Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 8, 2022

Now Comes The Home Stretch

The longest season is winding down.  In four weeks’ time, the final out of the regular campaign’s last game will have been recorded, and a dozen squads, having earned the right to play on into October, will be making final preparations for the playoffs.  Eight of those teams, the three Wild Card entrants from each league plus the AL and NL division champions with the lowest regular season winning percentage, will start the best-of-three Wild Card round on Friday, October 7.  Not quite one month later, on one of the first five nights of November, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred will hand the trophy he once idiotically – an adverb Manfred has since agreed is appropriate – described as “a piece of metal” to the owner of the 2022 World Series champion.

As this is written, only the Oakland Athletics and Washington Nationals have been officially eliminated from playoff contention, with the last two dozen or so games on the schedule an undesirable exercise in playing out the string.  The woeful records of both franchises are reminders of how quickly fortunes can turn.  The A’s are just two seasons removed from a run of three straight years in the playoffs, and the Nats but three from that improbable run through the postseason that ended in the 2019 title.  Yet as bad as both franchises have performed this year, six months from now fans will find cause to rekindle hope, perhaps because of progress toward a new stadium on the West Coast, or a new owner on the East.

Of course, “officially eliminated” is a construct, a statistical artifact appropriate in a sport that has always thrived on metrics, even as the numbers and calculations in vogue have grown more complex and esoteric over the years.  No fan of the other twelve clubs that currently sport losing records seriously expects their heroes to suddenly go on a tear through September and vault into a treasured Wild Card slot.  One by one over the next days, this season will reach its meaningful end for all those franchises.

Yet even as those campaigns end in disappointment and doubt, plenty of drama remains at the other end of the standings.  For a fortunate few, the tension is about playoff positioning, not postseason relevance.  For example, barring an epic collapse, both of the top two teams in the NL East will make the playoffs.  Heading into Friday’s action, when both teams open series on the road, the Mets hold the narrowest of margins – a mere half game – over Atlanta.  But the defending World Series champions are ten and a half games clear of the Phillies and Padres, the two teams currently tied for the NL’s remaining Wild Card spots, and those squads have a further four game edge on the Brewers.  If either the Mets or Atlanta are shut out of the postseason, it will be the result of one of the worst Septembers in the history of the Great Game.

Still, playoff position matters.  Just ask fans of the Los Angeles Dodgers, who had to watch last year as their team, despite 106 regular season wins, went into the playoffs as a Wild Card since that number, while gaudy, was one less than the 107 recorded by division rival San Francisco.  That meant L.A. had to survive both a four-hour-plus Wild Card game against St. Louis and a grueling five-game Division Series, without home field advantage, against the Giants, in order to face Atlanta in the NLCS.  Despite entering the postseason with eighteen fewer wins, Atlanta claimed home field for that series as a division winner, and ultimately prevailed over an L.A. squad that looked spent.  So fans in both Queens and the northwest suburbs of Atlanta will be anxiously following their heroes over these final weeks.  The good news for the former group, who have watched their team’s 10 1/2 game lead on June 1 dwindle away, is that the Mets have an exceptionally soft schedule down the stretch, with eighteen of the team’s final twenty-five games coming against opponents with losing records.  Then again, New York began this week by losing three straight, two to the Nats and one to the Pirates, while being outscored 22-4, a reminder that they still must play the games.

The stakes are higher in the AL Central, where the Guardians are a mere two games in front of the Twins and White Sox.  All three teams are just barely above .500, so the two that miss the division crown are longshots at best for a Wild Card spot.  Back in the bucolic days of Spring Training, most pundits tagged Chicago as the team to beat in this division.  However, the Sox have scuffled all season.  Only a recent surge – six wins in eight games over the last week – has nudged Chicago just over the breakeven mark at 69-68 and kept hope alive on the South Side.  In the end, the AL’s weakest but also most competitive division will likely be decided the old-fashioned way, in head-to-head matchups between the principals.  The remaining regular season calendar includes four games between Cleveland and Chicago, six between Chicago and Minnesota, and eight matchups between the Guardians and Twins.

Whichever team claims the AL Central crown will almost certainly be the league’s number three seed, since both Houston and New York, and for that matter Tampa Bay, which still has hopes of catching the Yankees, are on track for measurably better regular season records.  So despite winning a division, the franchise will still have to play in the Wild Card round.  Gone is the single elimination Wild Card Game in each league.  In its place is a best-of-three series, with the games played on consecutive days and all in the higher seed’s stadium. 

Winning a series on the road can be a challenge during the regular season.  Doing so in front of a hostile crowd in a playoff atmosphere, against an opponent that will, on paper anyway, be at least comparable to the visiting squad, seems especially daunting.  Yet with four such series on tap to start the postseason, it seems likely at least one of the road warriors will turn the trick.  The team that does will then face a well-rested one or two seed that will have used its bye past the first round to line up its pitching rotation to optimal effect for the five game Division Series.  In short, an even steeper hill to climb.  But as the Great Game’s recent history has shown, once the playoffs start, anything can happen.  The first step, over the next four weeks, in Cleveland, Chicago, Minneapolis, Atlanta, Queens, and every other MLB city where hope still lives, is getting there.

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