Breaking down the NL wild-card race

The NL wild-card race is perfectly set entering play Wednesday: two spots, three teams (forget the Marlins), all tied at 80-71, 11 games to play. Here’s how they break down:

  • N.Y. Mets: Why they’ll make it: Because the Mets have the best pitching of any of the three wild-card contenders, ranking third in MLB in team ERA (3.55). Because there have been few better hitters over the last month than Asdrubal Cabrera, who is hitting .376 since Aug. 23  with 10 doubles and seven homers among his 35 hits, and 16 RBIs, four steals, nine multi-hit games and a 10-game hit streak. Because maybe infielder T.J. Rivera, who didn’t reach the majors until just two-and-a-half months shy of his 28th birthday, can hit, and not like teammate Rene Rivera. T.J. is batting .338 in 68 at-bats after hitting .353 at AAA Las Vegas and .324 in six minor-league seasons. Because even if Jacob deGrom and Matt Harvey and Steven Matz are hurt, Noah Syndergaard (2.63 ERA, .645 OPS against, 210 strikeouts in 177.2 innings) isn’t. Because they have seven games left against the Phillies, who are last in baseball in run differential at -153 despite their 68 wins. Why they won’t: Because the Mets have the worst offense of any of the three, and of nearly every team in baseball. They rank 29th in MLB in runs scored, ahead of only the Phillies, and that’s with Yoenis Cespedes walking through that locker room door every day. Because Asdrubal Cabrera isn’t Miguel Cabrera, or even Melky. His .805 OPS is his career best. Because Rene Rivera can’t hit like T.J.; he’s at .220 and catching as much as Travis d’Arnaud, who’s hitting .245 and looking up at brother Chase (.246). Because Seth Lugo has a 2.35 ERA, better than any of his five minor-league seasons and more than four runs better than his 6.50 at Las Vegas. How long can he keep it up? Because the Mets are just 7-5 vs. the Phillies, and they might need better than 4-3 in those last seven.
  • St. Louis. Why they’ll make it: Because the Cardinals always make it. They’ve reached the postseason for five straight seasons, the longest such active streak in MLB. Because the Cardinals have the best offense of any of the three: they’re sixth in MLB in runs scored (727) and third in home runs (212). Because the Cards have Seung Hwan Oh, who is fifth among relievers with more than 40 innings in ERA (1.79) and innings pitched (75.1) and third in OPS against (.487) and because manager Mike Matheny already uses him as if it were October: four of his last 15 appearances have been two full innings and a fifth was 1.2. He won’t be fazed by four-out saves the final weekend. Because 22-year-old Alex Reyes (1.03 ERA, 40 strikeouts in 35 innings) is better than any of the Mets’ fill-in starters, if he can avoid walks and tokes. Because shortstop Aledmys Diaz (.303 average, .884 OPS, 16 homers), who missed all of August and the first 11 days of September, is healthy. Because the Cardinals are balanced: nine players have hit double-figures in homers. Because the Cardinals finish with their last seven games at home, all against the .500 Pirates and way-under .500 Reds. Why they won’t: Because the Cardinals have done one step worse each year since 2013, when they lost the World Series to Boston; they lost the NLCS in 2014 and a divisional series in 2015. Because last year’s stopper, Trevor Rosenthal, has been this year’s enigma, fanning 50 but walking 27 and giving up 44 hits in 35 injury-marred innings. Because the Cardinals have not one, but two rookies in their rotation and Reyes and Luke Weaver are veterans of a combined 10 starts. Veteran Adam Wainwright (4.57 ERA, .757 OPS against) has been no ace and Jaime Garcia is no starter (4.70, .777) anymore. Because Diaz is 4-for-23 since returning and thumb injuries aren’t easily healed. Because the Cardinals are just 7-9 vs. the Pirates this year and 8-7 vs. the Reds, and they also have three games preceding those against the first-place Cubs.
  • San Francisco. Why they’ll make it: Because it’s an even year, when the Giants not only make the playoffs but win them. Because the Giants have the two starting pitchers who have pitched the most innings in the NL this year in Madison Bumgarner (213.1) and Johnny Cueto (212.2), and because most of them have been good ones: Bumgarner is third in the league in ERA (2.57) and Cueto seventh (2.79). Because Hunter Pence (.292/359/459) is healthy. Because the Giants are managed by Bruce Bochy, who’s only won three World Series. Because the Giants are just behind the Mets in team ERA (3.66) and ERA among starters (3.73). Because the Giants are second in MLB in fielding percentage and seventh in total chances. Because the Giants play seven of their last 10 games vs. the below-.500 Rockies and Padres, and their last six at home. Why they won’t: Because even in their wild-card world championship in 2014, the Giants won 88 games — and might have added one or two if they needed it — and they likely won’t this year. Because Madison Bumgarner will have 50,000 people looking at him in his last start against Clayton Kershaw, Yasiel Puig and the Dodgers, and because Cueto tweaked a groin Tuesday night. Because all of Bochy’s double-switches can’t camouflage what is a bad bullpen: the Giants are 14th in bullpen ERA (3.65) and have lost games with leads in the ninth inning nine times in September. Because if Cueto’s injury wasn’t enough, shortstop Brandon Crawford dislocated a finger Tuesday and is day-to-day. Because the Giants finish with three against the Dodgers, whom the Giants will presumably be looking up at, like it or not.
  • Prediction: Only once have the Mets made the postseason in consecutive seasons (1999-2000), and it’s hard to see them doing it again when their rotation has been hit so hard by injuries. The Giants’ injuries and bad bullpen, and seven games against the Phillies, offer the Mets a chance.
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