Two weeks remain in the regular season and the NL wild-card race continues to be a mess. The four contenders all have at least one glaring weakness that’s kept them from pulling away from the pack.
Let’s break down where each of the four NL wild-card contenders stand entering play on Monday and look at what each team will have to do to make the postseason. I left the Phillies (76-72, 4.5 GB) and the Diamondbacks (76-74, 5.5 GB) off this list as both teams' playoff odds sit below 1%, per FanGraphs.
All standings listed reflect a team's distance from the second wild-card spot.
Washington Nationals (82-66, +1.5 games up)
Remaining schedule: 3 @ Cardinals, 3 @ Marlins, 5 vs. Phillies, 3 vs. Indians
Where they stand: When the Nationals got hot this summer and turned their season around, it seemed inevitable they would host the wild-card game with Max Scherzer on the mound. However, after going 5-7 in their last 12 games, the Nats are now just 1.5 games ahead of the Cubs for the first wild-card berth. They are the most complete of the wild-card contenders, and their top three starters are rivaled only by the trios of the Dodgers and Astros. Anthony Rendon is a legitimate MVP candidate, and Juan Soto is one of the game’s brightest young stars
At the same time, Washington’s bullpen remains a coalition of has-beens, some of them just as close to retirement as they are to their next save (Hello, Fernando Rodney!), and its remaining schedule is no cake walk.
What they have to do to make the playoffs: Essentially, don’t choke. It should take about 90 wins to claim the first wild-card spot, so the Nats would need to win eight of their remaining 14 games. That would put them at 14-14 in September after posting a 52-25 record from June through August. The Nats don’t have to be flawless in the remaining two weeks, they just can’t lose more games than they win the rest of the way.
Will they do it? Almost certainly. The better question is whether they’ll finally win a playoff round, which technically would be the case if they win the wild-card game. The Nats have yet to win a postseason series, despite some of the far more well-rounded clubs to come before the 2019 squad.
Unofficial Odds of Not Choking: 97.3%
Chicago Cubs (81-68, 0 GB)
Remaining schedule: 3 vs. Reds, 4 vs. Cardinals, 3 @ Pirates, 3 @ Cardinals
Where they stand: The Cubs are in pretty good shape considering ongoing injury situations with Javy Baez, Craig Kimbrel, Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell. They hold a one-game lead over the Brewers for the second wild-card, and after sweeping the Pirates this weekend, they’ve pulled within two games of the Nationals for the first spot.
However, Chicago has treaded water for most of the 2019 season. Their starting pitching has been inconsistent, and far too many key contributors spent time in the minor leagues trying to get right (Ian Happ, Albert Almora Jr. and David Bote). Meanwhile, president Theo Epstein has said multiple times that the team he assembled has underperformed the last two seasons, and there’s been enough speculation to suggest this could be Joe Maddon’s last season as Cubs manager. Plenty of signs foreshadow this would-be dynasty being slowly dismantled, even if the Cubs make the playoffs. An uncertain future looms.
What they have to do to make the playoffs: The Cubs’ postseason hopes rest on their remaining seven games against the Cardinals. Of course, overtaking St. Louis for the NL Central crown is still in question. However, considering Chicago’s struggles this season away from Wrigley Field and its final six games on the road (the final three at Busch Stadium), a wild-card berth might be the best the Cubs can do. To do that—pinning that second wild-card berth win total around 88-89 wins—the Cubs will have to win seven or eight of their remaining 13 games.
Will they do it? Yes, probably. For as much as it seems like the Cubs are repeatedly walking off a cliff in a video game and respawning—to borrow an analogy from Sports Illustrated’s Jon Tayler—when all they have to do is not kill themselves, the teams behind them in the wild-card standings have even more problems to iron out. Even if the Cubs win two of their remaining seven games against the Cardinals, they can make up that ground in their six games against the Reds and Pirates.
Unofficial Odds of Barely Hanging On: 84.2%
Milwaukee Brewers (80-69, 1.0 GB)
Remaining schedule: 4 vs. Padres, 3 vs. Pirates, 3 @ Reds, 3 @ Rockies
Where they stand: Surprisingly, the Brewers have managed pretty well without reigning NL MVP Christian Yelich, who suffered a season-ending injury last week while his team won its fifth straight game. Milwaukee is 4-1 in the five games without Yelich, including winning two of three against the first-place Cardinals at Busch Stadium.
Pitching has been the Brewers' weakness all season, and manager Craig Counsell's daily responsibility to maneuver his pitching staff through nine innings is not an enviable one. However, Jordan Lyles (2.39 ERA in 49 innings) and Adrian Houser (3.43 ERA in 44 2/3 innings) have been remarkable since joining the Milwaukee rotation, and Josh Hader can still dominate even if he's not living up to his 2018 campaign.
What they need to do to make the playoffs: Really, without Yelich, the Brewers’ path to the playoffs remains the same: out-hit the competition. Their pitching has been much better lately, allowing an average of 3.3 runs per game over their last 10. But Milwaukee cannot rely on competent pitching if it’s going to secure a wild-card. The Brewers will probably need eight or nine more wins to outpace the Cubs,
Will they do it? Eh, probably not. It’s a lot to ask Milwaukee to continue this current run much longer. Already 10-3 in September, and barring a Cubs implosion, the Brewers would probably have to finish the month at 18-8 to have a shot at the second wild-card. They haven’t finished a month above .500 since May, when they went 15-12, their best performance in a completed month. The good thing is the four teams they have left to play are all sub-.500 clubs, and the Reds are the only opponent with a decent pitching staff. Still, it’s not looking good.
Unofficial Odds of Defying The Odds And Getting In: 21.8%
New York Mets (77-72, 4.0 GB)
Remaining schedule: 3 @ Rockies, 3 @ Reds, 4 vs. Marlins, 3 vs. Braves
Where they stand: The Mets make no sense. Their fanbase exists in a sublime state of illusion, blending cautious optimism with the anticipation of disappointment, leaving the rest of us to wonder how the heck we got here. Let’s see: they won 14 of their final 18 games in July, which prompted them to buy instead of sell at the trade deadline; they went 17-11 in August to further establish themselves as wild-card contenders; they lost each of their last six August home games; blew a six-run lead in the ninth inning against the Nationals on Sept. 3; then swept the Diamondbacks at home to pull within two games of the Cubs for the second wild-card. After dropping two of three against the Dodgers at home, the Mets are four games behind Chicago. It’s been both exhausting and exhilarating.
What they need to do to make the playoffs: Win all of their remaining series, sweep one or two of them and hope the Cubs and Brewers crumble. Really, all of those things probably have to happen for the Mets to pull it off.
Will they do it? Doubtful. Too many things have to go right for the Mets to reach the 88-89 wins that will be necessary to win the second wild-card. Even if both the Cubs and Brewers falter and the Mets can win the second wild-card with 86 wins, that still means they’d need to win nine of their remaining 13 games. To quote the great Roger Angell from his 1972 book The Summer Game: “It’s safe to assume that the Mets are going to lose, but dangerous to assume that they won’t startle you in the process."
Unofficial Odds of Breaking Baseball And Reaching October: 3.2%