Despite relative stability in the top two spots of the standings, the NL Wild Card race has been remarkably volatile this season. Throughout the last few weeks, the list of contenders has changed constantly, setting the stage for an intriguing stretch run in the NL this year.
1. Atlanta Braves (87-65, Run Differential +88)
The Braves have dispelled any fears of a collapse in the same vein as last year’s disastrous home stretch. They have played excellent baseball all year and now possess a magic number of five to clinch the Wild Card’s top slot with just 10 games to go. The question the Braves now face is how to set their roster for the single Wild Card game, and maximize their potential to extend Chipper Jones‘ final season into a long playoff run.
2. Cardinals (81-71, +92)
The Cards have recovered from a slump in late-August and early-September, returning to their winning ways over the last few games. Although these games have come against the lowly Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros, the Redbirds look vastly improved during this stretch. Chris Carpenter’s return should hopefully stabilize the rotation and give the Cards an ace capable of dueling with the NL’s top arms at best, and at least a solid mid-rotation starter for the playoffs.
3. Milwaukee Brewers (78-73, +47)
The Brewers have mounted a huge comeback over the last few weeks, turning around what looked like a lost season. Ryan Braun has put up even better numbers this year than his MVP-winning 2011 campaign, and has generated conversation about whether his overturned positive PED test is the only thing keeping him from winning back-to-back MVPs. Unfortunately, it could be too little too late for the Brewcrew, as they stand 2.5 games out with just 11 to play.
4. Philadelphia Phillies (77-75, +8)
The fact that the Phillies are even bearing mention in this column after their early-season form is an achievement in and of itself. The Phillies have fought back to the periphery of the Wild Card Race, and could mount a miracle run with a lot of help from the teams ahead of them. Unfortunately, this is highly unlikely as the Phillies would have to leapfrog three teams to win the Wild Card despite what is arguably the toughest schedule of those teams. The fact that the Phillies have fought their way back into contention should serve as a measure of success, and establishes expectations for the NL’s former top team in the coming years.
5. Los Angeles Dodgers (78-74, +8)
The Dodgers’ collapse out of contention is almost complete, as they lost the NL West on Saturday night. Despite taking on about a quarter billion dollars in salary in their blockbuster August deal with the Boston Red Sox (yes that is billion with a b) the Dodgers have failed to catch any of the teams they have chased all season long, and now see their playoff hopes dwindling. Staff ace Clayton Kershaw’s hip injury further complicates things, as the Dodgers’ slim hopes now rest on a suddenly shaky rotation missing its strongest piece. The Dodgers have made great strides this year in simply contending when no one thought they would, but have to start setting their sights on contention next year, as they have faded down the stretch.