It was a crazy week in the NL Wild Card Race. Several of the contenders played each other, with the Pittsburgh Pirates playing the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Cardinals, tightening the race for the final wild card spot. This week marks the first time that I will begin ranking the teams based on their perceived strength rather than their record as the stretch run begins to heat up.
1. Atlanta Braves (70-50, +90 Run Differential)
Despite posting a middling 4-3 record this past week, the Braves appear to have separated themselves in the race for the NL’s last two playoff spots. They now hold a 4 game lead over the Pirates for the higher Wild Card seed. But, the Braves seem determined to clinch the NL East and a full playoff series instead of a one-game playoff. Ben Sheets seems to have come back to earth after an unbelievable return from multiple surgeries, but this slump has been overshadowed by the superb play of Chipper Jones who hit two home runs on his bobblehead night Thursday. Again, the Braves seem determined to forget last year’s epic collapse and make one last run behind their ageless superstar.
2. Cardinals (65-55, +109)
The Cards may rank fourth by record currently, but they are stronger than the Pirates and Dodgers. The Redbirds just took two of three from the Dodgers earlier this week and have split the first two games of their weekend series against the Bucs. Sunday’s rubber game provides an opportunity for the Cardinals to finally catch the Pirates and impose their strength on their flawed rivals. The Cards’ potent offense and strong starting pitching should offset their woeful bullpen eventually, allowing them to overtake the Pirates and Dodgers. However, if they wish to hold onto a Wild Card spot, or catch the Braves, the ‘pen must improve.
3. Dodgers (66-55, +34)
The Dodgers may trail the Pirates in the standings, but they may not for long. After taking three of four in Pittsburgh this past week, the Dodgers trail the Pirates by a mere half game for the final Wild Card slot. This was not the only good news in Dodgertown this past week however, as their rival San Francisco Giants lost Melky Cabrera, one of the most productive hitters this season, to suspension. They face their own rubber game against the Braves sunday, giving them a chance to win a series against the Wild Card frontrunners and cement their contender status.
4. Pirates (66-54, +18)
The Bucs have seen their precarious grip on the final NL playoff spot slip over the past week. Despite the return to form of first-half ace James McDonald, the Pirates have started August 7-10 and cannot afford to slip further. Sunday’s rubber game against the Cards gives them an opportunity to make a stand. The Pirates should post a winning record for the first time since 1992, but they must win these big games in order to snap their nineteen year playoff drought as well.
5. Arizona Diamondbacks (61-59, +42)
The Diamondbacks have a better run differential than every team on this list besides the Braves and Cardinals, yet continue to struggle with inconsistency. Their 4-2 record this past week has been bolstered by two wins against the putrid Houston Astros and masks two series losses to the Cards and Washington Nationals. The D’backs face a steep climb back to contention, sitting five games back of the Pirates. It may be too late for them to mount a comeback, but don’t count them out just yet. Any team would envy the Diamondbacks’ pitching depth, despite the struggles of phenom Trevor Bauer, and Justin Uptonis always capable of a hot streak that could vault the Diamondbacks into the heat of the race.