Every NL Contender's Biggest 'Wild Card' Down the Home Stretch
As the MLB regular season heads down the home stretch, the division winners in the National League would appear to be a foregone conclusion.
The Washington Nationals, Cincinnati Reds and San Francisco Giants all hold strong leads in their respective divisions, although the Atlanta Braves have crept up to within 5.5 games of the Nats in the NL East.
The other seven teams in contention are left to battle it out for the two wild-card spots, and with just two-plus weeks left, it could well be a very entertaining and fierce battle.
Things could also come down to one important factor for each team as well—that one 'wild card' element that could spur each team on in a positive fashion.
Here is the biggest wild-card element for each of the seven National League Wild Card contenders coming down the stretch.
Arizona Diamondbacks: Performance of Young Starters Down the Stretch
Entering play on Monday, the Arizona Diamondbacks were still clinging to life in the race for one of the two wild-card slots in the National League.
Just 4.5 games behind the St. Louis Cardinals with 16 games to play, the Diamondbacks need a whole lot of things to go right in order to qualify for the postseason for a second consecutive year.
Part of what needs to go right is the performance of a young starting rotation.
The D-Backs are partially hinging their playoff hopes on the performance of 24-year-old Trevor Cahill, 25-year-old Wade Miley, 23-year-old Patrick Corbin and 21-year-old Tyler Skaggs.
To boot, none of the four have any playoff experience whatsoever.
It's the performance from these four youngsters that could be the difference between the Diamondbacks playing on in October or hitting the golf links early.
Atlanta Braves: Kris Medlen and His Continued Dominance
The Atlanta Braves seem to have a firm hold on the top wild-card spot in the National League, a full seven games ahead of the St. Louis Cardinals heading into play on Monday.
The Braves have also tightened the race in the NL East, now just 5.5 games behind the Washington Nationals after sweeping them over the weekend.
One of the surprises for the Braves in the second half has been the performance of pitcher Kris Medlen.
Medlen made 38 appearances in relief before joining the starting rotation on July 31, and he has been on fire. In nine starts thus far, Medlen is 7-0 with a 0.86 ERA.
Medlen's continued dominance down the stretch will be key to the Braves as they fight to hold the top wild-card slot and hope to overtake the Nationals at the top of the NL East Division.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Clayton Kershaw's Health
The Los Angeles Dodgers announced on Saturday that ace pitcher Clayton Kershaw was being scratched from Sunday's start against the St. Louis Cardinals.
Lingering right hip pain was the reason for Kershaw's scratched start, and he is in New York on Monday getting a second opinion.
According to the Los Angeles Times, if surgery is required, Kershaw not only would be out for the rest of this season, he wouldn't return until at least May of next year.
That would be a huge blow to the Dodgers, who are already without starters Ted Lilly and Chad Billingsley for the remainder of the year and have seen a disappointing performance from Joe Blanton (1-4, 6.07 ERA in eight starts).
For a team that took on $300 million in overall additional salary from late July on, Kershaw's absence would be the most telling of blows.
Milwaukee Brewers: Continued Spirited Performances from Unheralded Rotation
On Sunday afternoon, the Milwaukee Brewers beat the New York Mets 3-0 on the strength of two Ryan Braun home runs and the two-hit pitching performance of 23-year-old Wily Peralta.
It was Peralta's third straight quality start since being recalled on Sept. 1, with the Brewers winning all three starts.
Peralta's performance was the latest in a string of solid starts from a young and unheralded pitching staff.
Aside from established pitchers Yovani Gallardo and Shaun Marcum, the Brewers have used Peralta, Mark Rogers, Marco Estrada and Mike Fiers. With this group, the Brewers have won 20 of their last 26 games to climb back into the playoff hunt.
Their continued strong pitching will be crucial down the stretch if the Brewers hope to leapfrog over the Los Angeles Dodgers and St. Louis Cardinals for the final wild-card slot.
Philadelphia Phillies: Upcoming Six Games Against NL East Foes
With just 15 games to play, the Philadelphia Phillies are hanging on to slim hopes in the wild-card race, four games back of the St. Louis Cardinals after losing three of four at the hands of the Houston Astros.
Now, the Phillies move on to face the New York Mets at Citi Field for a three-game series before returning home to play the Braves in a three-game weekend series.
These upcoming six games could well decide the Phillies' fate.
The Phillies are 3-3 at Citi Field thus far, and have lost five of six games to the Braves at Citizens Bank Park.
The Phillies clearly need to take at least two of three at New York and turn around their fortunes against the Braves at home. Otherwise, by next Sunday they could be looking at elimination.
Pittsburgh Pirates: A Complete Turnaround for a Staggering Bullpen
The Pittsburgh Pirates are stumbling their way through the month of September, winning just three of 14 games thus far. Their playoff hopes are quickly fading, along with a possibility of ending their 19-year streak of consecutive losing seasons.
There is still slim hope, however.
Thankfully for the Pirates, they are still just three games out of the chase for the second Wild Card. But a whole lot of things have to go right, and a whole lot of things have to change for the Pirates as well.
It starts with the pitching staff. Just in the last seven days alone, the Pirates have posted a 5.37 ERA, second-worst in the National League.
The bullpen, which posted a superb 2.63 ERA in the first half, has been horrendous in the month of September, posting an 0-5 record and 5.81 ERA.
Late inning collapses have killed the Pirates. On Sunday afternoon, the Pirates were trailing 10-9 and withing striking range until the bullpen gave up three runs in the top of the eighth inning, putting the game away for the Chicago Cubs.
Without that late-inning support, the Pirates could well be looking at extending their North American professional sports franchise record to a 20th consecutive losing season.
St. Louis Cardinals: The Return of Chris Carpenter
The St. Louis Cardinals announced over the weekend that starting pitcher Chris Carpenter would make his season debut against the Chicago Cubs on Friday.
When Carpenter underwent surgery to correct thoracic outlet syndrome in July, at the time it was termed as a season-ending injury.
Carpenter apparently never believed that for one second.
Now, Carpenter will make his triumphant return for a team looking to hang on to a very slim wild-card lead.
Carpenter was one of the heroes for the Cardinals in their improbable run to the World Series championship last season.
He may get that chance one more time.
Doug Mead is a featured columnist with Bleacher Report. His work has been featured on the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, SF Gate, CBS Sports, the Los Angeles Times and the Houston Chronicle.