night, the NL picture clarifies enough to set the wild-card matchup, but Monday's results mean the battle for the number one seed will go down to the season's final game, so as fans, we're guaranteed at least some amount of meaningful baseball on Wednesday. I'll be back later with a look at the permutations in the AL.