About a month remains in baseball’s regular season and the stretch run is always exciting, as teams position themselves for the playoffs. While two of the three divisional races are clearly over in the National League, there is still plenty of intrigue in the West and with the race for the wildcard spots. In addition, teams like the Cubs and Nationals begin pacing themselves for the postseason and managing their lineups and pitching staffs with October in mind. Let’s look at how the best six NL playoff contenders rank with less than 30 games to go.
1. Cubs (89-50)
No team in either the American or National League is having the kind of season that the Cubs are having. First, no team is winning at a .640 clip like the Cubs are and no team is on pace or has a real shot at winning 105 games. Secondly, no team has the starting pitching to match the Cubs. Yes, the Nationals have two guys that will finish very high in the Cy Young voting in Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg; the Giants have a couple aces, Madison Bumgarner and Johnny Cueto, who are two of the best in the game; and the Dodgers have the 21st century version of Sandy Koufax in Clayton Kershaw. But the Cubs have three starters in the top 5 of ERA in the NL, three in the top 10 of strikeouts and IP, three in the top 4 of BAA, and four in the top 7 of WHIP.
If any team can be completely confident with any of their five starting pitchers when the postseason arrives and rest gets shortened, it’s the Cubs. If it’s not Arrieta, it’s Lester. If not Lester, it’s Hendricks. If not Hendricks, then Lackey. And I could keep going.
Oh, and lastly, we haven’t even mentioned the Cubs offense, led by two players who will likely finish the regular season in the top 2 in MVP voting — Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo. Ah, to be a Cubs fan in 2016.
2. Nationals (82-57)
After what seems like years and years of expecting the Nationals to be true World Series contenders, we might actually be witnessing Washington’s most promising baseball season to date. Most of the year the Nationals have spent under the radar — believe it or not. How can a team with a double-digit lead in their division be “under the radar”? Easy — the Cubs historic season has dominated the national headlines.
In their own right, though, the Nationals have put together a dominant season to this point. Their plus-143 is the third best run differential in the majors. Starting pitcher and perennial Cy Young candidate Max Scherzer has earned every dollar of his $210 million contract with numbers that put him at or near the top of all the major statistical pitching categories: first in IP (197), WHIP (0.92), and strikeouts (243); tied for first in wins (16); second in K/9 (11.27) and batting average against (.190); and sixth in ERA (2.88).
In addition, Stephen Strasburg is in the Cy Young discussion as well — sitting inside the top 10 in wins, WHIP, strikeouts, and BAA. Although, after Strasburg leaving last night’s game early with what’s been diagnosed as a flexor mass strain in his right elbow, his availability in the near future may be limited. The timetable for his return is unclear, read – he may or may not be out for the year.
The Nationals’ pitching has been outstanding, and when the starting rotations shrink in October, Washington will look very formidable with Scherzer, Strasburg, and Tanner Roark taking the hill back-to-back-to-back. Of course, now that Strasburg’s status is uncertain, that may not pan out. We’ll see in the upcoming weeks as we get more clarity on his elbow.
3. Dodgers (79-60)
When ace lefty Clayton Kershaw went on the DL back at the end of June, every baseball fan had to feel a bit disappointed — Dodger fan or not. If you love baseball and appreciate great pitching, you got a feeling early on this year that Kershaw was trending towards doing something special. His stats through 16 starts were historically unmatched: 11-2, 1.79 ERA, 0.73 WHIP, 145 strikeouts.
And while disappointed probably does not begin to sum up the way Dodger fans felt when their ace hit the shelf, somehow someway L.A. has not only remained in the playoff race, but they have overtaken the Giants for first place in the NL West. Since June 26 when Kershaw went down, the Dodgers have gone 35-24; and since the All-Star Break, the offense ranks in the top 10 in every major offensive category. The bullpen, also, has stepped up to help the starters in Kershaw’s absence — ranking 4th in K/9.
Kershaw is expected to return later this week after a successful 50-pitch rehab start with a Dodgers affiliate, and if he resembles anything close to what we’ve come to expect from the lefty, the Dodgers are going to be in very good shape as the postseason approaches.
4. Mets (74-66)
A few weeks ago — perhaps even as recent as a week — the Mets’ playoff chances didn’t seem all that great. And why would they? Starting pitchers Matt Harvey and Steven Matz are sidelined indefinitely, and Jacob deGrom is suffering from right forearm soreness that will keep him out of his next couple starts. The offense has sputtered all season long — doesn’t help that the trade at the deadline for lefty slugger Jay Bruce hadn’t shown signs of working out until just recently. Furthermore, injuries have hamstrung the Mets bats as Yoenis Cespedes, Neil Walker, and Asdrubal Cabrera have all missed time during the season.
But here we are in September, and the Mets are not only in the thick of the race, but they are one of the league’s hottest teams. Noah Syndergaard has picked up the slack in the starting rotation and Cespedes and the Mets bats are getting healthy and coming to life. A key to watch is New York’s schedule this last month — they play only 3 games against teams with winning records.
5. Giants (74-65)
All first half of the baseball season, everywhere I turned, every article I read, every talking head on TV or radio told me how the Giants are a different team in even numbered years — World Series champs in ’10, ’12, and ’14. And this is an even year…..
Then the second half of the baseball season hit, and the Giants hit the skids. In a bad way. San Francisco has gone 16-31 since the All Star Break — one of the league’s worst records over that time. They blew their division lead they held at the break over the hated Dodgers and now are squarely in the crosshairs as the Mets and Cardinals look to take command of the two Wild Card spots.
The Giants pitching, which has carried them over this impressive 6-year run, has gone in and out this year. Aces Madison Bumgarner and Johnny Cueto have been inconsistent over the past month and a half. And the offense in the Bay Area has completed disappeared. The team has suffered 5 shutouts since August 7, including their latest in Colorado against the Rockies — who NEVER shut anyone out at Coors Field!!
If the Giants are to continue this magical “even year” run of titles, they will need their best pitchers to pitch like it and they will need their lineup to start hitting. If not, Bruce Bochy’s club won’t even be playing in October — let alone attempting to win a fourth ring in seven years.
6. Cardinals (73-65)
No team in this wild card race is without flaws. Take the Cardinals, for example. No ace to take the hill every fifth day who strikes fear into opposing hitters. No dominant reliever or closer to shut down hitters at clutch moments in the late innings. No proven slugger whom teams will pitch around (no disrespect to Yadier Molina or Jedd Gyorko). And no home field advantage — 30-37 at Busch.
But what the Cards do have is an ability to win on the road and piece wins together in spite of their glaring weaknesses. St. Louis boasts the sixth best run differential in the big leagues. The Cardinals have, historically, been a tough out in the playoffs. The question is do the Red Birds have enough to even get in.
Pittsburgh has faded after a gallant effort to stay in the race after a confusing whirlwind of trading during the deadline.
Miami has been unable to stay afloat without their slugger Giancarlo Stanton.
Feedback is always welcome through the website in the comments box or on my Twitter feed — @brian22goodwin.