Sideline Report: The hunt for October heats up

Sept. 25, 2012, 8:23 p.m. | By Michael Gerbasi | 11 years, 8 months ago

In 1994, in a radical step to increase fairness in Major League Baseball's (MLB) playoff format, the league added a wild card, so that the team with the best record in each league who did not win their division can still play in the postseason. After some early controversy, the wild card became widely accepted as an essential component of baseball's playoffs. Controversy struck again, however, when in 2011 the league's commissioner, Bud Selig, announced that an additional wild card will be added to each league enabling two teams from each league who came out short in their own divisions to play in the playoffs.

Tight races for division titles and wild card spots will likely make for an exciting postseason. Photo courtesy of Bleacher Report.

Only two weeks remain in the season and thanks to the new playoff format a multitude of teams are still in the hunt. It will all go down in a frenzied finally in which teams will either make it or break it in the final stretch of baseball's regular season.

In the National League (NL), with the Reds and Giants having already clinched their respective divisions and the Nationals having clinched a playoff spot, the Atlanta Braves, St. Louis Cardinals, Los Angeles Dodgers, Milwaukee Brewers, Philadelphia Phillies and Arizona Diamondbacks will fight it out for the last two spots.

The Braves currently have the number one spot in the NL wild card race and are a near lock to play postseason baseball. They only need one win the rest of the season to assure themselves a wild card spot and they still have a chance to challenge the Nationals for the division title. Meanwhile if the season were over today the Cardinals would enter the playoffs in the second wild card spot. If these places hold, the Cardinals will play a one game playoff in Atlanta with the winner advancing to play the top team in the NL.

Trailing St. Louis, each by three and a half games, are the Dodgers and the Brewers. The Dodgers have built up their offense by adding power hitting, Adrian Gonzalez, Hanley Ramirez and speedy outfielder Shane Victorino among others. Los Angeles has been fading recently, however, as their offense has been slowing up. The roaring Brew Crew lead the NL in homeruns (189), stolen bases (150), RBIs (701) and slugging percentage (.437). The Brewers have also won 25 of their last 33 games, dating back to August 20th.

If anyone is going to overrun the Braves or the Cardinals it will most likely be the Dodgers or the Brewers, but the Phillies and the Diamondbacks still have an outside chance at making a late season run. Both teams are still five and a half games behind St. Louis, an almost insurmountable lead, but with great second halves it is impossible to rule anyone out.

In all likelihood however, the Braves will clinch the top wild card spot within the next week on the back of a stellar pitching staff while the Cardinals take the next spot behind the NL's second best offense.

Regarding the American League (AL) the story is completely different. Every division and wild card spot remains up for grabs. The Chicago White Sox at the moment lead the AL Central, but are being closely pursued by the Detroit Tigers who are only a half game behind. Although they have a potential MVP and Triple Crown candidate in Miguel Cabrera, the Tigers are effectively out of the wild card race making the division title their only chance at the playoffs. Chicago will not go down easily however, as Adam Dunn has provided the solid Chicago offense with 39 homeruns and 90 RBIs and Chris Sale has been a stud on the mound with 17 wins and a 2.82 ERA. Chicago has their fate in their hands but they have a very slim margin for error going into the final stretch.

In the AL West the offense-driven Texas Rangers hold a four game lead over the Oakland Athletics. The A's though do have hopes for the postseason, as they sit in the second wild card spot but six games behind Texas in the division. The Los Angeles Angels are only two games back in the wild card race but despite all of their offensive and starting pitching talent, their bullpen is too inconsistent to make a final playoff push.

In the AL East the New York Yankees are leading the division by a slim margin over the surprise Baltimore Orioles. Similar to the Rangers, the Yankees have an explosive offense that has lead them on the path to the postseason. The Yankees lead the AL in homeruns and are second in runs and slugging percentage but they have been unable to separate themselves from the competition.

Also similar to the Athletics, the Orioles have been defying all means of baseball physics. They have no true superstars and have a negative run differential. The Orioles do however have one of the best bullpens in the AL, capturing an AL leading 52 saves and 2.98 ERA in the seventh inning or later. Baltimore also has a league leading .75 ERA in extra innings, has won 16 straight extra inning games and has a 27-9 record in one run games. Baltimore simply has been finding a way to win, often in close games, which has left them in the top wild card spot.

Lastly, the Tampa Bay Rays are only 3.5 games out of the wild card but their lack of offense makes it unlikely that they will be able to close the gap. A repeat of last season's miraculous run would be necessary for the Rays to keep on playing in October.

At the end of the regular season in the National League expect the Reds, Nationals and Giants to be the division winners while the Braves and Cardinals take the two wild card spots. In the currently wide open American League look for the White Sox, Rangers and Yankees to be the division winners and for the wild card winners to be the Orioles and Athletics. In short, it's going to be an exciting postseason.

Tags: MLB 2012 Postseason Wild Card

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