Emotions are supposed to run high at this point of the MLB season. Pennant races boiling down to one or two final series, jobs on the line for both players and coaches, fans chewing nails until there’s nothing left. But nothing could have prepared anyone for the external set of events that has shifted the focus from baseball to a grander thing known as life.
Last Sunday may well be the most bittersweet day in the history of this great game. Every soul in the baseball world was crushed by the devastating loss of Jose Fernandez, killed in a boating accident at just 24 years of age. A star lost in the prime of his career — maybe even before his prime. While those tears were being shed, there were ones of joy for the farewell of legendary broadcaster Vin Scully. Similarly, there are some emotional goodbyes being handed out to David Ortiz in his remarkable swan song campaign.
With heavy hearts, the Marlins went out and won a baseball game when baseball was truly miles from the forefront of their collective minds. The Mets showed a tremendous amount of heart and respect for the Marlins and their fallen ace, even with so much on the line as they make a late-season playoff push.
All of this has happened in a span of five days, and there is still a weekend left of intense, playoff-atmosphere baseball still to be played. Though 17 teams have been eliminated, 13 teams are still alive, and nothing is actually set in stone just yet. We do know that the Nationals will face the Dodgers in the NLDS, but we don’t know where that series will open up. We know the Cubs will face the wild card winner, but we don’t know who that is yet. Homefield advantage is still up for grabs in the American League, and four teams are still in the hunt for two wild card spots.
With all of this crazy, jumbled mess yet to be sorted out, we’ll do our best to give you a primer and make some predictions of how things will shake out. The regular season may not even end on Sunday, as the Indians and Tigers have a potential makeup game on the docket if necessary. But here goes:
The good news for the team that finishes with the AL’s best record is that it will not only get homefield advantage through the ALDS, but also the World Series thanks to the silly All-Star rule that is still in place. The Rangers need just one win or one Red Sox loss to secure the top spot, and I’m going to go out on a limb and say they will indeed get it with a win over the last-place Rays. Even barring a miraculous sweep by Tampa Bay, the Red Sox would be hard-pressed to sweep a Blue Jays team right in the thick of the Wild Card race. But I do expect Boston to end up as the No. 2 seed, with a half-game advantage over Cleveland entering the weekend. The Indians are focused on getting healthy and have a tough series against a Royals team that may be eliminated, but know how to play good baseball with something on the line. So, to summarize: Rangers 1, Red Sox 2, Indians 3. But what about after that? Glad you asked…
Wild, wild card chase
Where in the world do we begin? For starters, how about a surprising series win in Toronto for the Orioles, a place that has traditionally been a house of horrors for them? Taking two out of three at Rogers Centre sets the Orioles up to possibly host the Wild Card game at Camden Yards, where they are 50-31 this season. They head to the Bronx, where they are just 2-5 this year, to face a Yankees team that was officially eliminated last night. But the Orioles will have to face some tough starting pitching, including Cy Young candidate Masahiro Tanaka. That leaves them vulnerable first and foremost to the Blue Jays, who head to Boston to take on a Red Sox team that has clinched the division but still has homefield advantage in the ALDS on their minds. If I had to make a prediction, I would say that both the Jays and O’s drop two out of three, which would leave them tied and give the Jays a home date in the wild card game.
If that happens, the door is open for the Tigers and/or Mariners to make a move. Both hopefuls are facing last place teams this weekend, with the Tigers in Atlanta and the Mariners hosting Oakland. But not so fast, Tigers fans. The Braves are red-hot, having won nine of 10. Let’s say both teams win two out of three with the O’s and Jays losing two of three. That would leave the Mariners on the outside looking in, but would necessitate the aforementioned makeup game for the Tigers against Cleveland. Should all this occur and the Tigers win that makeup game, we could have a three-team tie for two wild card spots, and too much craziness to even break down right now. But it’s never quite happened this way before, and my gut tells me order will be restored and the AL wild card game will end up being the Jays and Orioles, likely in Toronto.
More wild card wildness
The bizarre ending to last night’s Cardinals game notwithstanding, this figures to go right down to the last day and possibly an extra one. St. Louis and San Francisco have both failed to capitalize on one another’s mediocre play of late, especially the latter. The Giants were two outs away from winning a third straight game against the Cardinals two weeks ago but squandered a ninth-inning lead. It would have put the Giants’ lead over the Cards at three games instead of one, and that momentum carried over into a Cardinals’ shutout the next day. So instead of things being virtually set, they are still cluttered, and the Cards’ lucky break last night likely has Giants fans fuming even more.
Both teams are hosting division rivals with little or nothing to play for this weekend, but clubs who would love nothing more than to put a dent into their rivals’ playoff dreams. The Pirates are 5-2 at Busch Stadium this year, a place they have struggled mightily in throughout the years. They are decimated by injuries, yet figure to give St. Louis a tussle just as the lowly Reds did in the teams’ four-game set that ended in a split. The Dodgers, meanwhile, are only 2-5 at AT&T Park this year. They will trot out their top three starters but will likely put them all on pitch counts so as not to risk injury. The Dodgers are still alive for homefield advantage against the Nats in the NLDS, but Washington’s magic number to clinch is just two. Again, I’ll play the odds and say both the Giants and Cards take two of three at home, which would likely knock St. Louis out of the playoffs for the first time since 2010.
However, it isn’t just the Cardinals and Giants to focus on. The Mets, once 60-62 and seemingly headed nowhere, have caught fire despite a rash of big injuries and control their own fate heading to Philadelphia to take on the downtrodden Phillies. If they take two of three — and that’s what I’m predicting they’ll do — they will clinch a spot in the wild card game. Should they be fortunate to clinch before Sunday, they can then rest Noah Syndergaard to pitch in the playoff game against either the Cards or Giants. Syndergaard was originally lined up to do so, but was pushed back after a bout with strep throat.
Last year, the Mets had an outside chance to earn homefield in the NLDS as they knew they would be facing the Dodgers. But LA ultimately earned the No. 2 seed, and it seemed like it might be too much for the Mets to overcome. It didn’t, as New York won Game 5 on the road against the Zack Greinke-led Dodgers, proving homefield isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be.
With that in mind, the Dodgers may choose to rest some of their key players, figuring that even if they are able to win and spoil the Giants’ fun, it won’t change things as the Nationals will be hosting the emotionally-drained Marlins. Washington desperately needs to get healthy, seeing star players like Daniel Murphy and Bryce Harper banged up recently. The Nationals have yet to win a playoff series in their franchise history.
The Cubs, meanwhile, tied the Pirates last night and will finish with only 161 decisions this year, but will easily end up with baseball’s best record. That will pit them against one of the three wild card contenders, who, ironically, are the three teams that have combined to win the last six National League pennants. So perhaps it’s fitting that for a changing of the guard to occur in the Senior Circuit, the “cursed” Cubbies will have to go through one of the league’s recent powerhouses to take their first major step towards the franchise’s first World Series title in 108 years.