The National League wild-card playoff race appeared to be working itself out as the MLB season headed into September.
The Atlanta Braves had a firm grasp on one of the league's wild-card playoff bids while the second one would go to the St. Louis Cardinals, Los Angeles Dodgers or Pittsburgh Pirates.
However, the Philadelphia Phillies and Milwaukee Brewers are making the race for that final wild-card spot a bit more complicated. If you wrote either of those teams off for playoff contention for the rest of the season (and I'm raising my hand here), that appears to have been a mistake.
Both the Phillies and Brewers won on Wednesday night (Sept. 12), while the Cardinals, Dodgers and Pirates lost. That moved Philadelphia and Milwaukee to within three games of the NL's second wild-card spot. With 19 games remaining in the regular season, both teams definitely have a chance at making the playoffs.
But how much of a chance?
Let's give that first wild-card spot to the Braves. Perhaps that's not a presumption to make, considering how Atlanta squandered a significant lead last year and lost the NL Wild Card to the Cardinals.
But the Braves still have a 5.5-game lead over St. Louis—which currently holds the second wild-card bid—in the league standings. They're still 8.5 games ahead of the Phillies and Brewers. Yes, Atlanta just lost three straight games to Milwaukee. Yet with two series remaining against the Miami Marlins and another versus the New York Mets, the Braves' position looks pretty safe.
The Cardinals are the team that needs to be worried. They hold a narrow one-game lead over the Dodgers in the wild-card standings. The Pirates, Phillies and Brewers are all within three games of that coveted extra playoff spot.
With a four-game series versus the Dodgers beginning Thursday (Sept. 13) at Chavez Ravine, the Cardinals could knock the Dodgers out of wild-card contention or suffer a serious blow to their playoff chances. Meanwhile, the Phillies will be playing the Houston Astros and the Brewers are matched up with the New York Mets.
None of the five teams competing for that final NL wild-card spot has a significant advantage in terms of scheduling.
Actually, the Dodgers face the toughest schedule during the final three weeks of the season. Their opponents' combined winning percentage is .533. The team with the easiest schedule is the Pirates, with their remaining opponents combining for a .472 mark.
How does the rest of the field look? The Phillies' opponents have a combined winning percentage of .478, the teams left on the Cards' schedule have a .490 mark and the Brewers face opposition with a .497 percentage.
Considering that Philadelphia has the more favorable schedule through the rest of the season and that the Phillies have won 15 of their past 19 games, does that make them the favorite to win the NL's last wild-card spot?
That argument could be made, but the Phillies still have to maintain their excellent level of play. Can they really win 79 percent of their remaining games? The Phillies also need the three teams in front of them to keep losing. Will the Cardinals continue to lose 73 percent of their games, as they have in losing 11 of their past 15 games?
Either trend continuing is possible, but how likely is that to happen?
So let's try to break this race down in terms of odds, as the headline of this article said we would do.
Though the Cardinals' current position is shaky, they still look like the favorite to be the NL's second wild-card team because they currently hold the lead and the competition has to catch them. Take issue with my math, if you will, but I think that puts their chances at 55 percent.
That leaves 45 percent for the other four teams in this wild-card race. How should that be divided up?
The Dodgers are one game behind the Cards and could overtake them with a series win this weekend. The odds of them winning the second Wild Card look like 20 percent.
The Pirates have lost six games in a row. With a 2-8 record in September thus far, the Bucs are trending about as badly as a playoff contender can and still be in the race. But they do have the easiest schedule of the five wild-card competitors. So let's set their odds at 10 percent.
That leaves the Phillies and Brewers. Both teams face opponents with a combined winning percentage of under .500 on the rest of their schedule. Each of them still has to play the Washington Nationals—Philadelphia has two series against them while Milwaukee has one four-game series—the team with the best record in MLB.
Philadelphia still has to face the Braves for one more series, while Milwaukee has to play the Reds and Pirates.
We're slicing the final piece of the NL playoff pie really thin here, but I think the Phillies should be slightly favored over the Brewers for that final wild-card spot. To me, the odds of Philadelphia making the playoffs should be set at nine percent.
That leaves the Brewers with a six percent chance of qualifying for the postseason.
Nine percent and six percent don't sound like very good odds for either the Phillies or Brewers. Given how well each team has been playing recently, their chances are realistically better than that. And with how the Cardinals have fared lately, perhaps their odds are just a bit too high.
But many things still have to go right for the Phillies and Brewers to pull off a September miracle. That's not to say it's impossible. The Cardinals and Tampa Bay Rays showed us last year that the amazing and incomprehensible can still happen.
How about we just hope for these current trends to continue? Because if the Cardinals keep playing mediocre baseball while the Phillies and Brewers look nearly unbeatable, the final three weeks of the season are going to be thrilling to watch.
We might have utter chaos in the race for that final playoff spot.
Seasons that looked lost in Philadelphia and Milwaukee are very much alive again. And there is much fear in St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Los Angeles. If MLB wanted to increase late-season drama by adding an extra wild-card bid, that objective has most certainly been accomplished.
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