Thank goodness for the wild card.
Once thought of as a gimmick and derided as a detriment to the traditions of the national pastime, the wild card has been both pennant-race savior and pennant-race destroyer in its first decade and a half.
Three previous seasons (1998, 1999, 2007) have needed a one-game wild-card playoff to determine the last playoff spot, but three other times (2001, 2005, 2006) teams have finished tied for first in the division and not needed a playoff because a tiebreaker gave one team the division title and the other the wild card.
Now in its 16th season, the wild card may wind up playing a more vital role this year than ever before. For the first time in the wild-card era, baseball reached Sept. 1 with no easily discernible pennant race on the horizon. In fact, only one divisional race was even as close as 3 1/2 games, the first time that has happened since baseball went to a three-division format. True, the NL Central may be the only race with a double-digit gulf separating first place from second, but none of the six divisions look like they are headed for the type of history-making, down-to-the-wire finish that has electrified so many seasons in the game's long history. In fact, it seems increasingly likely that the only pennant-race drama baseball manages to offer this season will come by way of the wild card, and only in one league at that.
According to Baseball Prospectus' Postseason Odds, only 11 teams started the month with as much as a 10 percent chance to reach the playoffs, and only one team currently outside the playoff setup if the season ended today (the Braves) has even a 1-in-4 chance of getting to October.
Of course, miracles have happened before. In 1995, for example, the Seattle Mariners entered September with only a 1.9 percent chance of reaching the playoffs, according to coolstandings.com, but wound up coming from 7 1/2 games behind to catch the California Angels and force a one-game playoff for the AL West crown, which Seattle won. And in 2007, the Colorado Rockies were in fourth place in the NL West and sixth in the wild card race with just 15 games remaining and had a 3.5 percent chance of making the playoffs, but they went 14-1 the rest of the way, including a win over the Padres in a one-game playoff to win the wild card.
Are there any miracles on hand this season? Herewith, a look at each of the eight races (six divisions and two wild cards); where things stand with roughly one month remaining and where they are likely to wind up.
Current leader: Yankees, 84-48.
Contenders: Red Sox, 77-54, 6 1/2 behind.
What had the potential to be one of the great division races of all time, with three teams capable of winning 95 games, has been, for the most part, a disappointment. The Rays haven't been within three games of first place since the season was two weeks old, and the Yankees sweep of the Red Sox in the Bronx back in early August blew this race wide open.
The Yankees have been surging, posting the best record in baseball since the All-Star break behind the emergence of CC Sabathia and a punishing offense that leads the league in runs, walks, home runs, on-base percentage and slugging percentage, while the Red Sox have been struggling, dropping 9 1/2 games in the standings in just six weeks. The biggest hindrance to a potential Boston rally is the same problem that's caused them to sink back in the race to begin with: unreliable starting pitching. The failed experiments in John Smoltz and Brad Penny ended with both being cut, and injuries to Tim Wakefield and Daisuke Matsuzaka have left Boston with only two reliable starters -- Josh Beckett and Jon Lester -- to try to make up ground on New York.
Key series: Sept. 25-27, Boston at New York. With only two series left for both teams after this three-game tilt, this last series between the Yankees and Red Sox could very well be Boston's last chance to keep their AL East title hopes alive.
Predicted division winner: Yankees.
Current leader: Detroit Tigers, 70-61.
Contenders: Minnesota Twins, 67-65, 3 1/2 games behind.
A five-game losing streak, the setback to Jake Peavy in his rehab efforts and the trades of Jose Contreras and Jim Thome mean the White Sox are no longer realistic contenders to repeat as AL Central champs. The Twins, meanwhile, are threatening to duplicate their comeback of 2006, when a late-season surge helped them erase a double-digit deficit in early August and overtake the Tigers at the wire to win the division.
Unlike that season, there is no wild card as the consolation prize this year, so the only ticket to the playoffs comes from winning the division. The Twins are putting together another strong finishing kick, having won 10 of 13 to match a season-high at three games over .500. As expected, Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer have carried the offense, but the starting pitching has only recently started to hit the level of consistency that manager Ron Gardenhire desires. Is it the sign of a permanent turnaround or merely a mirage? Likely the latter.
The Tigers, meanwhile, have been unable to pull away from what has been a consistently mediocre pack. They've been in first place every day since May 10, but have never led by more than five games in that time, despite boasting a vastly superior pitching staff to the one found in Minnesota. Justin Verlander has been at the forefront of the Cy Young discussion most of the season and has been supported by the emergence of Edwin Jackson and rookie Rick Porcello.
Perhaps no other player in any division race is as important as Jarrod Washburn. When he was acquired from the Mariners at the trade deadline, he was pitching as well as anybody in baseball, but he has mostly been a disaster in Detroit, going 1-2 with a 6.81 ERA in six starts. If he begins to resemble the pitcher he was in Seattle, the Tigers should have too much pitching depth for the Twins to catch them.
