The second-place Giants and Nationals both suffered painful losses Tuesday night that have put a serious dent into their playoff hopes. On a night the Mets were blown out by the lowly Phillies, Washington failed to gain ground in the National League East. The Nats coughed up a pair of leads and surrendered a walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth to the Cardinals as shut-down closer Jonathan Papelbon watched from the bullpen once again. San Francisco, meanwhile, sent ace Madison Bumgarner to the mound to take on the first-place Dodgers, only to lose 2–1 in a game that never felt as close as the final score thanks to the dominance of Los Angeles starter Zack Greinke.
With those losses, the Nationals are now 6 1/2 games behind the Mets with 31 games remaining, while the Giants are 5 1/2 games out in the NL West with 30 games to go. With the Cubs also winning last night, Washington and San Francisco are now nine and 6 1/2 games behind, respectively, for the NL's second wild-card spot, as well. Given that the Nats and Giants are the two best teams in the NL not currently occupying a playoff spot, we are left to wonder: Is the league's playoff field already set with more than a month remaining in the season? And, if it isn't, which of those two teams has the best chance to survive past the regular season?
Baseball Prospectus’s playoff odds certainly paint a bleak picture for the Giants and Nationals. As of Wednesday morning, the playoff chances of the top seven teams in the NL, five of whom will reach the postseason, looked like this:
By way of comparison, American League teams with a better chance of reaching the postseason than the Giants or Nationals include the 66–66 Rays and Angels (12.9% and 10.4%, respectively) and the 64–67 Indians (13.1%). That may not be terribly surprising for Washington, which hasn't been more than three games above .500 since Aug. 11 and could sink back to 66–66 with a loss to Michael Wacha and St. Louis on Wednesday night. For the reigning World Series champions from San Francisco, however, it is a shock.
A week and a half ago, the Giants were just 1 1/2 games out of first place in the NL West, after which they took two out of three from the Cubs. However, getting swept by those same Cubs in early August largely sealed San Francisco's fate in the wild-card race, and a recent hot streak by the Dodgers—who have now won seven of their last eight, including two head-to-head against the Giants over the last two nights—has expanded the team's deficit in the West by four games.
Even if the Giants do manage to salvage a win Wednesday night against the first-place Dodgers and Clayton Kershaw (who is 6–0 with a 0.92 ERA in his last 10 starts), they’ll still trail by five games in the loss column with just four head-to-head games remaining, two of which are sure to be started by Greinke and Kershaw. It’s thus difficult to see a route to the postseason for San Francisco, despite the fact that it has a slightly easier schedule than Los Angeles over the season’s final four weeks.
Indeed, if one of these two teams is going to surprise everyone and surge into the playoffs, it’s going to be the Nationals. Consider the postseason chances above. The Giants have a very slight edge, but that’s due largely to their standing in the wild-card race. Broken down, San Francisco has a 2.9% chance of claiming a wild-card spot and a 5.9% chance of winning the NL West. By comparison, Washington has a near-zero chance of being a wild-card team (0.8%), but a 7.4% chance of winning the NL East. That’s still a pathetic number, but it’s more significant than the Giants' aggregate chance.
While the Nationals trail the Mets by six games in the loss column, they do have six head-to-head games remaining against New York, and, after tonight’s series finale in St. Louis, no other games remaining against teams with winning records. The Nats’ problem of late is that they have been unable to beat good pitchers or good teams, but they’ll face precious little of either the rest of the way outside of those six head-to-head games with the Mets.
Since the All-Star break, the Nationals have gone 5–17 against the Mets, Dodgers, Pirates, Giants and Cardinals, but 13–9 against the Marlins, Padres, Brewers, Rockies and Diamondbacks. Starting Thursday, their remaining schedule contains those six games against New York and 24 against the Marlins (7), Braves (7), Phillies (6), Orioles (3), and Reds (1). The Mets have a similarly soft-schedule, but they do also have a three-game set against the playoff-bound crosstown Yankees, who snapped the Metropolitans’ 11-game winning streak in April by taking two of three in the Bronx.
The Nationals are a far better team than they have shown this season, and they still have the potential to get hot down the stretch against that weak competition. The hitters who returned from the disabled list in August—Anthony Rendon, Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman—have started to hit again over the last two weeks, resulting in the team averaging 5.8 runs per game over its last 14 contests. That includes five runs in each of their first two games against the Cardinals, who have been by far the stingiest team in baseball this season in terms of run prevention.
As long as both the Nationals’ and Giants’ odds might be of reaching the postseason, Washington has a clearer path to October. That doesn’t mean the Nats will get there, though, and it is extremely likely that they won’t, particularly with manager Matt Williams finding new ways to bungle leads on a seemingly nightly basis, as Tuesday's fiasco proved. So while there’s still some seeding to be worked out—the Dodgers lead the Mets by just 1 1/2 games for the second seed—with a month left in the season, the NL playoff field does indeed seem to be set.