The Cardinals and Braves are on a collision course to meet in the NL wild-card play-in game.
The MLB wild card used to be a simple thing. There was one in each league, and the only time we had to worry about play-in games was in years when things got weird.
Now there are two wild cards in each league, and there's going to be a wild-card play-in game every year until further notice. Things will be weird right up until the moment all of us get used to the new format, and that may take a while.
Complicating matters is the fact that the presence of the extra wild cards has given rise to a few extra contenders in each league. There are presently 10 legit wild-card contenders, five in each league. The list of potential wild-card matchups is endless (or seemingly endless, anyway).
But if I had to hazard a few educated guesses, I'd say that there are five matchups in each league that are more likely to happen than all the others.
Starting in the American League, here's a quick look at each of those 10 potential matchups.
Note: All stats come from Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
How It Will Happen
This is what the AL wild-card play-in game would be if the season ended today. The Rays hold the top spot, and the A's are right there behind them. If the A's don't crash and burn without Bartolo Colon, there's a good chance they'll finish what they started. Moneyball 2 will be greenlit shortly thereafter.
The Rays and A's are two fairly similar teams, as both rely on quality starting pitching and good work from their bullpens. Neither team is hopeless offensively, but it's not like either of them is a match for the 1927 Yankees either. Good pitching is a necessity, not a luxury.
If this matchup comes to fruition, the A's will be hoping that they don't draw David Price. He's leading the AL in wins and ERA, and has been virtually unhittable in his last 12 starts, going 8-0 with a 1.56 ERA.
If the Rays are forced to turn to Matt Moore, Jeremy Hellickson or James Shields instead, they'll still be in good shape. The three of them have been dynamite in the second half.
Against pitchers like these, the A's would need a spark from the middle of their lineup, specifically Yoenis Cespedes. He's a .330/.397/.583 hitter with 12 home runs when the A's win, and one swing of his bat could easily be the difference in a game against a pitching-loaded team like the Rays.
If the A's grab a lead, their bullpen is fully capable of closing it out. Not everyone in it has a defined role, but Oakland's bullpen is third in all of baseball with a 2.97 ERA.
The Edge Goes To: Rays
They have four starting pitchers in Price, Moore, Shields and Hellickson who are better than anyone the A's can conjure, and that's a pretty huge plus.
There's also the fact that the Tampa bullpen is also more loaded than Oakland and features one of the league's elite closers in Fernando Rodney. The Rays lineup is prone to being dominated by legit aces (see Hernandez, Felix), but it's definitely more formidable now with Evan Longoria back in the mix.
How It Will Happen
The Tigers are right there behind the A's in the wild-card race. If they continue to play solid baseball and the A's succumb to what is a pretty tough schedule down the stretch, the Tigers could find themselves heading to Florida at season's end.
There's a chance a matchup between the Rays and Tigers could produce a showdown between David Price and Justin Verlander. That there's the kind of pitching matchup that makes baseball fans involuntarily start drooling.
The game will be a complete toss-up if that pitching matchup comes to fruition, but the Tigers will still be in good shape even if they can't start Verlander. Doug Fister is one of the best No. 2s in the league, and Max Scherzer is very much capable of producing a dominant outing on a given night.
The one major edge the Tigers have over the Rays is their bats. They haven't been as explosive on offense as we all expected them to be, but Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder both have OPS's over 1.000 since the All-Star break and Austin Jackson has emerged as one of the most lethal leadoff hitters in the AL this year.
The Tigers won't be able to match up with the Rays if a battle between bullpens starts taking place, so they'll either need a brilliant starting pitching performance or plenty of runs to beat the Rays.
The Edge Goes To: Tigers
Detroit has the edge in the season series, winning five out of seven. They've done so thanks mainly to the fact that they've been able to knock around Tampa's pitching.
Plus, I'd take Verlander over Price in a one-on-one matchup any day, in large part because of what aces have been able to do to the Rays this season. Verlander could do to the Rays what King Felix did to them.
Even if the Tigers are put in a situation where they can't start Verlander, they'll still have a chance because of their bats.
How It Will Happen
The Rays are only three games behind the Yankees in the AL East and charging hard. With six games left to play against the Bombers, it's not out of the question that the Yankees will be knocked out of first place.
