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National League Outlook: Central Division, Wild Card Up For Grabs

Luke Holthouse |
September 8, 2014 | 4:47 p.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

Yasiel Puig and the Dodgers hope to hold on to their lead in the NL West. (Getty Images)
Yasiel Puig and the Dodgers hope to hold on to their lead in the NL West. (Getty Images)
Be forewarned: this prediction comes with a distinct bias in favor of the St. Louis Cardinals. I’m simultaneously knocking on wood while jabbing on my keyboard, hoping that this display of overconfidence doesn’t upset the baseball gods, but my beloved Redbirds are looking like a very safe bet for the playoffs in the National League.

In addition to the NL Central-leading Cardinals, the division leaders on both coasts appear to be locks for the postseason. The Washington Nationals have a 7-game lead in the NL East at the end of the weekend, St. Louis’ lead in the Central is 4 ½ games and the Los Angeles Dodgers lead the NL West by three games.

I know crazy things can happen in baseball. The 2011 Cardinals were 76-67 after Sep. 7, 6 ½ games behind the 82-60 Atlanta Braves that St. Louis would eventually leapfrog on the last day of the season to win the National League Wild Card spot. And though the Dodgers are most likely to lose a hold of their division both because of their relative lead and the momentum behind the second-place San Francisco Giants, the recent two-team Wild Card format all but guarantees the three division leaders a trip to the postseason even if they don’t win their division. 

ESPN predicts that the Dodgers, Nationals and Cardinals respectively have a 99.9, 99.8 and 95.8 percent chance of making the playoffs, and besides shortchanging the value of St. Louis’ recent momentum relative to its overall record, I think those numbers are pretty accurate. If you found someone stupid enough to bet against you, I wouldn’t discourage you from betting all of your student loan debt on the three making the postseason.

The NL West division race is most interesting not only because it’s the closest, but because it features one of baseball’s great rivalries in the Dodgers and Giants. The Dodgers have the league’s highest payroll, an attention magnet in star outfielder Yasiel Puig and a franchise steeped in tradition, hungry for its first championship since 1988. The Giants also have a strong tradition, as well as more recent success with two World Series titles since 2010, and would love to steal some of the thunder away from the Hollywood heavyweights by reestablishing dominance in the West.

Looking at the schedule, there doesn’t appear to be an advantage in either direction as this comes down to the wire. They both play 19 more games. The Dodgers get six with the Colorado Rockies while the Giants get six against the Arizona Diamondbacks, and those two opponents are tied at the bottom of the NL West at 59-84. L.A. gets four with the Chicago Cubs and three with the San Diego Padres, who sit at 64-79 and 66-76 respectively; the Giants have seven against the Padres. 

The Giants and Dodgers have six games remaining against each other. The Dodgers take their Bay Area Weekender trip a week after USC’s on this Friday, Sep. 12 and host the Giants on the second-to-last series of the year between Sep. 22-24. Unless the Giants sweep the Dodgers this weekend, I think the Boys in Blue will clinch the division crown at home against the Giants, and I can only imagine how loud Chavez Ravine could be that night. 

Wacha Flocka Flames has returned from injury and is leading the Redbirds into the postseason. (Getty Images)
Wacha Flocka Flames has returned from injury and is leading the Redbirds into the postseason. (Getty Images)
Moving to the Central, it’s been a long time coming for the Cardinals, but the potential is finally starting to add up for the defending National League champions. I was optimistic that the team would reload like a Pete Carroll-era USC football team and be right at the top of the league all year, but it wasn’t until Sep. 1 that the Cardinals first took sole possession of first place in the Central. It’s no coincidence that around that time the team’s best position player, catcher Yadier Molina, and second-best pitcher, Michael Wacha, were both activated off the disabled list. The team hasn’t looked back since. 

