By John Franco
One thing is clear: with 26 games to go, the Pirates are just 1.5 games out of the second Wild Card spot in the National League, and that’s awesome. The rest of the Wild Card picture? It’s about as clear as mud. Here’s a quick look at where things stand:
Washington Nationals (threat level: low)
The Nationals currently hold a 7.5 game lead over the Braves in the NL East. Ideally, they’ll hold onto their lead, beat the Braves and Cardinals a few times along the way, and stay out of the Pirates’ hair. The Nats have won 8 of their last 9 games and have “easy” games remaining against the Marlins, Mets, Phillies and Brewers. Unfortunately, they’re about to shut their ace pitcher (Stephen Strasburg) down for the season, and you never know what might happen after that.
Atlanta Braves (threat level: moderate)
At 78-60, the Braves hold the higher Wild Card spot and a 3.5 game lead over the Cardinals. Their remaining schedule is ridiculously easy (6 games each against the Mets and Marlins) and their biggest threat to the Pirates is the 3 games they will play to end the season in October. The Braves just took 3 of 4 from the hapless Rockies and their pitching is red hot. Unless they can chase down the Nationals, they are likely to host the other Wild Card winner.
St. Louis Cardinals (threat level: high)
At 74-63, the Cardinals currently hold the second Wild Card spot. Their run differential is staggeringly high (+97) but they are just 4-5 in their last 9 games, including losing 2 of 3 to the Pirates at the end of August. The Cards do have 9 games remaining against the hapless Astros and Cubs, but also have to make a trip to the west coast to face the red-hot Padres and mercurial Dodgers. They end the season with 6 games against the Reds and Nationals, who are currently fighting for home field advantage in the National League. The Pirates need both teams to need those games.
Los Angeles Dodgers (threat level: potato)
At 73-65, the Dodgers are tied with the Pirates at 1.5 games out of the second Wild Card spot, but the Pirates have played two fewer games. The Dodgers are just 8-12 in their last 20 games despite adding over a quarter billion dollars in future payroll with trades for Hanley Ramirez, Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett. Their remaining schedule is tougher than the other contenders (6 games with the Giants, 4 with the Cardinals, 3 with the Reds, 3 with the Padres and 3 with the Nationals), but none of those other teams are running out a lineup full of all-stars every night. If you can guess what the Dodgers are going to do with their remaining 23 games, I’d suggest you book a flight to Vegas.
San Francisco Giants (threat level: low)
The Giants hold a 4.5 game lead over the Dodgers for the NL West. As mentioned above, the teams have six games remaining against each other, and it’s conceivable that the Dodgers could push the Giants back into the Wild Card race. All 25 of the Giants remaining games are against division rivals (6 each with the Dodgers, D-Backs, and Padres, as well as 7 with the Rockies), and San Francisco has an encouraging 28-19 record against their division this season. Like the Nationals, the hope here is that the Giants win their division and bury their rivals in the process.
Arizona Diamondbacks and Milwaukee Brewers (threat level: low)
The Diamondbacks (5 games behind the Pirates) and Brewers (5.5 games back) are hanging onto their playoff hopes by a thread. After being left for dead following sweeps by the Padres and Reds, Arizona split a 4-game series with the Dodgers and took 2 of 3 from the Giants. After sweeping the Pirates, Milwaukee managed only a 4-game split with the Marlins this week. Neither team is likely to be a serious threat, but you could have said that about the Rays and Cardinals last year.