Which wild-card hopefuls have easiest, hardest schedules in final stretch?
- The Toronto Blue Jays lead a pack of American League teams chasing the wild-card berths, but their schedule doesn't do them any favors, while over in the NL, the Mets should have the easiest path to the postseason.
The 2016 season is down to its final days, with each remaining game taking on increasingly crucial importance for the American League and National League playoff contenders. That’s all the more true in the wild-card races, where a chaotic month has several teams still fighting over the last two postseason spots in each league. With no more than 10 games remaining for any team in that race, who has the easiest path to the playoffs? To find out, let’s take a look at the remaining schedules for every wild-card contender.
NOTE: Teams are listed in order of current wild-card standings.
Toronto Blue Jays (83–69; +1.0 game ahead for first wild-card)
Games Left: 10
Opponents: vs. NYY (4), vs. BAL (3), at BOS (3)
Yes, the Blue Jays control their playoff fate, but it’s hard to imagine a more daunting gauntlet than the one they face over the next week and a half. Toronto will make its final charge at a postseason spot against two teams fighting for their playoff lives in the Yankees and Orioles, then end the season with a three-game set against the Red Sox, the best offensive team in baseball, at Fenway Park. Those three teams have a combined winning percentage of .546—the exact same percentage as the Jays have on the season.
There are a few silver linings in that mess. For starters, the Blue Jays won’t have to face Masahiro Tanaka in their four-game series against New York. The AL Cy Young contender has been laid low by a flexor mass strain in his right arm and will miss what had been his scheduled start on Monday. Those three games in Boston, meanwhile, could see the Jays taking on a team with nothing left to play for. The Red Sox’ recent hot streak has them up 5 ½ games on Toronto and holding a magic number of five to clinch the division; by that final weekend, Boston could already be officially in possession of its first AL East title since 2013. Finally, the Jays get the benefit of playing seven of their last 10 games in the comfortable confines of home, where they’re 42–32 (.568) on the season.
Detroit Tigers (82–70; 1/2 game ahead for second wild-card)
Games Left: 10
Opponents: vs. KCR (3), vs. CLE (4), at ATL (3)
It's easy to imagine that when Tigers manager Brad Ausmus looked at this year’s schedule, that final series against the Braves must have brought a smile to his face. The Royals are on the brink of postseason elimination—their tragic number in the wild-card race is five—and surely won’t go out quietly. The Indians may have already wrapped up the AL Central by the time they get to Detroit—their magic number is four—but will likely still be playing for postseason position, as they trail the Rangers by a mere half game for the AL’s best record.
Atlanta, though, has the worst record in the National League, making it the best possible interleague opponent the Tigers could have hoped for. But the Braves have actually been far better lately than their 62-91 ledger would suggest. In fact, Atlanta is only two games under .500 since the All-Star break and has gone 12–8 in September, and the offense is third in baseball in runs scored on the month with 110. Just ask the Mets what happens when you don’t take the Braves seriously; Atlanta swept New York in three games at Citi Field earlier this week.
Baltimore Orioles (82–71; 1/2 game behind second wild-card)
Games Left: 9
Opponents: vs. ARI (3), at TOR (3), at NYY (3)
It must be hard for the Orioles to muster much optimism at the moment; a four-game sweep that more or less knocks you out of division contention has that kind of effect. Luckily for Baltimore, the schedule provides two gifts to end the season: a three-game series with the horrible Diamondbacks at home, then a three-game set with Toronto that will likely make or break the Orioles’ wild-card hopes.
Houston Astros (81–72; 1 1/2 games behind second wild-card)
Games Left: 9
Opponents: vs. LAA (3), vs. SEA (3), at LAA (3)
Speaking of teams that were blessed by the schedule makers: The Astros, who have surged back into wild-card contention by winning six of their last eight, get six more games against the hapless Angels before the season ends. Houston is 2-11 against Los Angeles this year, though the Angels did take the opener of their four-game weekend series on Thursday night, as Ricky Nolasco threw a shutout—and no, that last part up is not made up.
Sandwiched between those two series with L.A., meanwhile, is an opportunity to finish off the Mariners, who are right behind Houston in the wild-card standings. That three-game set with Seattle, which starts Monday, will likely decide which of those two teams stays alive.
