National League Pennant Chase Breakdown

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By Mike Ivcic

I know it’s the Monday after Week 2 of the NFL season and Week 3 of the college football season. And I don’t care. I’m talking baseball right now, because October is the greatest month of sports there is, and we’re inching closer to it every day. And why is October the best month of the year? Sure it’s got NFL, NHL, and a boatload of college sports, but the reason it’s so great boils down to two words: Playoff Baseball.

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Before the playoffs, though, there are pennant races, which is the subject of today’s column. Let’s forget the American League for a second – barring a total collapse by either the Rays or Yankees, one will win the division and host Texas, the other will be the Wild Card and play at Minnesota. Borrrring. Instead, let’s go to the National League, where only one team can really feel safe about their playoff spot, and stunningly enough, that team would be the Cincinnati Reds. I feel comfortable saying the Phillies will also play October baseball, but with six games still remaining against the Braves, their positioning still isn’t rock-solid. And then there’s the wonderful NL West, with three teams separated by a game and a half.

Rather than look at the standings by division, let’s do it by league:
Team                                   W            L              %           
Philadelphia                      89           61           .593
Atlanta                                 86           64           .573
San Francisco                   84           66           .560
Cincinnati                           84           66           .560
San Diego                          83           66           .557
Colorado                            82           67           .550

The first four listed would make it as of today, but the Padres have a game in hand on the Giants and are even in the loss column, meaning they could easily tie San Francisco and force a one-game playoff, with the Padres owning the tiebreaker. Thankfully, baseball got rid of coin flips and instead now uses head-to-head records to decide where a one-game playoff would occur, meaning the Giants would have to travel south if those two teams were tied.

That leads beautifully into a key point I want to make today: what happens if San Diego, San Francisco, and Colorado all wind up tied atop the NL West, but BEHIND the Braves and Phillies. In that case, those three teams would have to play for one playoff spot. It would result in two games being played the Monday following the end of the season, both at the same ballpark, and would look as follows:
Team A vs Team B
Winner A/B vs Team C
The team with the head-to-head advantage between the three teams would get a choice as to whether they want to be the team that gets the bye OR have both games at their home field. In essence, it’s like the coin flip in the NFL – one team gets to choose whether or not they want the ball, the other team gets to decide what end of the field to play at. In this case, the Rockies would have the first choice, meaning they could opt to play in the A/B game AT Coors Field, or take the bye and leave homefield to the team with the second choice, in this case San Diego. Conventional wisdom holds that it’s easier to win one game than two, regardless of ballpark, so the Rockies would likely choose to be Team C, leaving the Padres to choose to play the games at Petco Park and the Giants stiffed either way.

If you’re head’s not already spinning, let’s throw the Braves into the mix and say that all four teams are tied, meaning there are TWO available spots. In that situation… well, you’re on your own there. Let’s just hope it doesn’t happen.

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All that said, here’s the way the last two weeks shape up for the six teams listed above.

Sept 20-22 vs Atlanta (3)
Sept 24-26 vs New York (3)
Sept 27-29 @ Washington (3)
Oct 1-3 @ Atlanta (3)
Analysis: If the Phillies can take two of three from the Braves this week, it would give them a 4 game cushion with only 9 games to play, and they have their three stud starters (Hamels, Halladay, and Oswalt) set to throw at them. With two bad teams to follow, the Phils could wrap up their fourth straight NL East crown before the final weekend. But if Atlanta can manage to win this first series, then it could all come down to the first weekend in October. Either way, with a five game cushion on the Giants and more on the Padres and Rockies, it looks like this team is playoff-bound regardless.
Prediction: 8-4, NL East champs at 97-65

