We continue the baseballtology series with the National League Bubble Watch.
With only two weeks left in the baseball season, the remaining teams have now entered the make it or break it zone. Every game is a must-win, and every loss is devastating.
While some teams are clearly in better positions than others, no team as of Wednesday has clinched a playoff spot quite yet.
The Cincinnati Reds are the closest to clinching their division with a magic number (number of game until the second place team is eliminated from contention) of three games over the reigning champion St. Louis Cardinals.
Everything has been going right for the Reds this year. Through various injuries to Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips and Scott Rolen throughout the year, Jay Bruce was able to emerge as one of the league’s best young power hitters. Players like Ryan Ludwick and Todd Frazier were also forced to step up, and they have in impressive fashion. With Votto now back in the lineup and healthy, the Reds’ offense will only get better as the year finishes.
While the Reds have had one of the best pitching staffs in baseball all year, they are slowly showing signs of fatigue. Johnny Cueto has finally come down to earth, posting a 5.93 ERA in the past month, and the anchor of the best bullpen in baseball, Aroldis Chapman, has been in constant question as of late. Recent strong showings by Mat Latos, Bronson Arroyo and Homer Bailey have solidified my faith in the Reds’ staff and team.
I like the Reds to clinch the division within the next week and eventually overcome the Nationals for home-field advantage throughout the postseason.
Following the Reds, the Giants have begun to run away with the NL West. Now holding onto an 8.5 game lead over the Dodgers, their magic number has been reduced to five games. Despite a win over the Nationals Wednesday night, the Dodgers have shown no signs of putting up a fight and are 9-14 since the trade with the Red Sox.
In spite of losing their hottest hitter, Melky Cabrera, to a 50-game suspension, the Giants have been winners of 14 of their last 20 games. This is due in big part to new addition Marco Scutaro, catcher Buster Posey and a revamped Giants offense that is scoring 4.4 runs per game. In the past month, Scutaro has led the Major Leagues in hits, while Posey has been making his case for the NL MVP with 18 RBI and a .344 average, increasing his season totals to 22 home runs and 94 RBI.
The Giants have also been able to stay hot in the second half with the help of Tim Lincecum, who has finally begun to come around. According to HardballTalk with nbcsports.com, Lincecum is 7-4 with a 3.06 ERA in 13 starts since the All-Star break
An 8.5 game lead this late in the season is way more than the Dodgers can handle at this point, and San Francisco will coast into the playoffs with ease.
The key to the Nationals’ success this season has clearly been their phenomenal pitching. The most impressive young pitcher in baseball, Stephen Strasburg, and NL wins leader Gio Gonzalez have been the most dominant 1-2 punch in the NL. Jordan Zimmermann and Edwin Jackson have also both excelled as mid-rotation guys who the Nationals can count on day in and day out. In the absence of Strasburg, John Lannan and Ross Detwiler are perfectly capable pitchers who can provide good spot starts for the rest of the season.
It also helps to have one of the hottest hitting teams leading into the playoffs. Adam LaRoche, Ian Desmond and Bryce Harper have each hit more than .345 with at least four home runs in their last 15 games. Ryan Zimmerman has also added five long balls over the last two weeks.
Washington D.C. has not experienced a playoff baseball team since 1933 when the Washington Senators lost the World Series after finishing the season 99-53.
I don’t see series between the Brewers, Phillies and Cardinals being too much for the Nationals to handle, and I expect them to have a comfortable lead heading into October.
Now on to the exciting part. While the divisions are mostly decided, barring major collapses, the NL wildcard still remains wide open.
Nine teams technically remain eligible for the two wildcard spots... kind of. It looks like the front spot will be occupied by the Braves, and both the Padres and Mets’ hopes are quickly diminishing by the day.
Therefore, six teams realistically are still alive fighting for only one spot.
We can thank the implementation of the second wildcard spot this year for even having a National League wildcard race. The Braves have opened up a seven game lead on the St. Louis Cardinals for the first spot and at least a nine game lead on all of those looking in.
Atlanta has been one of the most impressive teams in baseball lately, and it showed in their series sweep of the first place Nationals last weekend.
Atlanta’s recent success can be attributed to the spark that Kris Medlen has provided over the past few months. In his last 10 starts, Medlen has scattered only six earned runs over 70.2 innings with 72 strikeouts. Craig Kimbrel has been electric all year, especially in September, with six saves and two wins.
The Braves’ offense has also exploded recently. Over the past month, five players have had at least nine RBI, and four of them have scored at least 13 runs. Leading the way has been Jason Heyward, who has hit seven homers since Aug. 20.
It does not look like anyone will contest Atlanta for the top wildcard ticket.
