It’s hard to know what to say when Major League Baseball does something right, because it happens so rarely. But give Bud Selig credit for this: the addition of the second wild cards accomplished two things.
- it gives division champions the playoff advantage they deserve;
- and it created a National League pennant race this September where there would have been none.
Under the old rules, the only suspense would have been whether the Atlanta Braves could lose another big lead, and not even the Brooklyn Dodgers did that two years in a row.
Under the new rules, there are six teams within four games of the second wild-card spot, and even the Padres are only six-and-a-half back. Never mind that it looks like an NHL battle for the eighth and final playoff spot. Who’s No. 5 is now a meaningful question to ask.
The danger is that MLB might be so impressed it will add another wild card and another and another, and soon even the Cubs will be in the race. And the manager of the 82-80 team which doesn’t make the playoffs will be like the coach of the 23-win directional mid-major state college, which danced on the court after beating Sam Houston State, saying on the Sunday night of the NCAA bids when they learn they didn’t make it: “We deserved to go.” No, coach, you really didn’t.
Someone in the MLB offices might think these extra playoffs are so exciting, it’d be a good idea if everyone made them, and what could be wrong with a six-month season for seeding purposes only?
Until then, breaking down this year’s NL contenders for the final wild card:
St. Louis Cardinals
Why they’ll make it: Because they have the best team. The Cardinals have a run differential entering play Thursday of plus-83, same as the Reds, the team they trail by 11-and-a-half games in the NL Central. The Cardinals are tied for fifth in the majors in best run differential, yet have just the 13th-best record. That’s underachieving, and somewhere Tony La Russa is watching this September and looking more smug than usual.
Why they won’t: Remember last October? Remember Nelson Cruz going back on David Freese’s fly ball as if the fence was barbed wire? Think the Cardinals don’t have a bargain to keep, a debt to pay, a higher power to answer to? Need more? Because Lance Berkman’s career and season may be over, and Carlos Beltran’s is stalled. The latter hasn’t been as good as Carlos Gomez over the last two months. Since the All-Star break, Beltran is hitting .205/.250/.405 over 195 at-bats in the middle of the Cards’ lineup (Gomez is .258/.306/.474). And, though Mets fans might never believe it, Beltran is hurting.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Why they’ll make it: Because Magic Johnson wants them to. And because the Dodgers can’t afford not to — they won’t be able to make payroll if they don’t get the extra income from a few playoff dates.
Why they won’t make it: Ask a Red Sox fan. The Dodgers are 5-11 since the acquisition of Adrian Gonzalez and Josh Beckett, and Sox fans will tell you it’s no coincidence. The Dodgers have scored three runs or less in 12 of those games and have scored just 43 runs in all 16 — 2.7 per game. Good thing they got Gonzalez to supply offense — he’s 15 for 66 (a .227 average) with five extra-base hits. He’s homerless in his last 15 games. If the Dodgers wanted the pitter-patter of opposite-field singles from their first baseman, they could have kept James Loney.
Why they’ll make it: Because they’re due. Because they haven’t made the playoffs since 1992 and they haven’t won more than 79 games in that span. Because, in that generation, the Rays have been to the World Series and the Orioles have won their division and may do it again, and the Royals had a winning record. Twice. And because it’s cruel to ask Pirates fans to wait for next year when Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon might make a difference.
Why they won’t make it: Because it’s 2011 all over again, only a month later. The Pirates lost 12 of 13 in 2011 in late July-early August; they’ve lost six in a row and 10 of 12 in late August-early September this year. They’re 5-16 since beating the Cardinals in 19 innings, a game that hurt both teams. Because they’re decimated by injuries: second baseman Neil Walker (.280/.342/.435) has a bad back and hasn’t played since Aug. 26, and now third baseman Pedro Alvarez (27 homers) has a bad wrist. And worse, because their two best pitchers aren’t very good anymore: James McDonald has a 6.91 ERA since the All-Star break, and A.J. Burnett is winless in his last five starts; his ERA is just less than 4.80 since Aug. 1.
Why they’ll make it: Because they got rid of everybody who messed up the first half of the season. The Phillies thought they were throwing in the towel when they traded Shane Victorino, Joe Blanton and Hunter Pence; then they remembered towels are for exhorting, too. Because catcher Carlos Ruiz (.340/.406/.563) is back from injury, Ryan Howard and Chase Utley are healthy, and Phillippe Aumont is the eighth-inning pitcher Josh Lindblom was supposed to be. Merci, Mariners. And because the Phillies play six of their final nine games vs. the Nats, who will have Stephen Stasburg deep in hibernation by then.
