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The Strike Zone

Where are the races? NL playoff field all but locked up

Brandon McCarthy, Diamondbacks Unless Brandon McCarthy and other pitchers step up, Arizona will remain on the outside of the playoff picture. (David Zalubowski/AP)

Maybe you yearn for the sepia-toned era before division play, the more recent familiarity of the two-division setup or the simplicity of the one wild-card format. Or perhaps you've already come around to appreciating the threat teams face for a one-and-done exit in the two wild-card structure. Any way you slice it, everybody loves a playoff race (except probably for that monster Alex Rodriguez -- am I doing this right?). Alas, three weeks into the second half, it appears as though the races in the National League are all but over, with the balance of the season to be spent jockeying for position.

According to the Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds , five NL teams have at least a 92.5 percent chance of reaching October, with the sixth down at 11.6 percent, the seventh at just 1.3 percent, and the rest requiring an electron microscope to spot. In other words, there's only about a 1-in-8 chance that one of the five teams currently holding a playoff position will wind up on the outside looking in.

Given that, it's worth dialing back to three weeks ago, when the season's second "half" was about to launch, to  consider where things stood, and how they've evloved.

NL East

At the All-Star break, the Braves (54-41), led the Nationals (48-47) by six games and the Phillies (48-48) by six and a half. Nobody, with the clear exception of Philadelphia general manager Ruben Amaro Jr., believed that the latter represented a threat, but with Atlanta meandering along at 42-40 since its season-opening 12-1 sprint, it seemed quite possible that Washington would rediscover last season's mojo and mount a run at the top.

Possible, but hardly probable given that the Nats had skidded into the break by losing five out of seven to the Phillies and Marlins, then came out of it by losing six straight to the Dodgers and Pirates. They've gone just 8-18 since July 7; after being swept by the Braves this week in Washington, the Nationals are a season-high six games below .500, and the vultures have begun circling manager Davey Johnson. The BP odds give them a 1.3 percent chance at climbing back to claim a wild-card spot, but even that seems a stretch, as they would have to make up a nine-game deficit.

As for the Phillies, after winning their first game of the second half, they proceeded to lose 12 out of 13 to the Mets, Cardinals, Tigers, Giants and Braves. The plummet was juxtaposed by Amaro keeping every last trade chip at the July 31 deadline, though given the reasonable parameters of Chase Utley's extension, it's tough to begrudge that decision if not the ones to retain Michael Young or Carlos Ruiz.

Meanwhile, though the Braves began the second half by losing four out of seven to the White Sox and Mets, they've socked away the division by reeling off 13 straight wins over the Cardinals, Rockies, Phillies and Nationals, as the dormant bats of Justin Upton and Jason Heyward have sprung to life. Atlanta's odds now round up to 100.0 percent, which is appropriate, as it would take an historically unprecedented collapse — worse than that of the 1951 Dodgers — for the team to miss out on October.

JAFFE: What could trip up streaking Braves and Tigers?

NL Central

After ending the first half by taking seven out of nine from the Marlins, Astros and Cubs, the Cardinals appeared to be the class of the league. They owned the majors' best record (57-36) and run differential (+127), though they held just a one-game lead on the Pirates (56-37) and a five-game lead on the Reds (53-42). Even then, the latter two teams were positioned as wild cards, with Cincinnati holding a five-game lead over the Nationals and a 5 1/2 game lead over the Phillies and Dodgers.

Since then St. Louis has gone just 9-12 despite outscoring opponents by 13 runs (99-86); while the Cards did roll over the Padres and Phillies coming out of the break, they lost seven straight via a three-game sweep by the Braves and then the first four of a statement-making five-game series against the Pirates, surrendering first place in the process. They salvaged some dignity with a 13-0 rout of Pittsburgh in the finale, but are just 4-4 since then against the Reds and Dodgers, with their biggest loss occurring when MVP candidate Yadier Molina sprained his right knee and hit the DL on July 31. He has yet to be cleared to resume baseball activities beyond throwing, and thus has no timetable for a return. The Redbirds are now 66-48, four games back in the standings, and while the BP odds still give them a 97.7 percent chance at making the playoffs, their chances at the division title are down to 25.6 percent.

After tasting first place in late April and again as June turned into July, the Pirates batted the division lead back and forth with the Cardinals over the first half's final week. They began the second half losing two to the Reds, but since then, they're 14-5; dating back to the start of that series with St. Louis, Pittsburgh is 9-2. Forget their early 1990s run, the last time the Bucs were 70-44 or better through 114 games was in 1972, when they were 72-42 en route to an NL East title in the final seasons of Hall of Famers Roberto Clemente and Bill Mazeroski. They need just 12 more wins in 48 games to clinch that long-sought winning record, but they're going to blow past that. Pittsburgh's odds of making the postseason are now at 99.5 percent, with a 64.0 percent chance of winning the division. Raise the Jolly Roger!