Key series: Sept. 18-20, Detroit at Minnesota; Sept. 28-Oct. 1, Minnesota at Detroit. The Twins lead the season series 7-4, and these seven games could well decide the race. The rest of their schedules are nearly identical. Both teams play all but seven games (Toronto and Oakland for the Twins; Toronto and Tampa Bay for the Tigers) against AL Central foes, but the Tigers are 24-13 against the White Sox, Royals and Indians while the Twins are 22-16, only increasing the pressure on Minnesota to win, and perhaps sweep, the two series with Detroit.
Predicted division winner: Tigers.
Current leader: Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, 78-53.
Contenders: Texas Rangers, 74-58, 4 1/2 behind.
The Angels have dominated the AL West for so long -- winning the division five times in the past seven years -- that it seems like another championship is preordained. The Rangers are still hanging around, however, thanks largely to the home run, an improved defense and an unheralded pitching staff that has gotten strong seasons from pitchers like Tommy Hunter and Scott Feldman. Is Neftali Feliz this season's Joba Chamberlain/David Price? The rookie righty with the triple-digit fastball has allowed just one run in his first 10 appearances, striking out more than a batter per inning.
While the Rangers dipped into their farm system to give themselves a boost, the Angels did something they rarely do: sacrifice top prospects to add an expensive, established player at midseason. Scott Kazmir has not pitched like the All-Star he has been in the past, but he could stabilize an Angels rotation that has been decimated by injuries and inconsistency all season.
The offense has been the best in the league, topping the AL in batting average and ranking second in OPS. Keeping Vlad Guerrero healthy and hitting like his old self will be important. Vlad has batted .337 with a .625 slugging percentage and nine home runs in 26 games since coming off the DL in early August, compared to .290, .415 and four homers in 46 games before he was sidelined.
Key series: Sept. 18-20, LAA at Texas; Sept. 28-Oct. 1, Texas at LAA. If the Rangers can hang around until the last two weeks, they may have the best chance of any second-place team in the game to vault into first. They've already beaten the Angels nine out of 12 this year, and their seven games against the Halos down the stretch are part of a finishing kick that has them play 20 of their last 23 games against division rivals. The Rangers have fattened up on the AL West this year, going 24-13, compared to just 18-21 for the Angels.
Predicted division winner: Angels.
Current leader: Philadelphia Phillies, 76-53.
Contenders: Atlanta Braves, 70-62, 7 1/2 games out.
We use the word "contenders" very loosely here. Barring a Mets-like collapse, the Phillies have all but wrapped up the NL East. The only thing keeping the Braves alive is their effective and deep starting pitching staff, which just got even better when Tim Hudson came off the disabled list.
The problem for the Braves, of course, is if there's one team in the NL that can match their starting pitching depth, it's the Phillies, especially now that Cliff Lee and Pedro Martinez have joined forces with Cole Hamels, J.A. Happ and Joe Blanton. Moreover, the Braves don't have an offense that can keep them in games like the Phillies' can. Philadelphia leads the league in runs scored, home runs, slugging percentage and OPS, and boasts four players (Ryan Howard, Jayson Werth, Raul Ibanez, Chase Utley) who will finish the year with at least 30 home runs. Atlanta doesn't have a single player with more than 17.
Key series: The Phillies play the Braves Sept. 18-20 in Atlanta, but if the Braves haven't made a serious move by then, even a sweep may not be enough to keep their title hopes alive.
Predicted division winner: Phillies.
Current leader: St. Louis Cardinals, 78-55.
Surely Tony La Russa can find something with which to occupy his lawyer's mind over the last month of the season, because he no longer needs to worry about winning his 12th division title in 31 years as a manager. He can decide which of his Cy Young-contending starters (Chris Carpenter or Adam Wainwright) should start their playoff opener, just how many more at-bats Albert Pujols needs to wrap up his second straight NL MVP, and how to keep Matt Holliday swinging a red-hot bat.
Just when it looked like the Cubs might finally rise up and snatch the NL Central crown that had seemed theirs for the taking all year long, they instead tripped over themselves in a can't-look-away disaster that included ugly incidents on the field and meltdowns and finger-pointing off it. They caught the Cardinals atop the NL Central in early August but have gone just 9-15 since, nose-diving to a season-worst 10 1/2 games out of first place. Even if the Cardinals were to go 14-15 over their remaining 29 games -- which seems highly unlikely given that they have the NL's best record at 29-13 in the second half -- the Cubs would have to go 26-6 to catch them. Not happening.
Key series: Sept. 18-20, Cubs at Cardinals. Don't bet on it, but if these two continue playing the way they have for the past month, there's a chance the Cardinals could clinch the division title on their home field against their archrivals. Otherwise, the clinching will almost certainly have to come on the road, as the Cards don't return to St. Louis until a season-ending three-game set with the Brewers.
Predicted division winner: Cardinals.
Current leader: Los Angeles Dodgers, 78-54.
Contenders: Colorado Rockies, 73-59, 5 games behind; San Francisco Giants, 72-60, 6 games behind.
The Dodgers have steadied themselves after a rough stretch, and despite a losing record in August and watching the Rockies catch fire, they entered September with a 5 1/2 game lead, only 2 1/2 worse than at the start of August. In fact, all their recent slump seems to have done is scare them straight.
