Contrary to what you may hear from alarmists, baseball’s stretch run has retained a few of its magic even with an expanded field of postseason teams.
Be it problems with pride, home-field advantage, a first-round bye within the playoffs or the specter of not making the postseason in any respect, the ultimate month of the regular season has multiple notable division races.
For months, the Atlanta Braves were threatening to overtake the Mets within the National League East. A niche of 10.5 games on June 1 was reduced to half a game on July 23, but every time it got close, the Mets built it back up. On Tuesday, with the Mets losing to Pittsburgh and Atlanta beating hapless Oakland, the teams finally pulled right into a tie, each for the division lead and for the second-best record within the N.L. behind the Los Angeles Dodgers.
“It’s where you must be, you’d quite be here than some place else,” Atlanta Manager Brian Snitker told reporters after Tuesday’s win. “You ought to be within the thick of the thing.”
For the Mets, who got more bad news when pitcher Max Scherzer was placed on the 15-day injured list on Wednesday, this does not likely qualify as a collapse. Since Aug. 12, they’re a good but frustrating 12-12, winning a series with the mighty Dodgers, while mixing in some losses against lesser teams. But that has coincided with a stretch by which Atlanta is 19-5.
The excellent news for each teams is that they will the postseason. While ESPN rates each teams’ probabilities of qualifying for a spot at a comparatively conservative >99.9 percent, FanGraphs doesn’t hesitate in any respect, giving each a 100% likelihood. FanGraphs also lists the teams as having the second (Mets) and third (Atlanta) best odds of winning the World Series.
But there remains to be quite a bit on the road.
The N.L. East champion will almost certainly be their league’s No. 2 seed within the playoffs, which might lead to a first-round bye and advancement directly right into a division series. The second-place team will almost actually be the No. 4 seed — the spot given to the league’s top wild-card team — and need to face the No. 5 seed (currently Philadelphia) in a three-game wild-card series. The excellent news for the No. 4 seed, be it the Mets or the Braves, is that they’d host all three games of that wild-card series.
The Chicago White Sox won this division easily last season, and the Minnesota Twins made several notable upgrades over the off-season, while the Cleveland Guardians were written off by many, with speculation that they could trade away the star third baseman José Ramírez. As a substitute, they prolonged Ramírez for seven years at $141 million, had Andrés Giménez grow to be a star at second base, and have pitched well. With lower than a month to play, they’re clinging to baseball’s most surprising division lead.
The stakes of holding onto that lead couldn’t be higher. The team that wins this division will earn the A.L.’s No. 3 seed within the playoffs, while the opposite two will almost actually watch the postseason from home.
Currently FanGraphs gives Cleveland (70-64) a 52.6 percent likelihood of winning the division, while Minnesota (68-65) has a 30.9 percent likelihood and Chicago (68-68) is at 18.9 percent. Nevertheless it is division or bust, as all three teams trail the A.L.’s wild-card leaders by quite a bit, leading to each being given lower than a 1 percent likelihood of earning considered one of those three spots.
American League East
Remember the Yankees’ insurmountable division lead? On July 8, a win over Boston pushed Latest York’s lead within the A.L. East to a season-high 15.5 games. It was 10 games as recently as Aug. 17. But with Tampa Bay beating the Red Sox on Tuesday, the Yankees’ lead over the Rays shrank to 4.5 games — the second lowest it has been since May.
The Yankees’ struggles with injuries and inconsistency since their white-hot begin to the season have been well documented — first baseman Anthony Rizzo joined that fray when he was placed on the 10-day injured list on Wednesday — and their efforts to drag out of the spin have largely sputtered. They’ve three games against Minnesota over the following two days — a doubleheader on Wednesday and a series finale on Thursday — and doing well is significant, as their final regular season series against Tampa Bay looms over the weekend. If the Yankees’ lead has shrunk to a few or fewer games by Friday, the A.L. East could have a recent leader by Sunday.
Just like the N.L. East, the “loser” on this division race will quite likely earn a wild card, with FanGraphs giving the Yankees a 100% likelihood of constructing the playoffs and the Rays a 96.7 percent likelihood. But for the Yankees, going from talk of the team rating amongst the very best in franchise history to worrying concerning the randomness of a three-game wild-card series can be quite a fall.