Unlikely Contenders Battle In Tight NL Wild Card Race
Turns out that Yogi Berra’s venerable quip rings especially true in this inaugural season of two wild card slots. October baseball is weeks away, and the chase for those last two tickets to the postseason is making everyone wish they had about 10 more eyes.
Currently, there are six teams all within 3.5 games of one other (seven teams, if you tack on an extra game) and it couldn’t be clearer that the two coveted spots are still in play. The Braves are in a relatively safe position, but the Cardinals are sitting on a single-game lead over the Dodgers, which, in turn, have a two-game lead over the Pirates. The latter two teams have been heralded as late-season contenders but recently, momentum has shifted monumentally.
The Dodgers, which seemed to have abandoned the hope of claiming the N.L. West (the division-leading Giants have a comfortable 7.5 game cushion), set their sights on the wild card. But they’ve stumbled lately, losing seven of their last 10 due to some abysmal offensive performances by an otherwise star-studded lineup of Matt Kemp, Adrian Gonzalez, Hanley Ramirez, Shane Victorino and Andre Ethier. It doesn’t help either that Kershaw seems to be straddling the bench in between starts.
And as for the Pirates, prospects look grim. More than grim. After edging their way into playoff contention, they’ve done more than skidded to a halt. They’ve slammed into a brick wall. Hard. The Pirates have lost eight of their last 10 games, and their last seven straight. One game separates them from .500. With starting pitcher James McDonald lasting only 3 2/3 innings yesterday, there’s a golden opportunity emerging for another team to make its move.
Enter Brewers. Enter Phillies.
The Brewers are holding on to that ever-popular come-back-kid story. That is, their success can largely be attributed to a series of timely returns either from the disabled list or from the shadowy depths of a slump.
Catcher Jonathan Lucroy has been playing like a poor man’s Buster Posey (and that’s a compliment because Posey is absolutely ablaze right now) ever since returning from a two-month stint on the DL. On the other side of the diamond, pitcher Marco Estrada has settled into his own groove in the starting rotation after spending five weeks on the DL. Most notably, however, Rickie Weeks has started to look like the household name we know him to be. His numbers have been lifting on the whole, but a substantial string of home runs (six in 12 games) have been giving the once under-the-radar Brew Crew a much-needed surge. It also doesn’t hurt that Ryan Braun is still in the MVP conversation.
The Brewers sit at an even .500 and have shaved 9.5 games off the lead in only 39 days. They won three straight before falling to the Mets last night. But being 3.5 games back is a position halfway between glory and defeat, and one the team will gladly hold on to after a long climb from the bottom.
That number, 9.5, is also familiar to the N.L. East elite Phillies. They, too, have pulled themselves up and into the hunt. Their story isn’t as romanticized, though. The Phillies have a reputation as winners, as money spenders, as a team that can acquire a big bat and pick up a pitching ace or two just to prove that they’re a multi-threat team. But their initial failure seemed to be the cause of a long-overdue slump (they occupied the five-hole in the N.L. East for much of the season). After all, the Phillies (like the Yankees and other powerhouses) aren’t invincible.
Ryan Howard, who has always been either a strikeout or a home run, never rebounded after an early injury, and Chase Utley, too, left a giant space in a once-nearly impenetrable lineup. The pair displayed spotty performances, with glimpses of greatness and even more of mediocrity.
To make matters worse, the starting rotation couldn’t pick up the swiftly sinking team. Roy Halladay (he’s famous for throwing two no-hitters in a single season, remember?) seemed to follow the league-wide trend of top-tier pitchers generating sub-par statistics. Those were the injuries.
Then there were the big shifts: Hunter Pence went to the Giants, Shane Victorino to the Dodgers and Carlos Ruiz to the DL.
And just as soon as things can fall apart, the pieces came together. And the big names (Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, Jimmy Rollins) proved they were more than just names. So far they’ve been doing their jobs; three games separate the Phils from the Cards.
So what’s the moral of the story? It’s all a matter of which way you lean. Every team can attribute their standing to an either well- or ill-timed streak. The Braves lost three straight (but beat the Nationals last night), and even though they seem to have a pretty firm grip on their position heading into the postseason, a few pivotal games could make all the difference. Moreover, the Cardinals play the Dodgers (who, before last night, lost four in a row) this weekend, so the race might get tighter at the top or one team could lose significant ground. Oh, and this may incite a snigger, but the Padres have all but dropped dead. Even if they can’t play to win it, they can certainly play to make other teams lose.
They say baseball is a marathon, not a sprint. It’s pretty obvious now more than ever that the final dash is ultimately going to make all the difference.