Friday, August 7, 2009

Seeing Through the Cloudy NL Playoff Picture

Going into Friday August 7, 2009, with about two months left in the season, we still don't know what the hell is going to go down come early October.

The least we can do is guess.

Today, let's look at the National League.

NL East

Philadelphia is going to win the division. Little to no doubt about that. Their only challengers seem to be the never-say-die Florida Marlins, who after being swept by the Phillies to start the second half, went on to win their next four series and 9 of their next 12 games. Then they got swept by the Nationals. The Marlins are 9-9 since the All Star break. Next up for Florida? The Phillies. Damn.

The Braves may give the Phillies a late season run for their money, but with the inconsistent play in Atlanta, it seems unlikely. The Mets lost a player to the dugout stairs; they have no chance. The Nationals don’t, either.

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NL Central

The Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals are in an epic battle of back and forth. In basketball, this would come down to whoever controls the last possession. But it's baseball, so it's going to come down to whosever pitching can withstand the next two months. Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder give the Brewers an outside shot at the Wild Card or, if they can go on some ridiculous, legendary run, a shot at the division. The race to the NL Central crown between the Cardinals and Cubs will be the one to watch with the Cubs still trying to put an end to the Curse of the Billy Goat.

The Astros simply don't have the firepower to make any late season push and the Reds and Pirates have already booked non-baseball related activities for the month of October.

NL West

Year after year, the NL West is one of the most curious divisions in baseball. One season the West will be the laughingstock of the entire baseball world with one of its members making it to October purely because one has to go. Then Arizona and Colorado will have the two best records in the National League. And then the Dodgers will get Manny Ramirez, propelling them to the postseason. This season, it is arguably the most powerful division in the MLB. Okay, so maybe not the most powerful, but at least the most competitive.

A lot of the impressive records probably have had something to do with playing the other NL West teams all season long, but this season it looks as though the Dodgers, Giants and Rockies are some of the best teams in the NL. They have all emerged after the All Star break with similar records. The Rockies have gone 12-8, the Giants 11-9 and the Dodgers 11-10. The Diamondbacks have posted an impressive 12-8 record as well, although they will surely be relegated to watching television come October. The Padres have done little to mark their 40th anniversary and have kept with the season's trend by going 9-13 since the break. While the Dodgers appear to be headed to an NL West division crown with a 6.5 game lead as play begins on Friday, the Giants and Rockies are leading the way for the NL Wild Card.

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Wild Card

Entering play on Friday, the playoff picture looks like this:

San Francisco
Colorado 1.0 GB
(Chicago/St. Louis) 2.0 GB
Florida 5.0 GB
Atlanta 5.5 GB
Milwaukee 6.0 GB

The Astros, Mets and Diamondbacks are the next three on the list, but we've already designated them to family vacations come October.

It looks as though we can all but eliminate Milwaukee from contention, as the Brewers must play 16 games against the Cubs and Cardinals, who will be in the midst of their epic race come September and early October when the Brewers play all 16 of those games. Their remaining schedule in August, however, includes two series against the Astros, two against the Pirates, a four game series against the Nationals, and a series against the Reds and the Padres, so we could see the Brewers move up in the standings to start September. If they take advantage of their easy-as-cake August schedule and find themselves within striking distance of Chicago and St. Louis, get ready for an NL Central race to the finish that will not be soon forgotten.

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September holds more than just the Cubs and Cardinals, though. The Brewers must face the Phillies, the Giants, the Diamondbacks and the Rockies in September and early October.

Next is Atlanta, who has battled inconsistent play all season and still find themselves only a half-game behind the Marlins for second place in the NL East. The Marlins have had their ups and downs as well, struggling to stay in contention for the NL East and to keep their heads above the water in the wild card race. If either team hopes to make a late season push to either unseat the Phillies in the East or steal the Wild Card from the Giants, Rockies, Cubs or Cardinals, they must find a way to win and win consistently. No more three game slides. At this point, even a two game slide could be enough to derail their hopes.

Next is the runner up in the Central. The do or die attitude that both Chicago and St. Louis will carry to the end of the season will put them in prime position to steal the Wild Card from the runner up in the West. All four teams (Giants, Rockies, Cubs and Cardinals) will face tough division matchups down the stretch and will face interdivisional games against each other as well. Whether this proves enough to water down their records, allowing a Florida or Atlanta to sneak into the final playoff spot, or whether the competition brings out the very best in one or two of the teams is yet to be seen.

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The Giants have the best pitcher in the game this season in Tim Lincecum (12-3, 2.18 ERA), who is likely going to win the NL Cy Young award. They also have seen Pablo 'Kung Fu Panda' Sandoval propel himself into second place for the NL batting title (.334 AVG) behind Hanley Ramirez of the Marlins. The rest of their team has played solid as well, as outfielder Eugenio Velez is currently on a 12-game hit streak. The Giants, at this point, appear to be the frontrunners for the NL Wild Card, with the NL West seemingly belonging to the Dodgers and the Cubs/Cardinals fight to the finish likely to dilute their final records.

Written By Danny Hobrock

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