Expanded postseason can’t dull stretch run
By Benjamin Hoffman
Contrary to what you might hear from alarmists, baseball’s stretch run has retained some of its magic even with an expanded field of postseason teams.
Be it issues of pride, home-field advantage, a first-round bye in the playoffs or the threat of not making the postseason at all, the final month of the regular season has multiple notable division races.
National League East
For months, Atlanta was threatening to overtake the New York Mets in the National League East. A gap of 10.5 games on June 1 was reduced to half a game on July 23, but each 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 into a tie, both for the division lead and for the second-best record in the NL behind the Los Angeles Dodgers.
“It’s where you want to be, you’d rather be here than somewhere else,” Atlanta manager Brian Snitker told reporters after Tuesday’s win at Oakland. “You want to be in the thick of the thing.”
Both teams won afternoon games Wednesday, keeping the division tied, but the Mets got back on top by half a game, at least for one night, with a 10-0 win over the Pirates in the second game of a doubleheader in Pittsburgh.
For the Mets, who got some additional bad news when the starting pitcher Max Scherzer was placed on the 15-day injured list Wednesday, this does not really qualify as a collapse. Since Aug. 12, they are a respectable but frustrating 14-12, having won a series against the mighty Dodgers, while mixing in some losses against lesser teams. But that has coincided with a stretch in which Atlanta has gone 20-5.
The good news for both teams is that they are going to the postseason. While ESPN rated both teams’ chances of qualifying for a spot at a relatively conservative >99.9% through Tuesday, FanGraphs did not hesitate at all, giving both a 100% chance. FanGraphs also listed the teams as having the second (Mets) and third (Atlanta) best odds of winning the World Series.
But there is still quite a bit on the line.
The NL East champion will most likely be their league’s No. 2 seed in the playoffs, which would result in a first-round bye and advancement directly into a division series. The second-place team will almost certainly be the No. 4 seed — the spot given to the league’s top wild-card team — and have to face the No. 5 seed (currently Philadelphia) in a three-game wild-card series. The good news for the No. 4 seed, be it the Mets or the Braves, is that they would host all three games of that wild-card series.
American League Central
The Chicago White Sox won this division easily last season, and the Minnesota Twins made several notable upgrades over the offseason, while the Cleveland Guardians were written off by many, with speculation that they might trade away star third baseman José Ramírez. Instead, they extended Ramírez for seven years at $141 million, had Andrés Giménez develop into a star at second base, and have pitched well. With less than a month to play, they are clinging to baseball’s most surprising division lead.
The stakes of holding onto that lead could not be higher. The team that wins this division will earn the AL’s No. 3 seed in the playoffs, while the other two will almost certainly watch the postseason from home.
Through Tuesday’s action, FanGraphs was giving Cleveland a 52.6% chance of winning the division, while Minnesota had a 30.9% chance and Chicago was at 18.9%. But it is division or bust, as all three teams trail the AL’s wild-card leaders by quite a bit, resulting in each being given less than a 1% chance of earning one of those three spots.
American League East
Remember the New York Yankees’ insurmountable division lead? On July 8, a win over Boston pushed New York’s lead in the AL 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 was down to 4.5 games.
The Yankees’ lead was back to five games Wednesday after a doubleheader sweep of Minnesota at Yankee Stadium and Tampa Bay’s win over Boston. The first game, an extra-innings victory, included Aaron Judge’s 55th home run of the season, the first three hits of Oswald Peraza’s career, and a walk-off single by Oswaldo Cabrera.
The Yankees’ struggles with injuries and inconsistency since their white-hot start to the season have been well documented — first baseman Anthony Rizzo joined that fray when he was placed on the 10-day injured list Wednesday — and their efforts to pull out of the spin have largely sputtered. Doing well in their series against Minnesota was vital, as the Yankees’ final regular season series against Tampa Bay looms over the weekend.
Similar to the NL East, the “loser” in this division race will quite likely earn a wild card, with FanGraphs having given the Yankees a 100% chance of making the playoffs and the Rays a 96.7% chance through Tuesday. But for the Yankees, going from talk of the team ranking among the best in franchise history to worrying about the randomness of a three-game wild-card series would be quite a fall.