We have now hit September, meaning the end of any meaningful trades and other transactions as all players acquired after August 31 cannot appear on postseason rosters, and the start of the home stretch for the playoffs. The NL Wild Card race has essentially lost a contender–the Arizona Diamondbacks have fallen below .500 and, barring an unbelievably strong finish, will no longer appear in this column. The remaining four teams find themselves separated by 3.5 games, a sign for a crazy last four weeks to the 2012 season in the NL Wild Card Race.
1. Cardinals (72-61, +97 Run Differential)
Despite the loss of Rafael Furcal for the season earlier this week, the Redbirds have begun to finally create some separation between themselves and the trailing Pittsburgh Pirates and Los Angeles Dodgers, while simultaneously making up ground on the Atlanta Braves. The Cardinals continue sporting one of the strongest run differentials in baseball, despite a relatively mediocre week of play that saw them follow up a strong 8-2 rubber game win over the Cincinnati Reds with some blowout losses to the Pirates and Washington Nationals. The series with the Nationals has tested the Cardinals’ legitimacy as a club capable of making a playoff run. They lost the first two games badly on Thursday and Friday, before rallying back Saturday night after blowing a lead in the sixth inning. Sunday’s game is key for the Redbirds to fully legitimize themselves as not just contenders for the playoffs, but for defending their World Series crown.
2. Braves (74-59, +76)
The Braves continue to lead this race in the standings week after week, but they have hit a bit of a minor slide, losing 9 of their past 13 games over the past two weeks. Though this does represent a small sample size, no one can forget the Braves’ epic collapse last year. The psychological toll of such an implosion could begin to set in if the Braves do not begin to right the ship soon. However, their talent, coupled with their relatively easy schedule the rest of the way, should prevent a similar debacle. Despite a rotation that has disappointed this season, the Braves boast arguably the strongest bullpen in the majors. Craig Kimbrell, Eric O’Flaherty, and Jonny Venters have the potential to shorten any game to six innings, despite Venters not living up to his performance in previous years. The Braves lineup is deep as well, and should be bolstered by the return of shortstop Andrelton Simmons in the next few weeks. Don’t expect another collapse from these Braves.
3. Dodgers (71-63, +26)
The Dodgers have begun to slip, losing 8 of their last 13 over the last two weeks, allowing the San Francisco Giants, owners of one of MLB’s easiest September schedules to open up a season-high 4.5 game lead in the NL West. This lead is not impossible to erase, but it is sufficiently strong enough to shift the Dodgers’ focus to the Wild Card Race. Despite acquiring a boatload of superstar players since the July 31 trading deadline, the Dodgers had a pretty dismal August, losing 14 of 28. The performances of the rotation bear most of the blame for the recent poor run, as early-season stalwart Chris Capuano has reverted back to his journeyman form over the past few starts and Chad Billingsley is possibly out for the rest of the season.
4.Pirates (71-63, +17)
The Pirates continue to cling to contention, despite their continual drop in the standings over the past month. Andrew McCutchen has hit a slump, hitting .252/.347/.346 in August, his first month all season under the .300 mark. The Pirates will go as far as their young superstar will carry them, as they are a flawed team that has suffered regression from the rotation after excellence earlier in the season. If the Pirates cannot score enough to offset their rotation issues–a near impossibility with McCutchen slumping–they will fall out of the race completely. It has been amazing season in Pittsburgh, but they will take the leap to true contention in the years to come.