Rather than rest on having the best record in the National League and being in first place all but six days this year, they went out and got better and deeper, adding veterans Vicente Padilla, Ronnie Belliard, Jim Thome and Jon Garland in the past week. The offense is superb, leading the league in hitting and on-base percentage and ranking third in runs scored. Another bonus: Their bullpen has been outstanding this year, leading the majors in both ERA (3.22, half a run better than the runner-up Red Sox) and batting average against (.229).
The schedule is especially beneficial down the stretch: In addition to 11 games against the woeful Diamondbacks and Padres, the Dodgers out-of-division competition consists entirely of 10 games against the last-place Nationals and Pirates.
The Rockies have finally cooled off after a torrid stretch that lasted three months and took them from 12 games under .500 in May to 18 games over .500 in late August, an incredible 30 game turnaround. Did they peak too soon? As usual, the offense is dangerous, ranking second in the league in runs, home runs, on-base percentage and slugging percentage, though they have been plagued by strikeouts at times (only the Diamondbacks and Rangers whiff more often).
The Giants have managed to hang in the race despite a dreadful offense that has only one true threat (third baseman Pablo Sandoval). For all they have gotten from Matt Cain, and the stunning turnaround notched by Barry Zito, their season rests on the slight frame of Tim Lincecum, who leads the league in innings pitched and is second in total pitches thrown. Lincecum was given an extra day of rest this week in an effort to keep him as fresh as possible down the stretch. After his start Thursday in Philadelphia, if he continues to pitch every fifth game, he'd make only five more starts. The Giants probably can't afford to waste any of them if they are to get back to the playoffs for the first time in six years.
Key series: Sept. 11-13, Dodgers at Giants; Sept. 14-16, Rockies at Giants; Sept. 18-20, Giants at Dodgers; October 2-4, Rockies at Dodgers.
Predicted division winner: Dodgers.
Leader: Red Sox, 77-54.
Contenders: Rangers, 74-58, 3 1/2 games behind; Rays, 71-60, 6 games behind.
The Red Sox lead the Rangers by 3 1/2 games. Just like they've done with the team they're chasing in the AL West, the Rangers have been excellent against Boston this year, beating them seven of nine. But unlike with the Angels, the Rangers don't get to play the Red Sox again, so they will need some help if they are to reach their first postseason in 10 years.
If there is anything to the idea of knowing how to win when your season is at stake -- and both teams believe there is -- then that is a huge edge to the Red Sox, who have been in the postseason five of the past six years. The Rays still have five games left with the Red Sox, but they already trail Boston by six games. Knowing they still have to play the Yankees seven more times as well, they can't afford to miss any opportunities to make up ground head-to-head with the Red Sox.
Predicted wild-card winner: Red Sox.
Leader: Rockies, 73-59.
Contenders: Giants, 72-60, 1 game behind; Braves, 70-62, 3 games behind; Marlins, 68-64, 5 games behind; Cubs, 66-64, 6 games behind.
In all likelihood, the Marlins and Cubs are just about out of time and have too many other teams in front of them to make a serious playoff push. If the Cubs can survive a 10-game road trip in mid-September that includes trips to St. Louis and San Francisco, they'll get an easy finishing slate by hosting the Pirates and Diamondbacks. But they'll have to have made up some serious ground before then to have any kind of realistic chance.
The Marlins appear to be running out of steam after a sudden, historic burst of offense carried them to within a few games of the lead just two weeks ago. But now their bats have cooled off, and Josh Johnson can't pitch every day. The schedule, too, is a major obstacle. After wrapping up their series with the Braves on Thursday, the Fish will have 19 road games and just nine home games remaining (and three of those homers are against the first-place Phillies, whom they also finish the season with in Philadelphia).
As things look right now, this race is probably going to come down to the Rockies and the Giants. They've already given us what was probably the Game of the Year a week ago in Denver, when the Giants got three runs in the 14th inning, only to see the Rockies come back with five in the bottom half, including a walk-off grand slam by Ryan Spilborghs. Then they gave us a taste of redemption, when the Giants rebounded from losing three of four in Colorado to sweep the Rockies in San Francisco. Now they need to give us what none of the other seven races seem capable of: a reason to be scoreboard watching all the way through the last game of the season.
The possible spoiler in the wild card to a wild west showdown is the Braves, who have moved to within three games of the lead. The starting pitching certainly seems capable of keeping them in games the rest of the way, but like the Giants, they suffer from a lack of quality bats. Beyond Brian McCann and Chipper Jones, where is the consistent offense going to come from, and will it be enough to jump not just one team, but two? Those are significant hurdles, but the Braves have positioned themselves well to stay in the race until the end. In fact, the schedule might be more favorable to them than either the Giants or Rockies the rest of the way. The Braves have just 11 games remaining against teams over .500. They also get to play the Nationals seven of their last 10, including four straight in Atlanta to close the season.
Predicted wild-card winner: Rockies (I just can't see the Giants scoring enough to win a playoff spot. Margin of error is way too small.)