November 24, 2020

The best MLB playoff race belongs in the NL Central as three teams fight for second place

We’ve grown accustomed over the years to watch the races for first place and then for the wild card spots, but what if the most fun race down the stretch ends up a three-team fight for second place in a division? We’ve talked about the format a lot and have provided daily playoff pictures, but in case you haven’t noticed yet, the second-place teams in each league this season will be the 4-6 seeds in each league. Heading into Thursday’s action, the three NL Central teams were all under .500 with the two NL wild cards each sitting exactly .500

Yes, that means it’s entirely possible these three teams end up jockeying for the six seed while the other two teams end up missing the playoffs, despite more than half the league making it. 

Here is where things stand when we omit the first-place Cubs (they have a 5 1/2 game lead with 10 games to play) and last-place Pirates from the Central: 

The way things are shaping up, this race has a good shot to go down to the last day. The Reds are hot, but is it a mirage? The Cardinals are tired. The Brewers are maddeningly inconsistent. None are reliable. It has the makings of a pretty damn volatile race. 

Let’s take a look at how each team got here and what each has left. 

Reds

They haven’t been at .500 since they were 5-5, but the Reds took two of three from the Cardinals before a four-game sweep of the Pirates to move to 25-26. Now, after missing so many games and having to ramp back up to play again, and then having to deal with so many doubleheaders, is it possible the Cardinals are exhausted and having trouble finding all the pitching they need? For sure. And the Pirates, at 14-34, have the worst record in baseball. 

It could certainly be argued that the Reds aren’t hot and just caught a nice break in the schedule. 

They have talent, though, and many expected them to have a much better record right now. Perhaps the confidence-building streak is what they finally needed to get going here. This is also possible. 

They better be ready to carry the momentum through, because the remaining schedule isn’t exactly easy. The good news? There’s a head-to-head matchup in there where they can do some damage. 

Yeah, the White Sox and Twins are a tall order at this point for sure. The Reds could really help themselves by sweeping, or at least taking two of three, from the Brewers at home in between, though. 

Brewers

Just last week, the Brewers won a game 19-0 (to a team they earlier lost to by a count of 12-1), won a 1-0 walkoff against the Cubs, saw Josh Hader blow a 2-0 ninth inning lead to the Cubs and then were no-hit by Alec Mills. This week so far, they’ve walked one off in extras, lost a couple of close games late and scored 18 runs in a game. They are just all over the board, but need to be taken seriously, most especially when you look at their upcoming schedule. 

  • Three games vs. Royals
  • Three games at Reds
  • Five games at Cardinals

They really can’t afford to lose the series against the Royals, who are 21-29 (though it should be noted the Royals are actually 20-20 when they don’t play the White Sox). Then it’s take care of business time, right? In the Brewers’ position where you want to win the division but the most realistic shot at the playoffs is second place here, what more can you ask than eight games against your two competitors? 

Cardinals

After winning three straight in two days against the Cubs the weekend of the 5th and 6th, the Cardinals have gone 5-8. Starting with Sept. 5, they have played five doubleheaders in the past 12 days. While I don’t think the talent here is something that should put them in the elite teams in baseball, it’s better than where they are now, but there’s just such a toll being taken with all these games in a short span. There are still two doubleheaders left, too. 

The good news? The schedule appears to soften up here in the near-term. 

  • Five games at Pirates
  • Three games at Royals
  • Five games vs. Brewers

It should also be noted that this is only 58 games. There are two games against the Tigers lingering that haven’t been made up or schedule. If MLB ends up with a situation with these three teams and possibly even the two wild cards all sitting within percentage points of each other, it’s possible they force the Cardinals to host a doubleheader against the Tigers on Sept. 28. The NL playoffs don’t start until Sept. 30 and the Tigers aren’t making the AL playoffs, so it’s not off the table. MLB has also said it could use win percentages, which means they also might forgo the final two Cardinals games when deciding on the NL playoff teams. 

Anyway … 

The Cardinals chore leading up the final series of the season is to truck the Pirates and Royals while hoping the White Sox sweep the Reds and then the Reds sweep the Brewers. That would likely sew things up, barring a complete meltdown against the Brewers in the final five games. 

It’s a lot easier said than done, though, as these three NL Central teams can attest to this point. It’s been a war of attrition and it’ll likely continue on that path until the regular season ends. 

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