Things have gotten interesting once again in the race for the National League’s final two playoff slots. A slide by the Cardinals has allowed the Atlanta Braves to pull away somewhat, and the Los Angeles Dodgers to pull within half a game. At the same time, the Milwaukee Brewers have caught fire over the last few weeks, and now stand five games back of the Redbirds, not close enough in the race yet for analysis in this column, but still worth mentioning.
1. Braves (80-60, Run Differential: +89)
The Braves have grown their lead in the Wild Card race over the past few weeks, including a 6-1 record this past week by beating up on weak teams. The Braves have only one more series against a team with a winning record this season, a three game set with the Washington Nationals on September 14-16, giving them a commanding position in the NL Wild Card race, and an outside chance to catch the Nationals in the NL East. The Braves’ pitching has performed especially well lately, tossing three shutouts in a row Wednesday through Friday this past week. It appears that this Braves team wishes to erase any doubt among observers and avoid the ugly collapse that befell them last year. Another week of strong play should allow the Braves to do just this and begin setting their rotation for the playoffs.
2. Cardinals (74-65, +93)
The Cards have played horribly over the past week, going 2-4, with five of those games at home. Their poor run of play in their last ten games–they are 3-7 in their last ten–has allowed the Brewers to believe in a miraculous comeback in the Wild Card Race. However, this should be nothing more than a blip in a strong campaign to defend their World Series Title. The Cardinals play only 2 more series against teams with winning records, including a four game set with the Dodgers that should bring some clarity to the race for the second Wild Card slot. The Cardinals need to elevate their play in the next few weeks to avoid playing catch up for that slot though. They have fallen behind early in several games lately, and it seems as though they have been subjecting themselves to an inordinate amount of pressure to perform. The Cards need to just relax and go back to winning baseball to wrap up their run at a playoff spot and take their World Series defense to the next level.
3. Dodgers (74-66, +22)
The Dodgers have played .500 ball in their past ten, but still stand just 1/2 of a game behind the Cards for the final Wild Card spot. The back end of the rotation has continued to pitch solidly, and the improved play of August addition Josh Beckett has helped to further solidify the team’s pitching. However, the Dodgers face a tougher schedule than the Cards or Braves, playing only 3 series against teams with losing records the rest of the season, and find themselves in the middle of a stretch of 13 of 15 games against teams over .500, and 11 of those 15 on the road. The Dodgers have an excellent chance of catching the Redbirds, but will have to really prove themselves as a playoff team over the next four weeks in order to do so.
4. Pittsburgh Pirates
The Pirates continue to sink out of contention, and despite just a 1.5 game deficit, do not appear to have a chance to catch the Cards in the Wild Card Race based on their recent run of play. The Buccos should finish above .500 for the first time since the early-1990s, but that seems like the extent of their season at this point. Another week of weak play should drop them out of the race.