With postseason schedules having been released yesterday, the stretch run of the MLB season is amongst us. Sitting atop the standings are the Philadelphia Phillies, who are four-and-a-half games ahead of the Boston Red Sox for the best record in the majors and eight and a half games over the Atlanta Braves for the best in the National League.
At this point in the season, it is safe to say that with a 13.5 game lead over the San Francisco Giants, who are five games behind the Braves for the wild card, a playoff birth is a all but a lock. It would take a monumental collapse, a la the 2007 New York Mets (except worse), to end up watching from the couch in October.
The same can't be said for the rest of the NL and most of the American League, who will continue to fight it out for playoff births down the road.
In the Central, the Milwaukee Brewers seem to have taken control of the division, but with an experienced St. Louis Cardinals team sitting just five games back and almost two months of baseball to be played, anything could happen.
Over out west, the Arizona Diamondbacks took over sole possession of first place last night, sending the Giants into second place a half-game back.
The Braves appear to be in control of the wild card, but a few missteps and they could very well see themselves miss the postseason altogether.
Of these five teams all vying playoff position, who would pose the biggest threat to the Phillies? Only time will tell for sure. For now, let's look ahead and break it down.
What the Cardinals have going for them is their offense, which to this point sits first in the NL in runs scored. Even so, of the five teams I have selected they are the team most likely to miss out on the postseason. The Brewers have begun to break away in the Central after opening up a five-game lead, and the Braves sit six games ahead of the Cards in the wild-card race.
If they somehow manage to sneak into October with their mediocre pitching staff, it's difficult to imagine their offense probably being enough to get them anywhere. Even with three quality starters in Jamie Garcia, Kyle Lohse and Chris Carpenter, they have a tough time comparing to the Phillies' rotation. It doesn't help that Garcia and Lohse, more so Lohse, have been backtracking ever since their hot starts early in the season.
Any team in a short series can catch fire and win three out of five, but the Cardinals seem to be the team least likely to pose a threat to anyone.
The surging Diamondbacks are like the Cardinals in a few ways. Both teams have offenses that have carried them to this point, with their pitchers doing just enough to get by. They would also likely be the underdog in a series against the Phillies, Brewers, Braves or Giants.
But what makes them different, and frankly scarier, from St. Louis, is their youthful energy that has carried them to first place in the NL West.
On paper, the Cardinals pose a bigger threat to the Phillies, or any other NL playoff team for that matter. But on the diamond, the D-Backs have found a way to surprise pretty much everyone watching and get the job done.
A young, energetic ball club can be dangerous come October. Just ask the 2007 Colorado Rockies. If Arizona can manage to end the season on a hot streak and clinch a playoff birth, they could be a candidate to upset their NLDS opponents. But as I see it, their youth won't be enough as they don't have the all-around balance to get it done.
Initially, I had planned to place the Braves in this spot and put the Brewers in at number two. After looking through and comparing teams, I decided to move the Braves ahead simply because of their starting rotation and familiarity with the Phillies.
In the stat book, the Braves and Brewers are very similar teams. Atlanta holds the better pitching staff, while Milwaukee carries the bigger bats. Both teams possess powerful bullpens, but the Brewers have more depth while the Braves mostly lean on three arms to get them through the end of games.
Overall, the point of this article is to break down who would pose the strongest threat to defeat Philadelphia in a playoff series, and the Braves get the nod in that respect. Their would-be starters in a series easily trump those of the Brewers, and division rivals rarely ever go away quietly in the postseason (see: 2004 Red Sox).
The hatred between Philly and Atlanta would only fuel the Braves' desire to win and could push their starters to out-perform the dominant bunch in Philadelphia. While I don't see that actually happening, the Braves are more likely to pull it off than the Brewers.
For those two reasons, Milwaukee falls behind Atlanta. Otherwise, both teams are seemingly equal.
The Braves have fallen off their early-season pace somewhat, but still hold the majors' fourth-best team ERA and an average offense. They currently hold the second-best record in the NL and sit five games up in the wild card.
In an NLCS matchup, their trio starters realistically could match up with that of the Phillies and sneak out enough games to move on to the World Series. The only thing is, the Phillies' group of Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee and Roy Oswalt would have to falter four times and that doesn't seem likely.
Jair Jurrjens, Tim Hudson, Tommy Hanson and Derek Lowe are certainly four quality starters. Yet, it can be argued that, with the exception of Oswalt, four of Philadelphia's starters (don't forget Vance Worley) have had better seasons than any of Atlanta's.
But if the two teams are to meet up in the NLCS, things could swing the in way of the Braves simply because nothing is ever easy against division rivals, as was mentioned in the previous slide.
Being the second-best team record-wise in the NL thus far, and competing closely with the Phillies most of the way, the Braves could get hot and ultimately take out the hated Phillies on their way to the World Series. All it takes is a few mediocre, not even poor, starts from R2C2.
Note: One thing to point out that I've noticed is that I've used, or have felt compelled to use, the phrase "catch fire" quite a bit. The reason being because that's what usually happens come October. Teams with the best records rarely ever win. Teams with a balanced mix of talent, chemistry and luck usually end up on top. Getting hot at the right time plays a big role in that. All it takes is three games in the League Division Series to find yourself out of contention.
The Giants could realistically enter the postseason with the worst record of the NL playoff teams, but that doesn't mean they wouldn't be dangerous. We all remember what transpired last October when the Phillies and Giants met, and with basically the same pitching staff in San Fran, who's to say history wouldn't repeat itself?
Even though the Phillies managed to take three out of four from them this past weekend, that shouldn't be enough to write-off the Giants as threats.
What was overlooked in that series was the Phillies continued inability to score off of Tim Lincecum, Madison Bumgarner and Matt Cain. Aside from Game 2 when Jonathan Sanchez took to the mound, Phillie bats managed just six runs in the three games started by the Freak, Madbum and Cain put together. Plus, let's not forget that the Giants came in and took two out of three from Philly just a few weeks ago.
Their offense may be putrid and anemic, but it was last year, too. All it takes is a few players to deliver in the clutch, just as Cody Ross did in last year's NLCS, to put them ahead of the Phillies, especially in a short series.
Until Phillies hitters can figure out how to hit any Giants starters not named Barry Zito and/or Jonathan Sanchez, no Philadelphia supporter should sleep easy on the thought of facing them.
The fact is San Fran wouldn't have to out-pitch Philly's starters in every game. If the Giants offense can muster up two or three runs per game, the Phillies could be in trouble. Let's not forget that the Phils actually out-scored the Giants in the NLCS, only to lose in six games.
The Phillies would still be the favorite and my pick to take down the Giants if they were to meet once again in the playoffs, but it would be no easy task. Avoiding them altogether would be my preference. Luckily, with the Giants recent struggles, they may miss the playoffs altogether. As Phillies fans, let's hope so.