- There are five teams competing for four more NL playoff spots. Here's your guide to the insanity.
With the Astros’ win over the Blue Jays and the Athletics’ loss to the Mariners on Tuesday night, the American League playoff picture is complete. Oakland will face the Yankees in the wild-card game, most likely in the Bronx, with the winner taking on the Red Sox in one Division Series, while Houston will host Cleveland in the other. For those five teams, though, there hasn’t been much drama in securing a postseason place: All could safely assume a trip to October since roughly mid-August; it was just a matter of the pieces shaking out in the proper order.
Over in the National League, though, fans have been clutching their chests for the last two months. Aside from the Braves, who clinched the NL East last Saturday, the five teams still left—the Cubs, Brewers, Cardinals, Dodgers and Rockies—have yet to lock anything down with just half a week left in the regular season. Things have gotten even tighter over the last few days, with both Chicago and Los Angeles seeing their respective division leads shrink to half a game entering Wednesday’s play, while Colorado holds the same advantage over St. Louis for the second and last wild-card spot.
That makes for good drama (and lousy cardiac health), but way more exciting is the real possibility of an enormous tie scenario that would create true postseason chaos. It takes some creative accounting and a lot of wishcasting, but there’s still a chance—albeit a small one—that we could get ties atop both divisions and for the second wild card. Former SI scribe Jay Jaffe lovingly termed this wacky outcome “Team Entropy” in years previous. I don’t have a catchy name for it myself, but if you’re into baseball’s weirdest and wildest stuff, follow along as I lay out exactly what needs to happen for everything to go as haywire as possible.
The NL Central
Things looked finished at the start of the month, with Chicago up by five games on Sept. 2. But the Cubs have stumbled since, going 10–11, while the Brewers have gone 14–6 in that stretch to pull within half a game of first. That includes taking four of six from Chicago in the two series the teams have played this month; the North Siders have no one to blame but themselves for the predicament they’re in.
Still, their playoff odds are in excellent shape, with the Cubs holding a magic number of one to clinch a postseason spot; likewise for Milwaukee. Things aren’t as comfortable in St. Louis, which has lost two straight to the Brewers and control of the second wild card to the Rockies. One more defeat at Milwaukee’s hands or a Cubs win tonight against the Pirates will extinguish any chances of the Cardinals winning the Central. Thus, for the mother of all division ties, we need St. Louis to win out and for the Cubs and Brewers both to lose out. But that’s extremely unlikely, as it requires Milwaukee dropping three in a row at home to the lowly Tigers.
So instead of getting lost in the weeds of a three-way NL Central tie (and having perused the tiebreaker rules and done a bit of the math, it’s more like getting trapped in a jungle), let’s lay out a more realistic scenario: a tie between the Cubs and Brewers for first. If that ends up being the situation (and there are many combinations of records from this point forward that would create it), then Chicago would host Milwaukee—by virtue of having a better head-to-head record, 11–8, on the season—on Monday, Oct. 1 in a tiebreaker game, with the loser chucked into the wild-card game.
Seems simple, right? Just wait; it’ll get crazier. But with that sorted, let’s move on to the other division still in play.
The NL West
By virtue of the Dodgers’ walk-off loss to the Diamondbacks and the Rockies’ pasting of the Phillies—Colorado’s fifth straight win—the NL West has tightened back up. Los Angeles looked to have this under wraps after sweeping the Rockies in a three-game series at home last week, opening up a 2 ½-game lead at the time, but Colorado’s subsequent hot streak has made it a race once more.
Like the Cubs and Brewers, figuring out the tiebreaker here isn’t too hard. Should both teams finish with the same record (and again, there are many ways that can happen), then the Dodgers—who won the season series, 12–7—would host the Rockies on Oct. 1 to determine the division champ. But unlike the Central matchup, there’s no guarantee that the loser would head straight to the wild-card game, as that depends on whether or not the Cardinals are still alive in this theoretical scenario. And here, my friends, is where things start getting out of hand.
The NL Wild Card
With a magic number of one, the Brewers are almost certainly going to be at least a wild-card team, so let’s make our lives easier and assume that’s what happens. The rest, though, is a mess, as there’s a chance that Colorado, Los Angeles and St. Louis could all end up with the same record.
That’s where the NL West tiebreaker game comes in. If the loser of that game finished with the same record as the Cardinals, then that team would travel to St. Louis for yet another tiebreaker game on Tuesday, Oct. 2. (If the Cardinals have a better record than the NL West loser, the latter is done, and St. Louis is in the wild-card game; if the Cardinals are already out in this scenario, the NL West loser goes to the wild-card game.) The winner of that wild-card tiebreaker would face the loser of the NL Central tiebreaker game in the actual wild-card game on Wed., Oct. 3.
So there you have it: If we get two division ties and a wild-card tie, the result is three tiebreaker games before we even get to the official one-game playoff. And remember, there are even loonier possibilities beyond that. In theory, it’s possible for all five teams to finish with the same record, setting up a three-way NL Central tiebreaker, a two-way NL West tiebreaker, and wild-card tiebreakers beyond that. I have utterly no clue how things proceed if that’s the case, but just know that, if you’re a true savage, that universe exists, and it’s absolutely nuts.
Either way, even if things don’t reach maximum craziness, we may still yet get extra baseball before it’s all said and done. So strap in tight, because while the AL will be a quiet affair from here until the wild-card game, the NL is going to be a bumpy ride.