The Milwaukee Brewers, on the other hand, have done almost the exact opposite. While St. Louis started slowly and battled to find its mojo, partly due to the Molina and Wacha injuries, Milwaukee jumped out to an early lead in the Central but has faded very hard down the stretch. The Brew Crew had a nine-game winning streak in early April but washed it all out with a nine-game losing streak that stretched into this weekend. Milwaukee did end the streak during a four-game set against St. Louis, but the Cardinals were able to win the other three games and grow their lead over Milwaukee to five games. In fact, the loss to Milwaukee on Friday was the Cardinals’ only defeat in the past nine games.

Pittsburgh has hung around the race all year and now has a half-game lead over Milwaukee for second place, but a three-game sweep in St. Louis to start the month of September didn’t help the Pirates’ cause for the division crown, especially given that it was the last series between the division foes of the season. 

Milwaukee gets one more crack at the Cardinals between Sep. 16-18 in St. Louis, and a sweep would certainly make things interesting, but I don’t think that will be enough to stop the red-hot Redbirds. That’s the only of six remaining series St. Louis plays against a team over .500, a distinction the Brewers could even lose during the seven games between the St. Louis showdown. I think the Pirates should direct their hopes to the Wild Card race and the Cardinals will pop champagne with a week to spare on the season.

In the NL East, the Nationals may be the safest bet to keep their lead in the division with such a big lead, but there are a couple obstacles for Washington left. The team has 21 games remaining instead of 19 like most other teams, a factor that could come into play if the second-place Braves have a meteoric resurgence reminiscent of the aforementioned 2011 season in the other direction. Speaking of the Braves, Atlanta comes to Washington for a three-game set today and then hosts the Nationals between Sep. 15-17. I highly doubt Atlanta will win all six games; I’ll play it safe and guess a 3-3 split, and that the Nationals clinch later that week. But stranger things have happened. 

Can the Braves make one final push for the Wild Card? (Getty Images)
Can the Braves make one final push for the Wild Card? (Getty Images)
What the Braves should really be gearing up for is a clash with Pittsburgh between Sep. 22-25. The four-game set in Atlanta should decide which team takes the second Wild Card spot. San Francisco has a comfortable hold on the first spot with a 3 ½ game lead over Pittsburgh in second place. Atlanta currently is half a game behind Pittsburgh, with equal wins and one more loss, though home field advantage on the final week probably makes up the difference on that. Look for the Giants to clinch home field advantage in the one-game playoff, the Braves to jump into the second spot after taking three of four from Pittsburgh at home, then hold on over the final weekend. 

I would be surprised if the Brewers are still in the conversation during the final week with how cold they’ve been recently. (I’ll refrain from using any more definitive language to avoid any “all the haters counted us out!” karma in case Milwaukee goes on another nine-game winning streak.) It was exactly three years to the day when former Brewers outfielder Nyjer Morgan tweeted that “those crying birds” would be watching Milwaukee in the 2011 playoffs  after an on-field altercation between the Brewers and Cardinals. Sure enough, Milwaukee did win the Central that year. But as mentioned twice earlier (you may have noticed by now that I really, really, really like talking about the Cardinals’ 2011 season), the Cardinals came back from a huge deficit to claim the Wild Card, eventually beat Milwaukee in the National League Championship Series and beat Texas in the World Series in what was maybe the happiest two-month period of my entire life. I apologize to any Brewer fans if this paragraph felt like gloating; I genuinely mean to say that Milwaukee has a legitimate shot at the postseason with only a half-game deficit in the Wild Card.

TL;DR: The three division leaders and the Wild Card frontrunner will all make the playoffs; one of the teams half of a game behind the second-place Wild Card team will make up that deficit to claim the final playoff spot. I promise my March Madness bracket will be more interesting.

For how incredibly long the season is, baseball has a unique ability to keep everything exciting until the final out. This year should be no exception.



Craig Gillespie directed this true story about "the most daring rescue mission in the history of the U.S. Coast Guard.”

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