Sept 20-22 @ Philadelphia (3)
Sept 24-26 @ Washington (3)
Sept 27-29 vs Florida (3)
Oct 1-3 vs Philadelphia (3)
Analysis: Virtually the same schedule as Philly, just with a visit from Florida instead of the Mets. The Braves pitching has been shaky lately, which is a cause for concern, but they may have fixed their issues this weekend in New York. They, too, have a lead on the three NL West clubs, but the chances are much more likely that they could be a part of a one-game playoff. Taking two out of three from the Phillies would certainly make things interesting, but beating the Nationals and Marlins should be enough secure a postseason berth in Bobby Cox’s final season.
Prediction: 6-6, NL Wild Card at 92-70

Sept 20-22 @ Milwaukee (3)
Sept 24-26 @ San Diego (3)
Sept 28-30 vs Houston (3)
Oct 1-3 vs Milwaukee (3)
Analysis: Up 6 over the Cardinals with only 12 to play (14 for St. Louis), the Reds would need a Mets-like collapse to not win the NL Central. So these two weeks are more about fighting for homefield advantage in the NLDS over whoever wins the West, and that means this weekend’s tilt in San Diego is the most meaningful series the Reds have. They’re 1-2 vs the Padres, and need to win the series to help their own case. But with a losing record against every other playoff contender as well, the Reds are probably the biggest longshot, regardless of matchups and locations, to win the pennant.
Prediction: 7-5, NL Central champs at 91-71

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Sept 21-23 @ Chicago (3)
Sept 24-26 @ Colorado (3)
Sept 28-30 vs Arizona (3)
Oct 1-3 vs San Diego (3)
Analysis: If the Giants are going to make the playoffs, they’re going to have to earn it. Win the series against the Rockies and Padres, and there’s a very good chance that San Fran wins the West. Lose one or both and they might have to hope for a one-game playoff. That’s how tight this division is. But this is a Giants team with Zito, Lincecum, and Cain in the rotation that’s built for the post season, and the rotation is set up to have those three all pitch against the Rockies this weekend. Colorado plays well at home, but the Giants are the team in front.
Prediction: 7-5, tie for NL West at 91-71

Sept 21-23 @ Los Angeles (3)
Sept 24-26 vs Cincinnati (3)
Sept 27-30 vs Chicago (4)
Oct 1-3 @ San Francisco (3)
Analysis: The Padres need to enjoy their last off-day today, because it’s a difficult close to the season. The Dodgers would love to help ruin the Padres season too, after coming back from a 6-1 deficit to beat Colorado on Sunday. Then the Friars get two division leaders in the Reds and Giants, but thankfully have a reprieve with the four-gamer against the Cubs. That will be a huge series because the Padres are even in the loss column with San Fran, so they’ll need to go 3-1 or 4-0 against Chicago to pick up the extra win and tie the Giants. It would certainly be exciting if it came down to the final weekend, but if San Diego continues to pitch the way they have lately, it might very well be over before then for the Pads.
Prediction: 7-6, miss playoffs at 90-72

Sept 21-23 @ Arizona (3)
Sept 24-26 vs San Francisco (3)
Sept 27-29 vs Los Angeles (3)
Sept 30-Oct 3 @ St. Louis (4)
Analysis: Like San Diego, Monday is the last day off for the Rockies. There’s no way Colorado can win the NL West without taking the series against the Giants this weekend, and it would appear that they have two manageable series with Arizona and LA. That said, if the Cardinals are somehow still alive in the final weekend, that would create two desperate teams for that meeting and enhance the schedule difficulty. They have been the hottest team of late, and still have that 2007 mindset when they stormed back and beat San Diego in a one-game playoff, so the question is can they do it again this year without the likelihood of a Wild Card berth to fall back on.
Prediction: 9-4, tie for NL West at 91-71

So yes, I am predicting a one-game playoff between San Francisco and Colorado for the NL West crown, with Atlanta winning the Wild Card by one game and the Padres losing to the Giants in the final game of the regular season to miss the playoffs by one game. But because I love tiebreakers, I’m secretly rooting for all four teams to finish 91-71, and if there’s still a chance entering the final weekend of the regular season, I promise I’ll return with a detailed explanation of how it will all work out.

Here’s to October!

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