I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there are only six teams in the National League with winning records. Just as a comparison, the American League East, alone, has four. Depending how you look at it, that’s some historic disparity and/or some historic tanking in the senior circuit. That’s probably aided by the fact that a team that has gone an MLB-worst 17-32 since the All-Star break is still currently in possession of the first NL wild card slot. It could also explain why a team that’s 15 1/2 games back in their own division is in a tie for possession of the second. And it could even explain why a team decimated by injuries (they’re missing their first baseman, second baseman and third baseman and one of their two healthy starting pitchers is 43-years-old and 285 pounds) is the other team tied for the second wild card. Welcome to the National League Wild Card race, a battle in which mediocre teams will try to upset the Cubs in the first round.
No team has ever gone in to the break with the best record in baseball and then followed it up with the worst record in the second half. So you have to assume the Giants will stop unraveling at some point. But they’re not hitting, their bullpen sucks and they also have six remaining games against the Dodgers, who are actually getting Clayton Kershaw back this week and also have an atoning Yasiel Puig, who is very, very sorry. He promises. The Cardinals, who are almost done in the Central, may have hit home runs in 25 straight games. And they also may have effectively ended the 2016 Pittsburg Pirates’ season with three homers in the 9th on Tuesday. But they also have six games remaining against the Cubs. I’d mention their four games with San Francisco, but that’s probably a good thing. Nevertheless, of the three remaining Wild Card contenders, the team with the easiest schedule going forward is actually the New York Mets.
With 22 games to play, the Mets have 7 against the Phillies, 6 against the Braves, 3 against the Twins and 3 against the Marlins. As of now, only their three-game series in D.C. will be against a team with a winning record. And I’ll get to why that just got a whole lot less intimidating in a minute. The Mets also have what is known in the business as zero pressure. Sure, their fans probably didn’t expect to be talking about 26-year-old rookie, Seth Lugo, at this point in the season. But he’s 3-1 with a 2.23 ERA in his first four starts. They probably didn’t expect to be talking about the postseason a month or so ago when they were trailing the Marlins in their own division. But here we are. Twenty-some games to go before the postseason. And two of these teams will have to make it in, however improbable that sounds.
The AL East
Just when I told you that the Blue Jays were the best bet to win the division and that the rest of the division would eat itself, they got swept by the Yankees and everything is back to being a giant clusterfuck. The Red Sox currently lead the division by a game. David Price is 6-0 with a 2.14 ERA in his last six starts. And every single one of their remaining games will be against teams in the division. The only real disappointment for them this past week is that they called up Yoan Moncada too soon. At one point, he struck out seven times in a row. I could do that! Nobody’s calling me the top prospect in baseball.
Of course everything that happens in the East also has huge implications for the AL Wild Card and this weekend’s series between the Orioles and Tigers should be very interesting. Especially Chris Tillman returning on Sunday to face Justin Verlander. Everyone, including me, has been waiting for the Orioles to drop out of contention. But then someone like Ubaldo Jimenez (6-11, 6.19 ERA) will throw a complete game two-hitter, as he did against the Rays on Monday. I give up on trying to out-think this team. I’m ready to embrace the clusterfuck.
That also means that I need to give up on my smarty-pants predictions from the first week of the season and actually consider rooting for the New York Yankees the rest of the way. Yeah, that’s like rooting for Darth Vader. But this is like in Jedi when his helmet comes off and you see that he’s just old British stage actor, Sebastian Shaw. In the made-for-TV movie that will be written about the 2016 Yankees, this is the part where they dump A-Rod and Carlos Beltran and their two star relievers and then Ace Frehley kicks in singing, “I’m back in the New York grooooove” over a montage of rookies winning games. Deep-cut pop-culture references aside, some men just want to watch the world burn. Or something.
The AL Central
Eliminated This Week: The Twins.
Just don’t tell that to Brian Dozier. He’s got 25 home runs and leads the Majors in WAR in the second half.
The AL West
The Astros remain 2 games back in the Wild Card. Even though they’re only half way done with a 13-game stint against first place teams. If only they weren’t 3-13 against the Rangers this season. The Tigers (1 game out of the Wild Card, 1-11 against the Indians) know what I’m talking about.
The NL East
Eliminated This Week: The Braves.
Uh oh. Wednesday night’s game between the Nationals and Braves was supposed to be a catapult to launch Washington deep in to the postseason. Stephen Strasburg was returning from injury. And with Max Scherzer pitching as well as he has, that would give the Nats a 1-2 punch reminiscent of the 2001 Diamondbacks with Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling. Then in the 3rd inning, all those plans got kicked in the dick. Yeah, the Nationals ended up winning the game in the 11th inning. But the Nationals’ worst nightmares came fruition when Strasburg left early with an elbow injury yet again. At the time I write this, nobody knows the extent of Strasburg’s injury or whether or not he’ll pitch again in the regular season. Or if he’s done, period. But this is awful news for a coasting team that’s essentially gone .500 without him. There’s a bit of a drop off in that rotation after Scherzer and Tanner Roark. So unless someone like Joe Ross or (I don’t know) Lucas Giolito can step up, the once-scary Nationals look like they’re gonna be underdogs in that first-round matchup with the Dodgers.
(Update: Strasburg has a strained flexor mass (whatever that is), but doesn’t need Tommy John surgery. There is, however, no timetable for his return. Sounds very Strasburg-y.)
Oh, and the Mets signed Tim Tebow to a minor league contract. To quote my friend, Brendan McGowan, from my ‘Go Cubs!’ text message group, “It makes sense bc owners got Ponzied,” and “They’re giving Tebow a $100k signing bonus because talks broke down with Eddie Gaedel.”
The NL Central
Eliminated This Week: The Reds, The Brewers.
Every now and then I fantasize about what this Cubs team would look like with Kyle Schwarber in the lineup and/or Jason Heyward actually earning his $184 million contract. And while I can only speculate about the former, I got a glimpse of the latter on Sunday when Heyward tied the game in the 9th against the Giants and then won it in the 13th. Oh well, he’s still hitting .154 in September.
The NL West
The most beleaguered rotation in the big leagues might have finally glued itself back together again. As I said earlier, Kershaw comes back this weekend. On top of that, Kenta Maeda has quietly had a great season. And Rich Hill has yet to allow an earned run in his 12 innings of work since joining the Dodgers. Earlier this week, the team started four straight rookies (Jose De Leon, Maeda, Ross Stripling and Brock Stewart) and they managed to go 4-0 with a 2.82 ERA. De Leon was their 15th starter this season and 7th in 7 days. All that’s probably about to change. Oh, and remember when they were 14-2 on days Kershaw pitched and 27-34 when he didn’t? They’ve gone 37-24 since he went down, which is the second-best record in the Majors over that period. Add Puig’s .444 average and 1.650 OPS since returning from the time out corner and this team just got really fucking dangerous.
Okay. That’s it for this week. I’m sure there’ll be more eliminations next week. The A’s, the Padres, the Angels, the Diamondbacks, the Phillies, the Pirates, the Rays and (dare I say) the Cardinals will probably be done in their respective divisions by the next time we talk. If you need more baseball, be sure to check me out on “Comedians Talking Baseball” with Joe Kilgallon on all the iTunes things. Until then, the Cubs’ Magic Number is 9.
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