The White Sox could suffer that very same fate, as they have seven games left against the Tigers and are protected by a very slim lead in the AL Central.
The White Sox just swept the Yankees in a three-game series, holding the Bombers to just four runs in the final two games. Chris Sale was brilliant in the series capper, striking out 13 in 7.2 innings of work.
The Yankees would probably not see him again, but they have two starters in CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda who match up well against either Sale or Jake Peavy. They'll only be in trouble if they have to start Ivan Nova, Phil Hughes, Freddy Garcia or Andy Pettitte (yes, even him) in the play-in game against Sale or Peavy.
But everywhere else, the Yankees would be in good shape against the White Sox. Their offense will be at full strength in a matter of weeks once Alex Rodriguez gets healthy, and have a deeper and more talented bullpen.
This being said, New York is not head and shoulders above Chicago. The White Sox have more than enough thunder in their lineup to outlast the Yankees in a slugfest, and their bullpen has been better ever since Brett Myers came aboard.
The Edge Goes To: Yankees
Yeah, yeah. The White Sox just swept them and so on and so forth. Rabble! Rabble! Rabble!
But they didn't face Kuroda or Sabathia, and the series took place in Chicago. This game would likely be in New York, where the Yankees are 39-24 on the season.
Still, we're talking about a very, very slight edge. These two teams make for a great matchup.
How It Will Happen
The Rays look unbeatable now, but they have it pretty rough down the stretch, with series against New York, Texas, Baltimore and Chicago looming. They could fall off the pace, thus opening the door for Baltimore and Oakland to steal the two wild-card spots.
This scenario would obviously need the Tigers to keep underachieving. Since they've been doing that all season, what's a few more weeks?
The A's wouldn't have any kind of starting pitching edge against the Rays, but they would have the edge in that department if they were to come up against the Orioles. The O's have a solid starter in Wei-Yin Chen and another on the way in Jason Hammel, but neither of them is anything more than solid. The A's can match up well with either one of them no matter which starter they're throwing out there.
Beyond that, the A's and O's are pretty evenly matched. Both rely on timely hits and contributions from all over their lineups in order to score runs, and both of them boast excellent bullpens.
A battle of the bullpens between these two teams would be a sight to see. The A's have an impressive collection of talented young relievers, but the O's probably have the most battle-hardened 'pen in baseball at this point. Baltimore's bullpen ranks fourth in innings pitched this season, and it's pretty remarkable how well they've done despite the heavy workload.
Baltimore relievers have lost only 10 games this season, and they're a big reason why the O's are 23-6 in one-run games and 12-2 in extra-inning games.
The A's won't be worried if the matchup here were to go into extra innings, however. They also play well in extra-inning games, and they have a knack for coming up big when the spotlight is at its brightest.
The Edge Goes To: A's
Again, we're talking about a very slight edge. The A's and O's are very similar in many respects, specifically how their lineups are constructed and how much they rely on their bullpens.
The A's get the edge because they have more talent in their starting pitching staff to play with, and because this game would likely be played in Oakland. A's hurlers are dangerous at home.
How It Will Happen
With the amount of talent they have, there's no reason to think the Angels are done. They have a September run in them. If they do, they'll do a number on the A's and Tigers, both of whom have a couple series left against the Angels.
The Yankees, meanwhile, could find themselves in a matchup like this if the Rays stay hot down the stretch. In that case, they would beat up both the Yankees and the Orioles, thus knocking the O's out of the playoff picture and the Yankees into the wild-card race.
Talent-wise, the Angels have the edge. They have a rotation that features the likes of Jered Weaver, Zack Greinke, C.J. Wilson and Dan Haren, and a lineup that features the immortal Mike Trout and fearsome sluggers like Albert Pujols and Mark Trumbo.
But we know the Yankees aren't afraid of Weaver, as they tagged him for three homers and five earned runs the last time they saw him. They can match up against L.A.'s other three aces (or supposed aces, anyway) as well, and NY's lineup is certainly deeper.
The Yankees would seem to have a deeper bullpen as well, but the Angels are only making it this far if their bullpen pulls out of the slump it's been in for the last couple weeks. Since Jordan Walden and Scott Downs are both healthy now, that's definitely possible.
