Even as most of the divisions are seemingly decided, the wild-card races in both leagues are set for exciting finishes. Three American League teams are fighting for the two spots, while there are four clubs within four games of the final National League wild-card berth.
Now, with three weeks remaining in the regular season, let’s look at the wild-card contenders facing the most pressure to make the playoffs.
Considering their low payrolls and strong play throughout the year, the A’s and Rays—the two AL wild-card teams entering Monday—were left off this list. A surprising contender for the NL wild-card, Arizona is also not under enough pressure to be included. The Diamondbacks’ main intention for 2019 was first made clear when their traded Paul Goldschmidt to the Cardinals before the year began and then again when it sent Zack Greinke to the Astros on July 31. Winning now is hardly their top priority. To the list.
Editor's note: The games back (GB) listed reflect distance from the second wild-card spot.
5. Cleveland Indians (83-61, 1.5 GB)
Everything that could have gone wrong for Cleveland this year seemingly did, which is why the preseason AL Central favorites aren’t facing the same level of pressure we’d expect from a team that’s won the division in each of the past three years. Before the year even started, both starting middle infielders—All-Star shortstop Francisco Lindor and second baseman Jason Kipnis—were on the injured list. Mike Clevinger and Shane Bieber are the only two starting pitchers from the beginning of the season who remain in the rotation. Two-time Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber has been on the IL for most of the season, while righthander Carlos Carrasco has been used exclusively in relief since returning this month after being diagnosed with leukemia in early June. Trevor Bauer is now in the Reds’ rotation.
Recently, more injuries have plagued the Indians. Jose Ramirez, who finished third in the AL MVP race in both 2017 and ‘18, had returned to form after a sluggish first half but is expected to miss the rest of the regular season with a fractured right hamate bone. Kluber will also likely miss the remainder of the regular season after straining his oblique. Outfielder Tyler Naquin tore his ACL earlier this month and is done for the year.
Still, when at full strength, the Indians are talented enough to go on a playoff run, which is why the expectations were great as recently as Aug. 12, when they took a half-game lead over the Twins in the AL Central. The possibility of not living up to expectations always creates pressure, but it isn’t as high as it otherwise would be with Murphy’s Law in full force this year for Cleveland.
4. Milwaukee Brewers (74-68, 2.0 GB)
The pressure for the Brewers is based on two things: 1) They were a win away from reaching the World Series last season and returned many of the same players from that team; 2) Reigning NL MVP Christian Yelich is having an even better 2019 campaign and it’d be a shame for one of the game's best hitters to sit out of October (looking at you, Angels).
Understanding that time was running out for Milwaukee, manager Craig Cousell dialed the burner all the way up on his team. Before playing the Cubs last weekend—the first of seven games in 10 days against Chicago—when he said, “We’ve got to win the seven-game series.” The Brewers answered their skipper’s call, and after winning five from the Cubs—including each of their last three games—they have pulled within two games of the North Siders for the second wild-card. Milwaukee has a relatively favorable remaining schedule, with the Cardinals being their only upcoming opponent with a winning record, but the pressure of the looming season’s end isn’t going away. It’s going to be must-win for the Brewers the rest of the way.
3. New York Mets (72-70, 4.0 GB)
The Mets cranked up the heat as soon as they hired general manager Brodie Van Wagenen and he traded their future to the Mariners for Robinson Cano and Edwin Diaz, signaling they were going all-in on 2019. Then, at the trade deadline, they doubled down, electing not to trade pending free agent Zack Wheeler and star righthander Noah Syndergaard, and instead acquiring starter Marcus Stroman. As New York sweltered through the dog days of August, the pressure simmered just below the surface, ready to boil when they started struggling again. The return of the second guessing and criticism was inevitable when they were swept by the Cubs at Citi Field in the last week of August.
Time is running out for the Mets after they dropped two of three at home against the Phillies, with desperation fueling their decisions. Manager Mickey Callaway said he intentionally walked Philadelphia’s backup catcher to load the bases and face pinch-hitter Bryce Harper because he wanted to make the Phillies take mediocre-at-best reliever Mike Morin out of the game. (It almost would have been a better excuse had Callaway said he forgot Harper was available to hit for Morin.) The Mets' four-game series against the Diamondbacks starting Monday could seal their fate in 2019.
2. Philadelphia Phillies (74-68, 2.0 GB)
The pressure was on as soon as the Phillies vowed to spend “stupid money” in the offseason to make a World Series run, and it only intensified after they signed Harper to a 13-year contract worth $330 million. The season-ending injuries that have plagued the Phillies this year—specifically Andrew McCutchen and David Robertson—don’t alleviate the pressure the same way they do for the Indians because unlike Cleveland, Philadelphia hasn’t made the postseason since 2011. This team is supposed to win now and going forward.
1. Chicago Cubs (76-66, Lead Second Wild-Card)
Will the Cubs be the latest example of the dynasty that never was? Inconsistency has ruined Chicago this season, along with injuries and underwhelming performances. The Cubs were not a guarantee to win the NL Central this year, but Chicago's path to October is a bit murkier now after losing three of four to the Brewers this weekend. Making matters worse, All-Star shortstop Javier Baez will likely miss the rest of the regular season with a fracture in his left thumb.
Chicago’s bullpen has been a problem, even after bringing in Craig Kimbrel, whose rough year makes clear he sat out the first three months of the season. Manager Joe Maddon’s contract is up at the end of the season and it’s uncertain whether the Cubs will bring him back next year. With expiring contracts and aging pitchers, their window is closing. Can the Cubs hang on or will the pressure to win suffocate their opportunity for one last ride?