The Giants and Dodgers have both booked their tickets to the 2021 playoffs, though it remains to be seen which club will be NL West champions and which will have to walk the one-game tightrope that is the wild card game. While the identity of the first NL wild card entry is an either/or situation, the battle for that second wild card slot is still completely wide-open with less than three weeks remaining in the regular season.
The Cardinals held a one-game lead in the standings heading into today’s action, and since the Cards aren’t playing today, they’ll still retain at least a half-game edge when they resume play tomorrow in a crucial three-game series against the Padres. St. Louis wasn’t even a .500 team (53-55) on August 5, but the team has since gone 23-14 to re-establish itself as a contender. Both Paul Goldschmidt and Tyler O’Neill have been on fire at the plate since that August 5 date, while Adam Wainwright has continued to turn back the clock with an excellent season. The Cardinals were criticized for a lack of big moves at the trade deadline, though new additions Jon Lester and J.A. Happ have been solid enough to help stabilize the rotation. Following the three games with San Diego, the Cardinals’ remaining schedule is entirely against the Brewers and Cubs.
The Padres enter that pivotal St. Louis series going in the opposite direction. For much of the season, it looked like both NL wild card slots would come from the West division, as San Diego battled alongside the Giants and Dodgers for supremacy. However, San Diego’s 22-30 record since the All-Star break has left the Padres battling just to get into the postseason. It has been more or less a team-wide funk over those 52 games, as the Padres rank 24th in baseball in both wRC+ (92) and pitching fWAR (2.5) in the second half, though the rotation at least has the excuse of multiple injuries. It doesn’t help that the Padres also have a very tough remaining schedule — all of their remaining games are against the Cardinals, Giants, Dodgers, and Braves.
Even after today’s 1-0 victory over the Pirates, the Reds still have just five wins in their last 17 games, stumbling back in the standings after a nice surge in late July and early August. Speaking of scheduling, Cincinnati hasn’t done well to take advantage of some weaker opponents, as that 17-game window has included losing series to such weaker opponents as the Marlins, Cubs, Tigers, and Pirates (and a 2-4 record against the Cardinals). With 10 remaining games against the Pirates and Nationals, the Reds’ schedule still offers plenty of opportunity to bank wins, and the impending return of Jesse Winker should be a major boost to the Cincinnati lineup.
The Phillies still have a shot at the NL East even if they can’t capture the wild card, but after going 2-6 in their last eight games, the bottom line is that Philadelphia needs to get hot in a hurry. The Phils begin a three-game set against the Mets tomorrow and face the Braves in a three-game series at the end of September, but the schedule is otherwise not difficult on paper — 10 games against the Orioles, Pirates, and Marlins. While the bullpen and the back of the rotation continue to be an issue for the Phillies, MVP candidate Bryce Harper is doing his best to try and carry this inconsistent team into the playoffs.
The old “Miracle Mets” nickname might need to be dusted off if 72-75 New York can somehow squeak into the playoffs as either a wild card or as the NL East champions. The Mets are five games out of the division lead and 5.5 games out of the wild card entering today, leaving them with essentially no margin for error the rest of the way. Losing this series with the Phillies might all but officially end the Mets’ chances, but nine games against the Braves, Brewers, and Red Sox still loom on the upcoming schedule.
Just to cover our bases, the NL East-leading Braves will also be included in the poll just in case the Phillies or Mets do steal the division. (Though one would imagine that in that scenario, the Braves would have to slump badly enough to take them out of wild card contention as well.) Following a scorching hot 16-2 stretch in August, Atlanta is only 8-12 over its last 20 games, which is just enough to make things interesting in September. The Braves end their season with six games against the Phillies and Mets, and also have a ten-game road trip featuring six games against the Padres and Giants sandwiched around a four-game set with the cellar-dwelling Diamondbacks.
Who do you think will capture that second wild card slot? (Link to poll for app users)