Handicapping the NL Wild Card Race: Can The Rockies Hold On?

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Handicapping the NL Wild Card Race: Can The Rockies Hold On?

The month of September is just around the corner and the National League divisional races across baseball are heating up.

The Philadelphia Phillies hold a six-and-a-half game lead in the East and seem to have grown stronger with the addition of Cliff Lee. If Cole Hamels can get on track, they will be a dangerous team as they defend their World Series Championship in October.

The St. Louis Cardinals are also surging in the Central, and have opened up an eight-game lead on the Chicago Cubs. Matt Holliday has proven to be every bit worth the trade, slugging his way into the hearts of Cardinals’ fans in the past few weeks.

Chris Carpenter has also emerged as a possible leader in the Cy Young race, posting a 14-4 record with a Major League-leading 2.16 ERA. Keep in mind that he missed the month of April and could have had more impressive stats with those extra few starts under his belt.

The Los Angeles Dodgers bounced back from their worst stretch of baseball this season and have won four out of their last five. Maintaining a four-and-a-half game lead over the Colorado Rockies, the Boys in Blue will square off at Coors Field this week for three important games.

But the Dodgers have an extremely easy September schedule, playing only six games against teams with a winning record. Having survived a tumultuous past few weeks, expect a strong finish from Los Angeles and a second consecutive NL West title.

As each day passes, these divisional pictures become clearer and teams trailing in the standings grow increasingly more focused on the final playoff berth in each league: the wild card.

As of right now, the Rockies lead the chase in the National League and there are three legitimate contenders, with the Cubs sitting in fifth and falling off the radar fast.

With a little help from CoolStandings.com and some analysis of the team’s current state, I have compiled my projections for how the NL Wild Card race will turn out.

 

Projected final Wild Card standings

 

Current W/L

Current GB

Proj. W/L

Proj. GB

Colorado

69-54

90-72

Atlanta

65-58

4

89-73

1

San Francisco

67-56

2

87-75

3

Florida

65-58

4

84-78

6

Chicago

61-60

7

81-81

9

 

 

Colorado Rockies

The Rockies are in the driver’s seat and Jim Tracy has the keys to the car.

Three months ago the Rox were slumping behind manager Clint Hurdle, but then management decided to make a change and bring in Tracy.

Troy Tulowitski has been absolutely on fire since beginning the season in a long slump. He leads the team with 23 home runs.

They lost starter Aaron Cook (10-6) to a shoulder strain in a 6-3 loss on Friday, but rallied with a seven-run sixth inning on Saturday to mount a 14-11 win against the second-place San Francisco Giants.

Cook had already allowed three first-inning runs and exited after walking Nate Schierholtz to start the fourth.

Following the next two games with the Giants, they will embark on a nine-game home stand to start September against three sub-.500 teams (Mets, Reds, Diamondbacks).

They should be able to add games to their lead during this stretch and put some ground between the teams in pursuit.

Unfortunately, the rollover to September also means tougher times for Jason Marquis.

In his career, Marquis is just 11-12 in the month of September with a 4.71 ERA.

Considering Cook's injury, Marquis could start to press a bit more and might crack under the pressure. But we can't forget that the veteran has made the playoffs every season of his big-league career.

After another showdown with the Giants, they will welcome the high-flying St. Louis Cardinals on Sept. 25 in a series that could have huge ramifications on the wild card race.

Even though I doubted the validity of their pitching staff for most of the season—and still have my reservations—I believe that the Rockies will hold onto their lead and make it into the postseason.

 

San Francisco Giants

The Giants are 27-35 on the road and, in a sick twist from the scheduling gods, play nine of their final sixteen games away from home.

Despite ranking third to last in runs scored, they maintained the wild card lead until recently and now sit within striking distance at two games back.

The team suffered a tough loss last night to the Rockies, 14-11, even though they launched an uncharacteristic five home runs. They will turn to ace Tim Lincecum tomorrow in an attempt to shorten the gap in the standings.

So far, Bruce Bochey’s bunch has been able to stay in contention behind the MLB's best pitching staff, led by Lincecum and Matt Cain.

However, the two stars have recorded just one win in the month of August and for the Giants to have a chance at the playoffs, they need more production from each youngster.

The team leads the Majors with a 3.45 ERA and closer Brian Wilson is fourth in the NL with 30 saves, but the inept offense and failure to win on the road will doom the Giants and keep them from dancing in October.

Florida Marlins

Josh Johnson (12-3, 2.99) has pitched like an ace but struggled on Thursday against the Houston Astros and came out after just four-and-one-third innings.

Johnson had ineffective off-speed stuff that night and had to rely too much on his fastball to get hitters out. He was having a tough time getting snap on his slider and often left his changeup out over the plate.

But the Marlins lack depth behind their ace.

Anibal Sanchez made his return Friday night against the Braves and took a no-hitter into the sixth. He retired 14 in a row at one point, earning a win in his first start since June 2.

Sanchez brings a great changeup to the mound and, if he can effectively spot his fastball, he can be a dangerous force for the Marlins.

The Marlins are still in the race because of their powerful offense and Hanley Ramirez has his average up to .358, leading the charge in South Florida.

The club entered Saturday night’s game hitting .314 as a team in the month of the August, which is remarkable considering the franchise has never had a month where the team has batted .300 or better (in July ’95 they hit .297).

Slumping as of late, Florida will either make or break their season next week in another three-game series with Atlanta.

 

Atlanta Braves

That same set the Marlins are keyed in on for next week will also be decisive for the Braves.

They have split two games with the Marlins this weekend, and they remain dead even in standings behind the strong arms of their pitching staff.

Young Tommy Hanson, Derek Lowe, and Kenshin Kawakami are leading the staff through their best stretch of baseball this season.

Adam LaRoche has seven home runs in 19 games since being traded to the Braves and has also hit safely in 15 of those contests.

I expect the Braves to continue their late-season push and, while making a run at the wild card, give the Philadelphia Phillies a scare in the NL East. I still think the Phillies will win the crown, but don’t expect the current six-and-a-half game lead to remain for long.

Ultimately, I see them coming up just short of an improbable playoff berth.

 

Chicago Cubs

The Cubbies, freshly approved to be in the hands of the Ricketts family, are on the outside looking in as they have four teams in front of them in the wild card standings.

Just 17 days ago, the Cubs were tied atop the NL Central with the St. Louis Cardinals.

Today, they sit eight games back after losing 13 of the past 17.

When Lou Piniella was asked after a loss on Friday night to describe the team, he said, “Painful. It just gets painful watching this.”

It looks as if the Cubs, winners of back-to-back NL Central crowns, will be stuck watching from home in October this season.

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