September 8, 2003
Home Stretch for the Wild Card
The National League playoff race has thinned out over the past few weeks, with the Rockies and, unfortunately, the Expos falling out of contention. Seven teams are still playing for two spots, however, which will mean plenty of meaningful baseball down the stretch.
How does the remaining schedule affect the chase? As I've mentioned a few times, there's no team in this race that can't go 16-4 over three weeks, which is one of the things that makes the game great. Playing an easier slate makes that feat more manageable, though, and from the looks of things, the Cubs have a big edge over the pack:
Team Opp. Pct. Cubs .453 Cardinals .482 Diamondbacks .489 Astros .490 Dodgers .509 Marlins .544 Phillies .544
The Cubs don't play a single above-.500 team the rest of the way, and after four games in Puerto Rico this week, close the season with a schedule that looks a bit like something the love child of Bill Snyder and John Thompson might have thrown together. The Snugglies play home-and-homes with the Reds and Pirates, and host the Mets for three games. Not only are all those teams safely below .500, but two of them are playing patchwork lineups loaded with B and C prospects. The vast majority of hitters who step in to face the Cubs' loaded rotation over the next few weeks aren't going to be major league caliber. Dusty Baker is getting an awful lot of credit for getting the .570 talent he inherited to play .531 baseball. He'll probably be getting a lot more in three weeks.
Moreover, the Cubs don't face either the Astros or Cardinals, while those two teams have six games with one another. The difference in their schedules is that the Astros have three games left with the Giants, and the Cards a three-game set with the Diamondbacks. The head-to-head games, however, will probably determine who stays in the Wild Card mix.
The Marlins and Phillies suffer from playing each other and the Braves 13 times, which is going to make it hard for them to both stay in this thing. The Phillies have a one-game edge on the Fish for the top slot in the Wild Card race, and if there's any edge to be found in the two schedules, it's that the Phillies play three of their games with the Braves on the last weekend of the season. While home-field advantage may still be up for grabs, Atlanta will be setting its playoff rotation by that time, meaning the Phillies will have a good chance of missing Russ Ortiz, and may see less of the Braves' stars over the three games.
Out west, the Snakes and RunDodgers play each other seven times starting tonight. L.A., however, has seven games left with the Giants and seven with the resurgent Padres, while the Diamondbacks are done with both and have six games left with the Brewers and Rockies. Edge, D'backs, although again the head-to-head matchup probably outweighs the edge.
While I didn't like their chances in June, I've been on the Cubs ever since the Astros and Cardinals failed to make upgrades at the trade deadline. With the team in first place and facing a schedule by Hostess, it's hard to see the Cubs not winning the NL Central. As for the Wild Card, all the head-to-head games make it hard to predict a winner. I've ducked the question long enough, though; as far as I can tell the NL Wild Card team will be the Marlins, who will take four of six from the Phillies in head-to-head play and hang on to reach 92 wins.
The same figure they totaled in 1997.
Just as an aside, check out the schedule for the week of the 15th. In the mid-week games, the Phillies and Marlins play in Philadelphia, the White Sox and Twins in Minnesota, and the Diamondbacks and Dodgers in L.A. That weekend, effectively showdown weekend, the Royals and Sox play in Chicago, the Astros and Cardinals in St. Louis, the Mariners and A's hook up in Oakland, and the Dodgers and Giants--just one contender, but these two could be 55-95 and play a great series--are in L.A. I'm not a fan of the Wild Card, but if there's ever going to be a week for the sport to steal the audience's attention and get some positive focus on the tremendous excitement generated by races, it's that week.
Sell it, boys. Sell it hard.