But what about that second spot? The last spot available according to the baseballtology predictions. Who will it go to? Let’s count it down from the least likely to the most likely team that will eventually face the Braves in the first NL wildcard game.
These are my predictions for how the race will finish.
Least likely: The Pittsburgh Pirates. 7th in wildcard.
Over the past 20 games, the Pirates have gone 6-14 and have almost effectively taken themselves out of playoff contention.
In spite of a few great starts by Wandy Rodriguez and Kevin Correia, the Pittsburgh staff has not been able to pull it together. The bullpen has been getting drilled, and any lead the Pirates acquire is quickly lost.
However, solid gameplay by Andrew McCutchen, Garrett Jones and Pedro Alvarez have kept the Pirates somewhat in the hunt. At 4.5 games back of the wildcard, the Cardinals are not yet out of reach. Strong series against the Reds and Braves could help the Pirates, but I just don’t see it happening for them again this year.
Next up: The Arizona Diamondbacks. 6th in the wildcard.
Unlike the Pirates, the Diamondbacks are at least headed in the right direction towards the end of the season.
Aaron Hill, Miguel Montero and Justin Upton are leading the way for the Arizona resurgence, but thanks to the pitching, it is probably too late. Over the past few weeks, Cahill and Miley have been all over the place and Kennedy has not lived up to the expectations he set last year.
3rd loser: The Philadelphia Phillies: 5th in the wildcard.
Despite trading away half of their outfield at the deadline, since Sept. 1, the Phillies have gone 12-5, and picked up four games on the wildcard slot.
Philadelphia’s recent success would not have been possible if it weren’t for the premier play of shortstop Jimmy Rollins. In September, Rollins has hit seven home runs with 12 RBI's on 22 hits. The Phils have also found a lot help during their run from outfielderer John Mayberry Jr. Having Chase Utley and Ryan Howard back has added veteran experience to the lineup.
Cliff Lee and the pitching staff, however, have been the story lately. After an abysmal first half, since the All-Star break, Lee has gone 5-2 and the Phillies’ overall ERA has dropped to 3.86, good enough for 8th in the NL.
I have them finishing below the Dodgers, Brewers and Cardinals because of their remaining schedule. They still have a three game series with the Braves and have to face the Nationals six times.
2nd loser: The Los Angeles Dodgers: 4th in the wildcard.
If we have learned anything from this season, it is that money does not necessarily buy wins.
Currently sitting in the first spot on the outside looking in, the superstar lineup the Dodgers have bought is playing them right out of any playoff hopes.
Since acquiring Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford and Nick Punto from the Red Sox, the Dodgers are 9-14. The Dodgers have spent more money on trades this season than Frank McCourt spent to buy the entire franchise in 2004, and they still can’t win.
Gonzalez has barely hit .200 in the past month, Matt Kemp hasn’t even reached that mark yet, Clayton Kershaw might be done for the year, Chad Billingsley is done for the year and the bullpen can’t be trusted to hold a lead.
Over the course of the last two weeks, the Dodgers will eventually fade away as the Brewers and Cardinals duke it out for the last playoff position.
1st loser: The Milwaukee Brewers: 3rd in the wildcard.
Other than the A’s and Orioles, the hottest team in baseball over the last month has been the Milwaukee Brewers.
The Brewers have won 13 of their 17 games in September and are now only 2.5 behind the St. Louis Cardinals.
If it weren’t for their league-leading 27 blown saves this season, Milwaukee would easily be controlling the wildcard race.
The Brewers’ offense has really come on since the All-Star break. Ryan Braun is tied for the NL lead in RBI with 104 and leads the NL in home runs with 40, and he’s having a better year than his MVP season in 2011. Huge production from Aramis Ramirez, Corey Hart and Rickie Weeks have also helped the Brewers lead the NL in home runs and runs scored.
Ace Yovani Gallardo, along with Mike Fiers and Marco Estrada, have provided the backbone for Milwaukee and kept them in every game.
I do think this race will come down to the wire, but I have the St. Louis Cardinals pulling through in the end.
Winner: The St. Louis Cardinals: 2nd in the wildcard.
The Cardinals will be the team to play the Braves in the Oct. 5 National League wildcard game.
For the first time in Cardinals’ franchise history, their lineup features five players who have hit more than 20 home runs. Their lineup also contains six players who are currently hitting greater than .290 on the season.
The Cardinals’ pitching staff will now get back big-game pitcher Chris Carpenter to complement the already solid rotation of Lohse, Wainwright and Lynn. St. Louis also has a proven playoff closer Jason Motte, who they know they can count on under pressure.
Series with the Astros, Cubs and likely-to-have-already-clinched Reds, along with a two game cushion, will help cement the Cardinals’ place in the playoff picture.
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