Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 15, 2016

Drama Aplenty In The Longest Season’s Final Days

Here in New England the overnight temperature will drop into the forties this evening. Autumn is at hand, and that means that after winding its way from the first contests in earliest April, the longest season nears its end. Three weekends hence the final games will be played, leaving fans of just ten teams with the happy prospect of following their heroes on into the playoffs. With their 7-0 shutout of the St. Louis Cardinals on Wednesday, the Chicago Cubs became the first franchise to clinch a spot in the postseason. As soon as this evening the Cubs can formally secure what has been a forgone conclusion for weeks, the title of NL Central Division champions.

Barring collapses that would become the stuff of legend, the Washington Nationals and Texas Rangers should follow the Cubs as divisional winners well before the final weekend of play. While Cleveland and Los Angeles enjoy smaller leads in the AL Central and NL West respectively, each team is a strong favorite with better than a ninety-six percent chance of winning its division according to FanGraphs. Only the AL East seems truly up for grabs with just over two weeks remaining. The Red Sox, Orioles and Blue Jays are bunched together, and each still has a series to play against both of the others.

It’s very possible that the two teams that miss out on winning the AL East will capture the two American League Wild Card spots, and advance to the win-or-go-home confrontation that kicks off the Great Game’s playoffs in each league. Given the solid leads held by the top team in five of the six divisions, the Wild Card races are likely to hold most of the drama over the longest season’s final days.

Right behind the Orioles and Blue Jays in the American League are the Tigers, Mariners and Yankees. With eight wins in a row going into Thursday night’s action, Seattle is the hottest team in the majors. Houston and Kansas City aren’t out of it quite yet, but either would have to play torrid baseball from here on out in order to win the chance to continue on into October. Realistically the AL Wild Card chase is a battle among five teams, Detroit, Seattle and New York, as well as whichever two squads don’t win the AL East, for the final two postseason spots. While the Mariners and Yankees are given the longest odds of making it, since the All-Star break those two teams are tied with the Rangers for the best record in the American League.

In the senior circuit the competitors are fewer in number. As this is written the Giants hold a half-game edge on the Mets, with the Cardinals on the outside, but only by another half game. That the Metropolitans are still in the picture is little short of remarkable. Every season one or two teams are widely acknowledged as having been bitten by the injury bug to a disproportionate degree, and if they win nothing else this year the Mets will claim that crown. New York lost Matt Harvey, David Wright, Lucas Duda and Neil Walker to season-ending injuries. In addition to Harvey, starting pitchers Jacob deGrom and Steven Matz are currently sidelined, and Yoenis Cespedes and Asdrubal Cabrera returned from stints on the disabled list late last month. Yet with seven wins in their last ten games the Mets have the best recent record of the three teams fighting for the last two playoff spots.

New York also has the scheduling good fortune of playing thirteen of the remaining sixteen games on the schedule against Minnesota, Atlanta, and Philadelphia. The first two could wind up losing a hundred games this year, while the Phillies may well lose ninety. In contrast to that soft schedule the Cardinals and Giants face each other in a four-game death match this weekend; and St. Louis still has a series against the Cubs while San Francisco must play the Dodgers six more times.

Of all the teams still in contention, none is more baffling than San Francisco. In the distant days of Spring Training, clever wags were picking the Giants to go the distance this season based on recent history alone. After all 2016 is an even-numbered year, and the Giants were World Series champions in 2010, 2012 and 2014. Through the All-Star break it looked like those predictions were more than just numerological fantasy. At 57-33 San Francisco had the Great Game’s best record, ahead of even the magical Cubs. The Giants were 6 ½ games clear of the Dodgers and postseason baseball at AT&T Park seemed a certainty. But after being swept at home by the lowly Padres this week, San Francisco has gone from first to worst. The team’s 20-35 record since the All-Star break puts the Giants dead last among all thirty teams since the Midsummer Classic.

It’s a collapse of historic proportions, reminiscent of the Braves and Red Sox in 2011. That year Atlanta had the second best record in the National League at the break, and enjoyed an 8 ½ game cushion in the Wild Card standings with a month to play. Boston led the AL East and was nine games up in the Wild Card at the start of September. Both teams missed the playoffs. If San Francisco follows that path, it will be a long and bitter offseason in the Bay area.

Of course some fans will question the value of the Wild Card, since with two spots it now guarantees only a single postseason game, with the second Wild Card team playing even that game on the road. But since the Wild Card was introduced in 1994 teams that made the playoffs without winning their division have played in twelve World Series and won six. Since the two Wild Card format started in 2012, lowly second Wild Cards have won three of the four play-in games in each league. Twice the Washington Nationals had the best regular season record in the NL but couldn’t make it past the second Wild Card in the Division Series. Last season the Cardinals won 100 games, but fell to the second Wild Card Cubs, also in the NLDS. Most notably, two years ago the Giants were the NL’s second Wild Card, while the Kansas City Royals were the first Wild Card in the American League. The two wound up meeting in a thrilling World Series.

The longest season is in its final days, and five of the six division races are all but over; but that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty left to play for. For fans of every team that still has a fighting chance, the only games more exciting than those in the last half of September will be the ones they are still hoping to see come October.

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