MLB: National League Wild Card Race

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Bud Selig looks like a genius for adding an additional wild-card team before this season started. 

The Washington Nationals hold a 7.5 game lead in the NL East, the Cincinnati Reds have a 10.5 game lead in the NL Central, the San Francisco Giants are leading the NL West by six, and the Atlanta Braves have a 5.5 game lead as the top wild-card team.

If it wasn't for the additional wild-card spot, the stretch run in the National League would be as exciting as watching paint dry.

The St. Louis Cardinals are currently leading the second wild-card berth, but there are four teams below them that are within four games of the final playoff spot.

It seems like four of the five teams are set for to the playoffs. (Atlanta Braves fans are saying, "Yeah, we thought that last year too.") The Braves had a 4.5 game lead on this date a year ago on St. Louis, and we know the rest. 

I think it is safe to say the Giants, Nationals, and Reds are going to clinch their divisions. Atlanta will not blow a 5.5 game lead as the top wild-card team.

That leaves the St. Louis Cardinals, Los Angeles Dodgers (1 GB), Pittsburgh Pirates (2.5 GB), Philadelphia Phillies (3.5 GB), and the Milwaukee Brewers (4 GB) battling for the final playoff berth.

ST. LOUIS CARDINALS

The Cardinals are failing to capitalize on increasing their lead. The have lost five of their last six against teams that are under .500. The reigning World Series Champs have a huge four-game series in Los Angeles starting on Thursday, September 13. 

St. Louis has been on a tail slide of late. They have lost 10 of their last 14 games. This is polar opposite of what the Cards did last year. (Exactly the opposite, they went 10-4 during the same stretch.)

Pitching has been the main problem, they have given up at least five runs in 10 of the last 14 games. Chris Carpenter was suppose to be shut down for the 2012 season, funny how things change. He has been throwing bullpen sessions the last couple weeks and all signs point he will be back on the hill within the next couple weeks. The Cardinals pitching has been shaky since August. St. Louis had the 18th worst ERA in August, and have the 24th worst ERA this month. They are hoping Carp can give the staff the momentum they need to hold on to the final playoff spot.

St. Louis has one of the best offenses in the National League, if not the best, so if their pitching gets on track they will have a good chance at the postseason.

 

REMAINING SCHEDULE

1 vs. San Diego (trailing 3-2 in the top of the 7th)

4 @ Los Angeles

3 vs. Houston 

3 @ Chicago

3 @ Houston

3 vs. Washington

3 vs. Cincinnati

The Cards have a favorable schedule. They have nine games against the two worst teams in baseball. Four games against the Dodgers that will give them a golden opportunity to increase their wild-card lead. They end with Washington and Cincinnati, who will most likely have their division's locked up and focusing on the playoffs, not the St. Louis Cardinals. 

 

LOS ANGELES DODGERS

Most people (including myself) thought this team was a lock for the postseason after the blockbuster trade with Boston that brought Adrian Gonzalez and Josh Beckett to Los Angeles. 

Funny how things work in the game of baseball. 

On paper L.A. has arguably the best lineup in the National League. Between the lines they have been one of the worst lineups in September. They have scored less runs than every team in baseball this month, minus that dangerous hitting attack up in Seattle. 

Los Angeles better get things on track if they want to win the second wild-card spot. They get their chance to prove why they are a playoff contender when St. Louis comes to town for four games. 

The Dodgers are 6-10 since the trade with Boston. Adrian Gonzalez is batting .227 with 1 home run and 10 RBI. Los Angeles needs much more than that, especially with Matt Kemp banged up. Gonzalez is one of the best first baseman in the game, and the Dodgers need him to play like it if they want to make the postseason.

Los Angeles suffered a knockout punch when Chad Billingsley was shut down for the season. He was finally pitching up to his potential. He won six straight starts allowing only nine earned runs before hurting his elbow against the Miami Marlins. 

However, their pitching has held up. They have posted the eighth best ERA this month, and the addition of Josh Beckett was huge after Billingsley went down. 

They need their bats to come alive. They have scored 22 runs in nine games this month. You don't have to be a math major to figure out that is less than 2.5 runs/game. That is not acceptable with a lineup of Adrian Gonzalez, Matt Kemp, Hanley Ramirez, and Andre Ethier in the middle. 