Why they won’t make it: Because on a team with Roy Halladay Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee, your ace is . . . Kyle Kendrick (5-1 with a 1.07 ERA in his last six starts: 42.1 innings, 27 hits, 7 runs, 33 Ks)? Because with Ruiz healthy, backup Erik Kratz (9 homers in 121 at-bats) won’t get to play. And because there’ll be a day Jimmy Rollins won’t run out anything that isn’t a homer and because Domonic Brown, now age 25, looks as confused as one of the thousands of voters the new state voter ID law might disenfranchise, and because Kevin Frandsen is hurt, which means Michael Martinez plays third, which means no one has ever, ever missed Frandsen as much. And because Chipper Jones homered with a base open in the bottom of the ninth to win a game on the first Sunday in September, and the Philies are destined to miss the playoffs by that much so it will go down in team lore next to Chico Ruiz’s steal of home, Greg Luzinski’s dropping Manny Mota’s fly ball and Mitch Williams serving up Joe Carter’s Series-winning home run.
Why they’ll make it: Because this year no one will complain if Ryan Braun (.310, 38 homers, 23 steals, .593 slugging percentage) is the MVP. Because Braun isn’t even the Brewers’ hottest hitter: Rickie Weeks, whose OPS was .688 as late as Aug. 29, has homered six times in 53 September at-bats, and is 22-for-his-last 62 (a .358 average). Because how sweetly ironic would it be if Prince Fielder’s Tigers and Zack Greinke’s Angels miss the playoffs, but the Fielder-less and Greinke-less Brewers make it? Because Yovani Gallardo has a major-league high 24 quality starts, and because the Brewers lead all of the National League in runs scored.
Why they won’t make it: Because Aramis Ramirez, as any Cubs fan will tell you, is due for a debilitating injury. Because Francisco Rodriguez has blown seven saves, and will, pardon the vernacular, blow again. Because someone named Jeff Bianchi is the shortstop and because they wasted 194 plate appearances on Cody Ransom before replacing him. Because Nyjer Morgan’s alter ego this year isn’t Tony Flush but Tony Hush — he has a very quiet .605 OPS. And because after this weekend, the Brewers play 10 of their final 16 games on the road, where their 28-43 record is surpassed in mediocrity (in the NL) by only the Cubs, Rockies and Astros.
Why they’ll make it: Because the element of surprise is an advantage: half the country doesn’t even know they’re in it. Because who made their schedule: Urban Meyer? Ten of their final 19 games are against the Rockies or Cubs and 13 of the 19 are at home. Because the D’backs have the best young talent of any of these contenders: centerfielder Adam Eaton, 23, hit .381 in AAA and is 10-for-31 in the bigs; pitcher Tyler Skaggs, 21, has fanned 17 in 20.1 innings; Trevor Bauer, 21, has fanned 17 in 16.1 innings and might rejoin the team when the minor-league playoffs end; shortstop Jacob Elmore, 25, third baseman Ryan Wheeler, 24, and outfielder A.J. Pollock, 24, have all struggled, but could help. Because of all the late-season deals, few have had the impact of the D’backs’ anonymous acquisition of third baseman Chris Johnson, who’s slugged .505 and driven in 26 runs in 34 games. And because manager Kirk Gibson says they can make it: “I’ve lived some very, very good dreams,” he said this week, according to Tucsoncitizen.com.
Why they won’t make it: Because they don’t deserve to. They’re thoroughly average: 14th in offense in MLB, 16th in pitching, never better than four games over .500, never worse than six games under it. Because they’re not even at .500 yet; ask Jim Mora if that’s a team that should be talking playoffs. Because they don’t play the Dodgers anymore — they’re 12-6 against Magic’s team. Because Justin Upton took all this strikeout talk too seriously — he’s not only on his way to a career-low in K’s (109 now, 126 in a full season), but also home runs (13), RBIs (58), doubles (19) and slugging percentage (.405). And because Gibson also said, according to the same website, “We’re in better shape than St. Louis was at this time (last year).” That’s not dreaming Kirk. That’s hallucinating.