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The NL Playoff Race Could Create the Best Scoreboard-Watching Weekend in MLB History

One way or another, the NL postseason picture will be determined this weekend. But there are many ways things could shake out.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Entering the final weekend of the regular season, the American League playoff field is all but set, with eight teams more or less playing for their postseason seeding. In the National League, however, only half the berths are spoken for: The division-winning Dodgers, Braves, and Cubs, and the wild-card-leading Padres have already punched their tickets, leaving six teams to fight for the remaining four spots.

In 1967, the American League put on one of the greatest pennant races in baseball history, as four clubs were within a game of each other with a week to go in the season. In that pre-divisional era, the winner would advance to the World Series while the three runners-up would go home. But apart from a season-ending two-game set between the Twins and Red Sox, none of those four contenders played each other in the final week.

In keeping with 2020’s habit of repeating the 1960s (without the cool space-travel stuff), a similar situation is playing out in the NL pennant race. Somewhat improbably, the only pair of NL bubble teams that will face off in the final weekend is Milwaukee and St. Louis—the other four are playing teams with secure playoff berths. While this robs us of a de facto playoff Round 0, it does set up the greatest scoreboard-watching weekend in baseball history. Here’s how it could all play out:

St. Louis Cardinals vs. Milwaukee Brewers (Five Games)

The Brewers, despite being the lower seed and despite having spent zero days this season over .500, are actually set up quite well here. They enter this five-game series against St. Louis one game behind in the standings and in possession of the final playoff spot. If the Brewers take three games out of five, they’ll tie the Cardinals in the standings, and by virtue of winning the season series, they’ll have the tiebreaker over their division rival.

Thursday night’s starting pitching matchup features Corbin Burnes—Milwaukee’s best starting pitcher this year—and Kwang Hyun Kim. Kim, 32, is a ground-ball machine who has a 1.59 ERA in his first 34 MLB innings but peripheral numbers that suggest the music’s going to stop fairly soon. Cardinals ace Jack Flaherty is slated to start one end of Friday’s doubleheader, but it’s not certain which Flaherty will show up: the one who was the National League’s best pitcher in the second half of 2019, or the one who allowed nine runs in three innings the last time he faced the Brewers. Brandon Woodruff will oppose Adam Wainwright on Saturday night.

Milwaukee has more pitching depth than St. Louis, particularly with Dakota Hudson out for the season, and its rotation is better set up to impact this series. But the Brewers need to strike early. Most of the innings on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday will go to Burnes, Woodruff, and Milwaukee’s bullpen. If Burnes pitches well and the Brewers can get to Flaherty again, Milwaukee could go into Saturday’s contest with a playoff berth in hand.

But a split of the first four games of the series would require the Brewers to win a road game for all the proverbial marbles, a potentially daunting task if Josh Hader and Devin Williams have been used heavily earlier in the series. Williams has not allowed a run on zero days’ rest this year, but Hader’s been inconsistent: In 19 career appearances on zero days’ rest, Hader has a 4.91 ERA. Included in that is the worst outing of his 2020 season, in which he allowed four hits and four runs against the Cubs on September 12. For comparison, Hader has allowed three hits and four runs total in his other 18 appearances this year.

The Cardinals, on the other hand, are in a unique position. An early-season COVID-19 outbreak wiped out a huge chunk of the schedule, forcing a 55-games-in-45-days slog to the finish—one they might not even complete. A two-game series against Detroit never got made up, so once the Cardinals are through with Milwaukee on Sunday, they will have only played 58 games. If that series impacts whether the Cardinals make the playoffs—put simply, if St. Louis is within a game of the cut line either way after the Milwaukee series—the Cards will have to go to Detroit to play one or both games on Monday. There is truly no rest for the weary.

