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The National League has a tremendous wild-card race going, with five teams
separated by four games. Throw in the division leaders, and half the league
is within 8 1/2 games of each other. That’s a recipe for a great three weeks
of baseball, perhaps comparable to the 1967 American League race, if we get
lucky.

Unfortunately, these teams aren’t battling on an even ground. The wildly
unbalanced schedule means that teams fighting for the same goal–the wild
card–face significantly divergent schedules down the stretch. Teams in the
NL West are going to have a hard time keeping pace with their counterparts
in the East and Central. Take a look at the road ahead for the five
wild-card contenders:


Team       Weighted Opp. Pct.,
            Remaining Games

Dodgers .544 Giants .537 Phillies .471 Cardinals .465 Cubs .464


The Dodgers and Giants have the toughest tasks ahead of them, with schedules
that make the Cubs’ and Cardinals’ next three weeks look like a walk in the
park. This is on top of playing a schedule that featured the AL’s best
division, the West:


Division        Non-Division Record

AL West 250-166 AL Central 193-219 AL East 183-229


The unbalanced schedule has a lot of good features. It builds rivalries,
provides extended stretches of in-season big games, and means that a
divisional champion has to have success within its division. It all but
eliminates the possibility of a sub-.500 team reaching the playoffs.

But when you marry the unbalanced schedule to the wild card, you run the
risk of rewarding a team whose record is distorted by an inferior quality of
opponent. Look at the gap in those divisional records above. Can you really
say that the Cardinals’ 8-7 interleague record is much more impressive that
the Dodgers’ 6-9 mark? Those two games could be the difference between a
playoff berth and a lot more time to spend on fantasy football.

MLB isn’t going to reduce the number of teams in the playoffs, and an
expansion to 32 teams–which would solve many of the current problems–isn’t
a viable option. That’s especially true given the uncertainty created by
last week’s terrorist attacks; asking for more of the public’s discretionary
funds isn’t a good idea when the specter of war looms. We’re probably stuck
with the current arrangement for at least a few more years.

Just remember that if the Dodgers fall a game short to the Cardinals this
year, it doesn’t make them "chokers," and it may not even make
them the lesser team.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by
clicking here.