Still, even if the bullpen matchup is a push, the Yankees will be in good shape in this game if they can start Sabathia or Kuroda.
The Edge Goes To: Yankees
I wanted to give the edge to the Angels simply because Mike Trout is a destroyer of worlds, but even he's not good enough to make the Angels a better overall team than the Yankees.
The kicker is that none of the Angels' starting pitchers pose much of a threat here. They're perfectly capable of mastering Weaver's smoke and mirrors, and the Greinke-Wilson-Haren trio has proven to be decidedly "meh" in the last few weeks.
Plus, the Yankees would probably have home-field advantage. That counts for a lot.
How It Will Happen
This is what the NL wild-card play-in game is shaping up to be. The Braves hold the top wild-card spot in the Senior Circuit, and the Cardinals hold the second. If everything goes hunky-dory for both of them down the stretch, the status quo will hold.
The Braves probably wouldn't mind this matchup all that much. They're 5-1 against the Cardinals in 2012, and they've achieved that record by pounding Cardinals pitchers around to the tune of a 6.38 ERA.
But it's been a while since the Braves last faced the Cardinals. Adam Wainwright is looking like an ace again now that he's shaken off a year's worth of rust, and Jaime Garcia looked very good in his return off the DL. Kyle Lohse has been a stud all season.
The offensive edge would seem to go to the Cardinals, who lead the National League in runs scored and OPS. The Braves, however, are third in the NL in runs scored and their lineup is going to be as deep as any in the league if Brian McCann and Dan Uggla pull out of their respective slumps.
One area where the Braves definitely have the Cardinals beat is in the bullpen matchup. The Braves have one of the best 'pens in baseball, and it's led by a closer in Craig Kimbrel, whose stuff defies the laws of physics.
The Edge Goes To: Braves
There's a lot to like about the Cardinals, but they've been very inconsistent throughout the course of the season. In this case, it doesn't help that they were thoroughly owned by the Braves earlier in the season.
The Cards are indeed a different team now than they were then, but so are the Braves. They now have several viable starting pitchers they could throw at the Cardinals, and the two offenses match up pretty well.
Plus, you get the sense that the Braves are trying very hard to send Chipper Jones out in style. They're not to be underestimated.
How It Will Happen
The Cardinals have a pretty rough schedule down the stretch, with a couple series against the Reds and Nationals looming and a four-gamer against the Dodgers scheduled as well. If they stumble, the Dodgers stand to benefit.
If the Dodgers are able to start Clayton Kershaw in a wild-card play-in against the Braves, they would be able to start printing tickets for the NLDS forthwith. Nobody the Braves have can match up with him. For that matter, very few pitchers in baseball can match wits against Kershaw.
But against Chad Billingsley, Chris Capuano, Aaron Harang or Joe Blanton, the Braves would be just fine. Tim Hudson, Ben Sheets, Paul Maholm or Kris Medlen would be more than a match for any one of them.
The Dodgers won't be too frightened of the Braves either way, of course. They just took two out of three from the Braves in Atlanta, and they did so in impressive fashion to boot.
The issue with the Dodgers is that you never really know what you're going to get out of their offense. Shane Victorino, Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier and Hanley Ramirez represent a strong core of hitters, but there's a lot of pressure on them to produce and we haven't seen the four of them get hot all at once yet.
The good news for the Dodgers is that they could hang with the Braves in a low-scoring game. They have an underrated bullpen, one that features a variety of powerful arms.
And the Edge Goes To: Braves
Again, if the Dodgers are able to start Kershaw, they win. Hands down.
Otherwise, the Braves will have a slight edge. The Dodgers may have just taken a series from the Braves, but Atlanta was able to take a series from the Dodgers at Dodger Stadium earlier in the season and they've generally been the more reliable team in recent weeks.
How It Will Happen
The Giants have overtaken the Dodgers in the NL West, but recent history tells us that the Giants aren't about to run away with the division. Especially not with series against the Braves, Dodgers and Diamondbacks standing in their way down the stretch. They could let the NL West lead slip and have to fight for a wild-card spot instead.
If the Dodgers represent a problem for the Braves because of one ace, the Giants represent an even bigger problem because they have three aces: Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner and Ryan Vogelsong.
