Thank goodness for the wild card.
Once thought of as a gimmick and derided as a detriment to the traditions of the national pastime, the wild card has been both pennant-race savior and pennant-race destroyer in its first decade and a half.
Three previous seasons (1998, 1999, 2007) have needed a one-game wild-card playoff to determine the last playoff spot, but three other times (2001, 2005, 2006) teams have finished tied for first in the division and not needed a playoff because a tiebreaker gave one team the division title and the other the wild card.
Now in its 16th season, the wild card may wind up playing a more vital role this year than ever before. For the first time in the wild-card era, baseball reached Sept. 1 with no easily discernible pennant race on the horizon. In fact, only one divisional race was even as close as 3 1/2 games, the first time that has happened since baseball went to a three-division format. True, the NL Central may be the only race with a double-digit gulf separating first place from second, but none of the six divisions look like they are headed for the type of history-making, down-to-the-wire finish that has electrified so many seasons in the game's long history. In fact, it seems increasingly likely that the only pennant-race drama baseball manages to offer this season will come by way of the wild card, and only in one league at that.
Of course, miracles have happened before. In 1995, for example, the Seattle Mariners entered September with only a 1.9 percent chance of reaching the playoffs, according to coolstandings.com, but wound up coming from 7 1/2 games behind to catch the California Angels and force a one-game playoff for the AL West crown, which Seattle won. And in 2007, the Colorado Rockies were in fourth place in the NL West and sixth in the wild card race with just 15 games remaining and had a 3.5 percent chance of making the playoffs, but they went 14-1 the rest of the way, including a win over the Padres in a one-game playoff to win the wild card.
Are there any miracles on hand this season? Herewith, a look at each of the eight races (six divisions and two wild cards); where things stand with roughly one month remaining and where they are likely to wind up.
What had the potential to be one of the great division races of all time, with three teams capable of winning 95 games, has been, for the most part, a disappointment. The Rays haven't been within three games of first place since the season was two weeks old, and the Yankees sweep of the Red Sox in the Bronx back in early August blew this race wide open.
The Yankees have been surging, posting the best record in baseball since the All-Star break behind the emergence of
A five-game losing streak, the setback to
Unlike that season, there is no wild card as the consolation prize this year, so the only ticket to the playoffs comes from winning the division. The Twins are putting together another strong finishing kick, having won 10 of 13 to match a season-high at three games over .500. As expected,
The Tigers, meanwhile, have been unable to pull away from what has been a consistently mediocre pack. They've been in first place every day since May 10, but have never led by more than five games in that time, despite boasting a vastly superior pitching staff to the one found in Minnesota.
Perhaps no other player in any division race is as important as
The Angels have dominated the AL West for so long -- winning the division five times in the past seven years -- that it seems like another championship is preordained. The Rangers are still hanging around, however, thanks largely to the home run, an improved defense and an unheralded pitching staff that has gotten strong seasons from pitchers like
While the Rangers dipped into their farm system to give themselves a boost, the Angels did something they rarely do: sacrifice top prospects to add an expensive, established player at midseason.
The offense has been the best in the league, topping the AL in batting average and ranking second in OPS. Keeping
We use the word "contenders" very loosely here. Barring a Mets-like collapse, the Phillies have all but wrapped up the NL East. The only thing keeping the Braves alive is their effective and deep starting pitching staff, which just got even better when
The problem for the Braves, of course, is if there's one team in the NL that can match their starting pitching depth, it's the Phillies, especially now that
Just when it looked like the Cubs might finally rise up and snatch the NL Central crown that had seemed theirs for the taking all year long, they instead tripped over themselves in a can't-look-away disaster that included ugly incidents on the field and meltdowns and finger-pointing off it. They caught the Cardinals atop the NL Central in early August but have gone just 9-15 since, nose-diving to a season-worst 10 1/2 games out of first place. Even if the Cardinals were to go 14-15 over their remaining 29 games -- which seems highly unlikely given that they have the NL's best record at 29-13 in the second half -- the Cubs would have to go 26-6 to catch them. Not happening.
The Dodgers have steadied themselves after a rough stretch, and despite a losing record in August and watching the Rockies catch fire, they entered September with a 5 1/2 game lead, only 2 1/2 worse than at the start of August. In fact, all their recent slump seems to have done is scare them straight.
Rather than rest on having the best record in the National League and being in first place all but six days this year, they went out and got better and deeper, adding veterans
The schedule is especially beneficial down the stretch: In addition to 11 games against the woeful Diamondbacks and Padres, the Dodgers out-of-division competition consists entirely of 10 games against the last-place Nationals and Pirates.
The Rockies have finally cooled off after a torrid stretch that lasted three months and took them from 12 games under .500 in May to 18 games over .500 in late August, an incredible 30 game turnaround. Did they peak too soon? As usual, the offense is dangerous, ranking second in the league in runs, home runs, on-base percentage and slugging percentage, though they have been plagued by strikeouts at times (only the Diamondbacks and Rangers whiff more often).
The Giants have managed to hang in the race despite a dreadful offense that has only one true threat (third baseman
The Red Sox lead the Rangers by 3 1/2 games. Just like they've done with the team they're chasing in the AL West, the Rangers have been excellent against Boston this year, beating them seven of nine. But unlike with the Angels, the Rangers don't get to play the Red Sox again, so they will need some help if they are to reach their first postseason in 10 years.
If there is anything to the idea of knowing how to win when your season is at stake -- and both teams believe there is -- then that is a huge edge to the Red Sox, who have been in the postseason five of the past six years. The Rays still have five games left with the Red Sox, but they already trail Boston by six games. Knowing they still have to play the Yankees seven more times as well, they can't afford to miss any opportunities to make up ground head-to-head with the Red Sox.
In all likelihood, the Marlins and Cubs are just about out of time and have too many other teams in front of them to make a serious playoff push. If the Cubs can survive a 10-game road trip in mid-September that includes trips to St. Louis and San Francisco, they'll get an easy finishing slate by hosting the Pirates and Diamondbacks. But they'll have to have made up some serious ground before then to have any kind of realistic chance.
The Marlins appear to be running out of steam after a sudden, historic burst of offense carried them to within a few games of the lead just two weeks ago. But now their bats have cooled off, and
As things look right now, this race is probably going to come down to the Rockies and the Giants. They've already given us what was probably the Game of the Year a week ago in Denver, when the Giants got three runs in the 14th inning, only to see the Rockies come back with five in the bottom half, including a walk-off grand slam by
The possible spoiler in the wild card to a wild west showdown is the Braves, who have moved to within three games of the lead. The starting pitching certainly seems capable of keeping them in games the rest of the way, but like the Giants, they suffer from a lack of quality bats. Beyond