 

REMAINING SCHEDULE

1 @ Arizona

4 vs. St. Louis

3 @ Washington

3 @ Cincinnati

3 @ San Diego

3 vs. Colorado

3 vs. San Francisco

The Dodgers have a very tough schedule. They have to play three straight series against teams over .500. Then, have to travel all the way back to the West Coast to face a red-hot San Diego team. The Padres are 16-5 in their last 21 games. Colorado has been a struggle for L.A. The Dodgers have dropped four of the last six against the Rockies. L.A. is hoping they still have a chance at the NL West when the Giants come to town, which is highly unlikely. However, there is a plan B, win the wild-card. San Francisco would love to beat the Dodgers and keep them out of the postseason. That is almost as good as winning a World Series for the Giants. 

 

PITTSBURGH PIRATES

Everybody was rooting for this team to make the playoffs. They haven't been to the postseason since 1992, shoot, they haven't even had a winning record since then! 

Things were looking good for the Pirates after July. They had the hottest player in baseball, the third best record in the National League, and a delicious onion straw-topped hot dog. 

Now, only one of those things remain. 

They are 13-25 since August 1.

Andrew McCutchen looked like a lock to win the NL MVP. He was leading baseball with a .373 average, 22 home runs, 66 RBI, and an OPS over 1.050 once July ended.

In August his game fell off, along with the Pirates. 

He finished the month with a .252 average, two home runs, 13 RBI, and an OPS under .700.

This month hasn't got much better for McCutchen. He's batting .263, with two homers, and only six RBI. 

Despite the Pirates dropping eight of their last 10 games, they are only 2.5 games back of the second wild-card spot. They blew a golden opportunity when the Cubs came into PNC Park and swept the Pirates last weekend. The Pirates are on a five game losing streak, and if they want to make the playoffs they need to get things on track.

Andrew McCutchen is the guy who steers the (pirate) ship. During the last seven games he is batting .143 (3-21). Pittsburgh needs him to get back to his MVP-form if they want to make the postseason for the first time in two decades. 

Pitching has been an issue for Pittsburgh too. They finished August with the 22nd worst ERA. They have improved a little this month, posting the 16th best ERA in the majors. The Pirates need their pitching staff to improve, along with McCutchen, to lead the way if they want to make the postseason.

 

REMAINING SCHEDULE

1 @ Cincinnati

4 @ Chicago

3 vs. Milwaukee

3 @ Houston

4 @ New York

3 vs. Cincinnati

3 vs. Atlanta

The Pirates have a favorable schedule down the stretch run. The 14 games against Chicago, Milwaukee, Houston, and New York are all winnable match-ups for the Pirates. The final six against the Reds and Braves will be at home, and the Reds and Braves could have playoff spots locked up by then, so it could be exactly what the doctor ordered for Pittsburgh.

 

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES

A lot of people thought the Phillies' were throwing in the towel when they dealt Hunter Pence and Shane Victorino. Since the trade deadline they have boasted a 26-14 record to get back in the playoff picture. They are 9-2 in September and currently riding a seven-game winning streak. 

Anytime you have a three-headed monster with Cole Hamels, Roy Halladay, and Cliff Lee you have a chance to be a dangerous team. The Phillies have won 15 of the last 16 games that were started by Hamels, Halladay, and Lee. 

Nobody thought the St. Louis Cardinals were going to make the playoffs last year when September started. They were 8.5 games behind the Atlanta Braves after the final day of August. 

This year, the Phillies were eight games back of the Cardinals on the final day of August. 

Now, they are only 3.5 games back with 19 games left. (The Cardinals were 4.5 games back in 2011 on September 12.)

Kevin Frandsen has been a bright spot for the Phillies recently. He was called up on July 27 and has played sensational. In August he was third in the NL with 37 hits. He is batting .341 with an OPS just under .800. 

He is currently battling a stress fracture in his left leg, but he should be good to go by this weekend. He has fit in nicely at third for the Phils' and they need him in the lineup if they want to keep their playoff hopes alive.

Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, and Chase Utley are all veteran players that are use to playing in September games with a playoff type-of atmosphere. This will help Philadelphia out tremendously. 

Rollins has reached base safely in the last 19 games. He has 15 RBI and scored 14 runs during this span. 

