Houston Astros LA Dodgers
Gerrit Cole #45 of the Houston Astros was covering home when he was run into by Manny Machado #8 of the Los Angeles Dodgers after scoring a run in the third inning at Dodger Stadium on Aug. 5, 2018 in Los Angeles. John McCoy/Getty Images

Less than a year after facing off in the 2017 World Series, the Houston Astros (74-47) and Los Angeles Dodgers (65-57) find themselves in the middle of tight division races. Despite being ranked among the favorites in the 2018 MLB season, neither team is guaranteed to return to the playoffs.

L.A. wouldn’t be in the postseason if the regular season ended right now as they sit two games out of first place in the NL West and 2.5 games behind the Milwaukee Brewers (68-55) for the second NL Wild-Card berth. The Astros have an ever-shrinking two-game lead in the AL West, and a difficult upcoming schedule could make them part of the AL Wild-Card conversation.

Houston is likely to make the playoffs, though it’s surprising that things are even this close. The defending champions got even better in the offseason by trading for Gerrit Cole, who has been among the league’s best pitchers. The Astros have baseball’s best rotation and the No.1 bullpen. Only recently did the Boston Red Sox (86-36) overtake them as the World Series favorites while running away with the AL East.

Playing in MLB’s best division has kept the season interesting for Houston. The Oakland Athletics (72-49) are nipping at their heels atop the AL West, while the Seattle Mariners (70-52) won’t go away. The Mariners don’t own a playoff spot, but they only trail the Astros by 4.5 games after completing a four-game sweep in Houston last weekend.

Between the AL West and AL Wild-Card races, the Astros, Athletics, Mariners and New York Yankees (75-46) are fighting for three playoff spots. Unless they completely fall off a cliff, the Yankees are very likely to find their way into the postseason as the three divisional rivals beat up on one another.

The next two weeks could play a major role in regard to which team won’t play October baseball. Houston has six games against Oakland and three games against Seattle scheduled during that time. The Mariners will also host a key four-game series with the A’s at the end of the month.

All of the numbers certainly favor Houston maintaining their lead over Seattle. The Astros aren’t far behind the Red Sox with a plus-202 run differential, while the Mariners have been outscored by their opponents by 22 runs. Houston has a top-five offense to go along with the sport’s No.1 pitching staff. Seattle ranks 21st in runs scored and 17th in team ERA.

Over in the National League, there are positive signs that the defending champs will return to the postseason, as well. The Dodgers have the best run differential in the division at plus-93. Los Angeles leads the NL in ERA and ranks third in runs scored. With a roster that appears good enough to win a title, L.A. ranks ahead of the Chicago Cubs (70-50) with the best World Series odds in the NL.

None of that will matter, however, if the Dodgers don’t start winning more games.

L.A. is two games behind the first-place Arizona Diamondbacks (67-55), and they inexplicably trail the second-place Colorado Rockies (65-56) by a half-game in the NL West standings. Just like Seattle, Colorado has a minus-22 run differential. Only two NL teams have a worse ERA than the Rockies, and they are fourth in runs scored while playing half their games at Coors Field.

Surpassing the Rockies alone won’t put the Dodgers in the playoffs. They’ve still got to compete with the Atlanta Braves (68-52) or Philadelphia Phillies (67-54), whichever team finishes second in the NL East. The Brewers currently own the second wild-card spot, and the surging St. Louis Cardinals (66-56) have one fewer loss than Los Angeles.

The Dodgers were as active as anyone at the trade deadline, acquiring Manny Machado, Brian Dozier and John Axford. Axford is out for a few weeks with a small break in his fibular and Machado has slumped in Los Angeles after performing like an MVP candidate at the plate with the Baltimore Orioles. Dozier has actually been the Dodgers’ best addition, thus far, with a .932 OPS in 14 games, including a walk-off hit against the San Francisco Giants (61-61) Wednesday night.

Perhaps that victory will spark a turnaround for the Dodgers. It gave them a badly needed win as they avoided a sweep at the hands of the Giants, who are long shots to make the playoffs. L.A. is 9-13 in their last 22 games with four losses in six games against NL West opponents.

Los Angeles might have a roster that’s good enough to find its way into the postseason, but they are running out of time to reach their potential.

The Dodgers won their fifth straight NL West crown last year, losing to the Astros in Game 7 of the World Series.