The Braves would have their work cut out for them against any one of the three, but the bright side is that they handled Vogelsong and Bumgarner well enough when they last saw them in July. Plus, Cain has been up and down ever since his perfect game, and there's a chance that the Giants would have to use Tim Lincecum or Barry Zito against the Braves.
As far as other areas are concerned, the Braves undoubtedly have a deeper bullpen than the Giants, but they don't necessarily have an offensive edge even with Melky Cabrera out of the picture. Pablo Sandoval, Buster Posey and Hunter Pence make for a good core of hitters, and Angel Pagan has been very good since the All-Star break.
If the four of them are still playing well a month from now, the Giants will be in a position where they don't necessarily need great starting pitching in order to win ball games.
The Edge Goes To: Giants
The three aces the Giants have are a big reason I'm giving them the edge, as Cain, Bumgarner and Vogelsong are all better than anybody the Braves can muster.
And really, that's the only reason I'm giving the Giants the edge. Beyond that trio of starters, Braves-Giants is an evenly-matched contest.
How It Will Happen
Diamondbacks fans want people to stop sleeping on the Diamondbacks, and they may have a point. The D-Backs have been more consistent since the break than they were before it, and they're going to have plenty of opportunities to beat up on the Giants and Dodgers down the stretch. Even if they don't sneak into first, they should be able to knock one of their division foes off the pace in the wild-card race.
Meanwhile, the Braves could falter down the stretch, as their schedule features matchups against tough teams like the Giants, Nationals, Pirates and a Phillies team that is no longer a pushover. If they fall, the Cardinals could move up.
The Diamondbacks have not fared well against the Cardinals this season, going 1-5 against them in six games. In those six games, Cardinals hitters launched 12 home runs.
Just as concerning, Cardinals pitchers compiled a 2.50 ERA in those six games.
This is not to suggest the D-Backs would be totally overmatched against their Central counterparts. Wade Miley is a good match for Wainwright, Lohse or Garcia, and Arizona's bats are not to be underestimated. The D-Backs have been one of the top offensive teams in the Senior Circuit since the All-Star break, and they've been hitting a ton of home runs.
This is something that cannot be said of the Cardinals offense. It's still loaded, but their lineup hasn't been quite as explosive since the break. They rank eighth in the NL in runs scored in the second half.
That could tip the scales in Arizona's favor. So could the fact that Arizona's bullpen is slightly stronger.
And the Edge Goes To: Cardinals
...But I'd still side with the Cardinals. Wainwright, Lohse or Garcia would be a fine match for whoever the Diamondbacks would be able to start in a potential play-in game, and you still have to give St. Louis' offense the edge despite its recent slump.
Plus, the Cardinals have experience going for them. That doesn't count for much against a team with good veteran leadership like the Braves, but it does count for something against a young team like the Diamondbacks.
How It Will Happen
Here's a question: What happens if the Braves stumble down the stretch and the Giants, Dodgers and Diamondbacks all inflict equal amounts of damage on one another?
That scenario would work out in favor of the Cardinals and Pirates, who could find themselves snatching up the two wild-card spots pretty much by default, to the tune of much celebration in St. Louis and Pittsburgh.
The Cardinals and Pirates have played 12 games this year. The Cardinals have won six, and the Pirates have won six.
Part of the reason the Pirates have been able to tame the Cardinals is because they've been able to hold St. Louis' lineup in check. Cardinals hitters are hitting just .246/.318/.367 against the Pirates this season, with just nine home runs.
Cardinals pitchers have been a little less successful against Pirates hitters, who have hit St. Louis' pitching to the tune of a .258/.315/.395 triple-slash line.
On paper, though, the Cardinals do have a stronger array of starting pitchers than the Pirates do, and their offense is a little deeper. The Pirates bullpen, however, stands out pretty clearly as the stronger of the two. Pittsburgh is one of only four teams that have bullpen ERAs under 3.00.
The Edge Goes To: Cardinals
The Pirates do seem to have St. Louis' number, in part because it looks like the Cardinals just don't take the Pirates as seriously as they should.
That wouldn't be a concern if these two teams meet in the wild-card play-in, however. With their season on the line, the Cardinals would surely make the most of the talent advantage they have over the Pirates.
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