Utley has finally found his groove after missing the first three months of the season. He has reached base safely in 17 of the last 19 games and is batting .360 during their seven-game winning streak. 

The Phillies are 15-4 in their last 19 games and the resurgence of Utley and Rollins, along with the pitching staff, have been huge for Philadelphia getting back in the playoff mix. 

 

REMAINING SCHEDULE

4 @ Houston

3 @ New York

3 vs. Atlanta

3 vs. Washington

3 @ Miami

3 @ Washington

The schedule for the Phillies is a nice mixture of winnable games and some tough match-ups. They need to win the games against the Astros, Mets, and Marlins. They have played the Nationals well of late. Since July 31, they are 5-1 vs. Washington. They are 3-3 vs. Atlanta in their last six. The Phillies are a sexy pick right now because anytime you have Hamels, Halladay, and Lee at the top of your rotation you have a great chance to win every series. Also, Carlos Ruiz was having his best season as a pro before going to the DL on August 3. The All-star catcher was activated earlier this week and should help the Phillies down the stretch run. 

 

MILWAUKEE BREWERS

The Philadelphia Phillies aren't the only team getting hot at the right time. The Brew crew has won 17 of their last 22 games. They have been raking during this period averaging six runs/game. 

Just imagine if the Brewers bullpen didn't blow a league leading 27 saves this season. They would be sitting pretty atop the wild card standings if the 2011 version of John Axford showed up in the first half of the season. He should have never shaved his famous mustache and goatee. Everyone knows not to do that!

Luckily, Axford has found his 2011 form and has converted 10 saves in a row. In September, he is 1-0, 0.00 ERA, six saves, and opposing batters are 1-18 (.055 batting average).  

Offensively for Milwaukee it all starts with the reigning NL MVP. Ryan Braun is having another MVP-type of season. In my opinion the MVP race in the NL comes down to two guys: Braun and Buster Posey. (We'll save this for another day.)

Braun is hitting .309 with 38 home runs and 100 RBI. He ranks in the top ten in the NL in nine offensive categories: 

(7th) batting average - .309 

(1st) home runs - 38

(2nd) RBI - 100

(2nd) runs - 92 

(T-6th) OBP - .385 

(2nd) SLG% - .595 

(1st) OPS - .980

(T-5th) WAR - 5.8

(T-4th) hits - 161

He is arguably the best player in baseball. Over his six year career he has hit over .300 in five of his six seasons (.285 in 2008). He has hit 199 homers to go with 631 RBI averaging 33 HR's a season and 105 RBI per season.

The Brewers pitching staff has improved since the all-star break. Yovanni Gallardo got things back on track in the month of August. In five starts he went 5-0 with a 2.02 ERA. The Brewers have won their last eight times when Gallardo is on the hill. They are hoping it moves to nine with Gallardo on the hill tonight against the Atlanta Braves. 

Milwaukee has improved tremendously since the All-star break. Rickie Weeks, Corey Hart, Norichika Aoki, and Aramis Ramirez have all stepped up since August. Ryan Braun has been consistent all season. Their rotation is finally pitching better and their bullpen is finally converting saves, but the question remains is it too little too late for Milwaukee. 

 

REMAINING SCHEDULE

1 vs. Atlanta

3 vs. New York

3 @ Pittsburgh

4 @ Washington

3 @ Cincinnati

3 vs. Houston

3 vs. San Diego

The Brewers have a pretty tough schedule upcoming. The three-game series against Pittsburgh will be huge for both teams. The winner of this series will put themselves in a good spot to battle for the last playoff spot. Two series on the road against the Nationals and Reds might be happening one week too early for Milwaukee. Both teams will still be trying to lock up the divisions during this time and battling for the top spot in the National League. Also, the series against the Padres could be tough for the Brewers with the way San Diego has been playing since August. 

 

PREDICTION

NL WEST: San Francisco Giants

NL CENTRAL: Cincinnati Reds

NL EAST: Washington Nationals

WILD CARD 1: Atlanta Braves

WILD CARD 2: Philadelphia Phillies 

 

(I think the Phillies and Cardinals will end the season with an identical record and Philadelphia will win a one-game playoff with Cole Hamels on the hill.)

Post your thoughts on who you think will get the final wild-card spot! Tell me why you think I am wrong. 

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