As for the defending division champion Reds, take away their 19-8 May and they're just 44-43 overall. They haven't been in first place since April 22, though they didn't fall further than four back until June 28, amid a skid in which they lost six of seven. Cincinnati began the second half in strong fashion, taking two of three from the Pirates, three of four from the Giants and the first game of a four-game set against the Dodgers, none of which moved it an inch closer to first place. Since then, the Reds have lost seven out of 11 to the Dodgers, Padres and Cardinals, with a two-game sweep of the A's their only series victory in that span. Though they're seven games back in the division race at 63-51, they still have a 4 1/2-game cushion for the second wild-card spot. Their odds of making the postseason are at 92.5 percent, though just 10.4 percent of that is their chance at the division title.

NL West

Though the hard-charging Dodgers had gained seven games in the standings and climbed from last place to second by going 15-5 prior to the break to return to .500 (47-47), they still trailed the Diamondbacks (50-45) by 2 1/2 games. Arizona had gone just 10-12 during that same span, but with series against the Giants, Cubs and Padres looming after the break, it appeared likely the D-backs would pull out of their tailspin.

Instead, the Diamondbacks went 4-6 against that trio of sub-.500 opponents, failing to win any of those three series, and while they have since gone 4-4 against the Rays, Rangers and Red Sox, they've been passed as though they were standing still. That's because the Dodgers have gone an MLB-best 17-3 out of the break, sweeping series from the Nationals, Blue Jays and Cubs, winning ones against the Reds and Cardinals and splitting two games against the Yankees. Los Angeles has now won 32 of its last 40, and recently reeled off a 15-game road winning streak, the longest in the majors since 1984.

So really, it's all up to the Diamondbacks, 4 1/2 back in the wild-card race and 5 1/2 back in the NL West, to upset the apple cart. Their odds are long; BP gives them just a 4.5 percent chance at wresting the division title from the Dodgers' grasp and a 7.1 percent chance at snatching a wild-card berth.

Given that their bullpen has stabilized -- Heath Bell, J.J. Putz and new closer Brad Ziegler have combined to allow just one (unearned) run in their past 24 innings over a four-week span -- the focus for Arizona falls on two spots: the back of its rotation and the outfield. The questionable trade of Ian Kennedy opened up a spot for Brandon McCarthy, who wasn't sharp in his return from the disabled list, allowing eight baserunners in 4 1/3 innings against the Red Sox on Sunday. He may round into form but with Trevor Cahill still at least a week away, the problem for the Snakes is that Tyler Skaggs and Zeke Spruill have combined to allow 18 runs in 18 innings over their last four starts in that spot, losing all four games in the process.

As for the outfield, aside from recent signs of life from Cody Ross (.353/.393/.588 since the All-Star break) they've gotten very little on the offensive side. Ross' overall .409 slugging percentage is the highest of the unit, while Jason Kubel (.226/.300 /.339 for the full season) has been abysmal, Gerardo Parra (.268/.330/.391) mediocre and Adam Eaton (.222/.319/.270) rusty since returning from a sprained ulnar collateral ligament.

Beyond the Braves, Pirates, Cardinals, Reds, Dodgers and Diamondbacks, the rest of the NL field has a combined 0.2 percent chance at winning the division, with the Giants (51-63) and Rockies (52-64) facing roughly 1-in-1000 odds. Those two and the Phillies have similar odds to claim a wild-card spot, which doesn't even add up to the 0.4 percent chance that the Mets (52-60) could do so instead -- and while I'm not officially your doctor, I certainly don't advise holding your breath for that.

Given the recent implementation of the two wild-card format, it's fair to wonder if the remaining slate would offer more suspense if the single wild-card format had remained, but for the current field that basically boils down to the question of whether the Reds could overcome a three-game gap on the Cardinals, with that door all but closed to the Diamondbacks, who would be facing a 7 1/2-game deficit. So if anything, the two wild-card format is offering a bit more suspense than the previous setup.

If you want to get really silly and think about the two-division setup and assume things could somehow go forward with eight teams in one division and seven in the other, the Pirates would still have a four-game lead over the Cardinals, with the Braves (who were in the old NL West, as geographically improbable as that may seem now) up 5 1/2 on the Dodgers. Meh.

With seven weeks to go, it's not out of the question that one of these teams could collapse and another could surge, but if you're expecting edge-of-your-seat excitement, its mostly going to be regarding who gets home-field advantage and who avoids the wild card.

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