Three Strikes: Wild-card races look headed toward exciting finish

Less than three weeks remain in the regular season. Which teams’ wild-card chances are looking good?
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The two wild-card spot system is a baseball’s fan dream. For one, it keeps the competition going until the last day. It gives good teams a chance at playoff glory. And it keeps fans engaged. Who’s going to get that final spot?

This season, the battles in both leagues are pretty good. In the AL, there are seven teams bunched up for two spots. Some teams, like Seattle, Houston and Kansas City have a bit of a hill to climb—the Astros and Royals both lost Tuesday night, dropping them to 4 1/2 and 5 games back, respectively. The Yankees, Tigers, Orioles and Blue Jays, however, all have legitimate chances.

In the NL, it’s a little less crowded. The Giants, Mets and Cardinals are battling it out for two spots, while the Marlins, five games back entering Tuesday, might be a bit too far out.

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Division races across the league are pretty much decided. The wild card is not. Can’t you feel the excitement? Three strikes, wild-card style:

Keeping it interesting

Continuing their run as the most fascinating and confusing team in the league, the Yankees stayed in the hunt with a 3–0 win over the Dodgers. They were aided in part by the Tigers loss to the Twins. Both New York and Detroit are now two games behind both the Orioles and Blue Jays, the latter of whom fell into a tie for the first wild-card spot after losing to the Rays. The Yankees won with three solo homers—one by Jacoby Ellsbury, one by pinch-hitting Didi Gregorius and another by the Natural, Gary Sanchez. Add in 6 1/3 innings from CC Sabathia, and the Yankees continue to find ways to win despite trading three of their best players at the deadline.

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What gets lost in the Gary Sanchez Shuffle is the job done by Joe Girardi. Girardi won the 2006 NL Manager of the Year award with the Marlins, despite going 78–84. How? By getting big years out of then-22-year-old Hanley Ramirez, 23-year-old Miguel Cabrera, 26-year-old Dan Uggla, 24-year-old Dontrelle Willis and 22-year-old Josh Johnson. Girardi can connect with younger players. And right now, post-A-Rod, the Yankees are young. Sanchez is 23, Aaron Judge is 24. Gregorius and Starlin Castro are both 26. Masahiro Tanaka is 27 and Dellin Betances is 28. This is a young team with talent and seemingly nothing to lose, powered by a superstar in the making. If it’s not this year, then it’ll certainly be next.

An easier road

After Wednesday’s game against the Nationals, the Mets play three apiece against the Twins and Braves, six against the Phillies and three against the Marlins. The Cardinals, their primary rival for the second wild card spot, still have four games against the Giants and four more against the Cubs. In other words, the Mets should make the playoffs again. They helped their cause by beating the Nationals Tuesday night, 4–3 in 10 innings, even if the Cardinals beat the Cubs 4–2.

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If the Mets can get in, they are still dangerous. Noah Syndergaard has a 1.06 ERA in his last five starts, and with 10 strikeouts Tuesday, he became the fifth pitcher 24 or younger in Mets history to reach 200 K’s. Robert Gsellman has been a life saver, as has Seth Lugo. New York won’t win like it did last year, but it has enough grit, tenacity and experience to get the job done. Its easy schedule doesn’t hurt, either.

Wait ’til next year

One team on the fringe of the wild-card battle is the Pittsburgh Pirates. They entered play Tuesday six back, hurt by a 2–8 record over their last 10 games, although they did beat the Phillies 5–3 Tuesday evening. However, any chance they had to make up ground evaporated with news that ace Gerrit Cole will be shut down due to elbow issues. This is Cole’s third trip to the DL, and it comes just two innings after returning from the second one. The 26-year-old righty had an ERA of 3.88—good, but more than a run higher than last season’s All-Star effort. Like the rest of the Pirates, Cole underachieved. And like the rest of his teammates, he didn’t have an awful season. But with everyone on the roster slipping a bit, it leads to missing the playoffs. The Pirates, with a healthy Cole, have a playoff-caliber roster. Whether they can get back to that level remains to be seen.