With just 17 days left in the regular season, Major League Baseball's playoff picture is coming into focus. Though home-field advantage still has to be settled, the Rays, Yankees, Twins, and Rangers will be the American League entrants barring something shocking. In the National League, the upstart Reds seem to have the Central sewn up, and the Phillies, healthy after an injury-riddled season, are surging toward a fourth straight title in the East. Yet, while the rest of the league seems to be sorting itself out, the wild, wild NL West has only gotten tighter and more compelling in recent days.
The NL West has been upside down all season due to a Padres team that was expected to finish dead last but took over first place with sweeps of the Diamondbacks and Giants in mid-April and has had at least a share of first place for all but five days since. The Rockies were 11 games out in third place as recently as August 22, but since that day have gone 18-6 to pull within 2 1/2 games of both the division and wild card leaders. The Giants spent most of the last two months sandwiched between the improbable performances of the Padres and Rockies, but an 11-4 run, including three wins in a four game set in San Diego last weekend, has pushed San Francisco into a playoff spot. Indeed, as of last night, it is the Giants who sit in first place, the first time since June 16 that the Padres are not the division leaders. San Diego is in second, a half-game back, and the Rockies are in third.
The three-team race is now the most and perhaps only intriguing division battle remaining (all three of these clubs are also in contention for the wild card, which is currently led by the Braves by a mere half-game over the Padres). Here is a point/counter-point look at the three contenders in the NL West and their postseason chances.
The Giants have a favorable schedule down the stretch. Though they have three games remaining against both the Rockies and Padres, the former in Coors Field, the latter at home on the season's final weekend, their other nine games come against losing teams (the Brewers, Cubs, and Diamondbacks, against whom they are 17-6 on the season). In addition, nine of their remaining 15 games are at home, where the Giants have a .611 winning percentage. Better yet,
Those head-to-head games are dangerous. The Giants are just 2-4 in Denver this season and are just 5-10 against the Padres including a pathetic 1-4 performance against their rivals in San Francisco, where those final three games will take place. Also, as good as their pitching has been, it a) won't last because no team can sustain that level of run suppression, and b) has had to be that good because, over that 16-game stretch, the Giants' offense has scored just 3.31 runs per game, and in the 15 games prior to Thursday night's 10-run outburst against the Dodgers the figure was 2.87 runs per game. It's amazing to think that the Giants allowed just 1.75 runs per game over a 16 game stretch and still managed to lose five times (by scores of 4-2, 3-1, 2-1, and twice 1-0). Check those scores again. The Giants scored four runs in those five losses. That's why the Padres have owned them this year. The Giants offense contains just three dangerous bats.
The Giants can't keep preventing runs to that degree, and the Rockies can't keep up their insane winning pace. Once those two teams cool off and the smoke clears, the Padres, who continue to hold their opponents to fewer than four runs per game on average, will be back on top. Particularly because their final three games come against the Giants, whom they have owned to a 10-5 tune this season including a 4-1 mark in AT&T Park, where those final four games will be played.
Though they made considerable effort to improve their offense on the fly, and not without some success, the Padres bats are cooling off once again. After scoring just 4.22 runs per game in the seasons's first three months, the Padres scored 4.62 runs per game in July and August, a significant change that pushed them above the league average for those months. In September, however, they've scored just 3.07 runs per game. In fact, the Padres haven't scored more than four runs in a game outside of Coors Field since August 26. That's a 17 game stretch without one big day at the plate, a span that includes the last nine games from their 10-game losing streak as August turned to September. To make matters worse, the pitching that San Diego's surprising season has been built upon is starting to give out as their rotation is in flux at exactly the worst time. After struggling in August,
On the mound,
Most importantly, 10 of their final 16 games are on the road. The Rockies are a .680 team at home and a .408 team on the road. During their recent 18-6 run, they played 17 of 24 games at home. They finish the season with four games on the road against the Cardinals, a team that is relishing the role of spoiler having not lost a series to a remaining contender since early July. Of course, that series loss was a sweep at the hands of the Rockies, but it also took place in Coors Field.