Seattle Mariners (80–72; 2 games behind second wild-card)
Games Left: 10
Opponents: at MIN (3), at HOU (3), vs. OAK (4)
Why will that Astros-Mariners series be so crucial? Because Seattle gets just as cushy a finishing stretch s as Houston does, with seven games against the Twins (who hold the worst record in baseball) and the A’s (who aren’t far behind). Assuming both the Astros and Mariners take care of their lesser competition, both their playoff hopes will hinge on that series in Houston.
New York Yankees (79–73; 3 games behind second wild-card)
Games Left: 10
Opponents: at TOR (4), vs. BOS (3), vs. BAL (3)
Like Monty Python’s Black Knight, the Yankees refuse to give up despite the fact that they’re not in much shape for a fight. Starlin Castro was lost for the season last weekend against the Red Sox; Masahiro Tanaka will miss at least his next start; Joe Girardi is penciling names like Billy Butler and Donovan Solano into his lineups with regularity and sincerity. Yet New York owes its extra life as much to the rest of the AL wild-card contenders, all of whom seem clinically unable to build or maintain a healthy lead. As such, the Yankees will go into the final week with their destiny in their hands, facing a trio of AL East opponents, including two teams ahead of them in the wild-card chase.
Not that said final week will be easy. Four games in Toronto (sans Tanaka) is a tough way to try and gain ground, and it’s likely that the Red Sox will still be trying to lock up the division when they roll into the Bronx for the final Yankee Stadium visit of David Ortiz’s career. Assuming the Yankees can survive that run, the three-game finale with Baltimore will decide their fate. And if either Toronto or Boston can deliver that elusive killing blow, then New York could at least play spoiler to the Orioles’ chances.
New York Mets (81–72; tied for first wild-card spot)
Games Left: 9
Opponents: vs. PHI (3), at MIA (3), at PHI (3)
On paper, it’s hard to imagine an easier schedule than this: nine games against below-.500 teams, although the Marlins are still technically alive in the wild-card race. But as Mets fans already know, this team makes nothing easy. What should’ve been a brief respite from a grueling month of September turned into a crisis this week, when the Mets lost three straight at home to the last-place Braves, capped by a would-be–walk-off homer from Yoenis Cespedes getting caught at the centerfield wall by Atlanta outfielder Ender Inciarte. Then on Thursday, New York spent the night trying as hard as it could to give away its series opener with the Phillies, only to have Philadelphia aggressively return the favor. The Mets finally won on Asdrubal Cabrera's three-run homer in the 11th, which kept New York in possession of a wild-card spot.
So as easy as those matchups look, it’s a bad idea to assume that the Mets will take full advantage of them. That’s especially true given the patchwork state of New York’s rotation and its lineup, where the likes of righty Seth Lugo and utility infielder T.J. Rivera have been tasked with keeping the Mets alive long enough to sneak back into the playoffs.
San Francisco Giants (81–72; tied for first wild-card)
Games Left: 9
Opponents: at SDP (3), vs. COL (3), vs. LAD (3)
To some degree, the Giants’ schedule doesn’t matter, because their biggest opponent all second half has been themselves. San Francisco has spent the better part of the second half setting itself on fire, going from the best record in baseball and a sizable NL West lead in the first half to the league’s worst mark and a tenuous grip on a wild-card spot since the All-Star break. The culprits? An inconsistent offense that has failed to build sturdy leads and an awful bullpen that has destroyed those leads with frightening efficiency.
Still, six games against the Padres and Rockies should be a boon. And while that Dodgers vs. Giants series to end the season had all the feel of a division-deciding clash, San Francisco’s series loss earlier this week to Los Angeles has removed all the drama from that.
St. Louis Cardinals (80–72; 1/2 game behind both wild-card spots)
Games Left: 10
Opponents: at CHC (3), vs. CIN (4), vs. PIT (3)
The good news: seven games to end the season against the awful Reds and a Pirates team that has sputtered its way through the second half. The bad news: three games against the Cubs, who are gunning for 100 wins. It might help the Cardinals that Chicago has already clinched the division and is a lock to finish with the NL’s best record, thus giving the Cubs little to play for the rest of the way beyond pride.
The result: 10 games for St. Louis that should all be fairly winnable. The key will be Cincinnati and its abominable pitching staff, which has given up home runs at a record rate all season. That’s as perfect a matchup as possible for the Cardinals, who have hit 212 homers this year, the most in the National League and the third-most in the majors.