Philadelphia Phillies at Tampa Bay Rays (Three Games)

The Phillies, after a bullpen-induced semanus horribilis, have gone from lining up their playoff rotation to hanging off the back of the NL postseason picture like a nervous water-skier off a powerboat. If manager Joe Girardi could have penciled in Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler for Games 1 and 2 of a playoff series, the Phillies would have been a scary opponent for anyone in the top half of the bracket. Now, thanks in large part to one of the worst bullpens ever assembled, Philadelphia sits on the wrong side of the bubble, staring down three road games against the American League’s top seed. (No. 3 starter Zach Eflin snapped a four-game losing streak on Wednesday by throwing eight innings and essentially obviating the need for a bullpen, so maybe that’s the way forward for the Phillies.)

Nola and Wheeler will now need to pitch just to make the playoffs, and the Phillies might not even make it to their turns in the rotation before they’re eliminated. “Win or go home” is a simple enough mission, and if the Phillies fail, the National League playoff picture will become very clear very quickly.

Colorado Rockies at San Francisco Giants (One Game)
San Diego Padres at San Francisco Giants (Four Games)

The Phillies aren’t the only team with a daunting final weekend ahead of them. In fact, apart from the Brewers-Cardinals series, all four remaining National League bubble teams will spend the final weekend playing teams that have already clinched a postseason spot.

The Giants have one game left against Colorado before playing four games in three days against the Padres. Every team that’s already clinched is something of an unknown quantity in terms of how much of a fight they’ll put up. On one hand, the Padres aren’t even playing for seeding; they’re locked into the no. 4 slot in the NL no matter what happens between now and Sunday. On the other hand, this is the second-best team in the NL, and not only that, but it’s a young team with a rookie manager staring down its first playoff appearance since 2006; the Padres simply might not be able to grasp the concept of “nothing to play for.”

Moreover, as exciting and chaotic as the Giants have been within games this season, their actual results have been somewhat more predictable. Apart from a respectable 4-6 record against the Dodgers (a result that elides the fact that the Dodgers outscored San Francisco 56-29 in those games), the Giants have been quite bad against good teams. In fact, Gabe Kapler’s club only has a .500 record this late in the season because it has beaten the eternal stuffing out of bad teams: 8-2 against Arizona, 4-0 against Seattle, and 21-9 overall against teams with a sub-.500 record. Against teams at or above .500, the Giants are 7-18, dead last in the National League.

And the Giants are the least likely team in this cohort to get bailed out by an ace starter doing a Bob Gibson impression. Kevin Gausman opposes Chi Chi González on Thursday, but after that, the Giants will face a marked disadvantage in every starting pitching matchup. Tyler Anderson’s had a bit of a Jekyll-and-Hyde season, while Johnny Cueto, the team’s most accomplished and experienced starter, has a 5.53 ERA and got absolutely dismembered in his last start, against the Rockies.

That said, the Giants have enough offensive thump to win games 11-9, even against a team as deep as San Diego. Brandon Belt (.313/.429/.590) is running something of a stealth campaign for NL MVP, while Donovan Solano is still somehow hitting .337. Outfielder Mike Yastrzemski (.285/.390/.553) is one of the breakout players of the season; considering the historical comparison to 1967, it would be fitting if he came back from his calf strain, put the Giants on his back, and carried them across the line. That year, Yastrzemski’s grandfather, Carl, famously won the Triple Crown and AL MVP, and he was at his best down the stretch: In Boston’s final 15 games, the elder Yastrzemski went 27-for-55 with five home runs. In the decisive final series against Minnesota, he went 7-for-8 and either drove in or scored seven of Boston’s 11 runs.

Considering everything that’s happened to get the Giants to this point, if Mike Yastrzemski did something similar, it would fit in with the idea that all historical events happen twice—the second time as farce.

Minnesota Twins at Cincinnati Reds (Three Games)

The Reds are also extremely well-positioned. Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray are set to start the final two regular-season games, and Trevor Bauer would also be on three days’ rest by Sunday. Bauer has a long history of getting into big games through any means necessary, and should a season-deciding scenario arise that afternoon, I imagine he’d not only be available, he’d insist on pitching.

The Reds also hold the tiebreaker against the Giants and Phillies, and the head-to-head tiebreaker against the Brewers. The math gets a bit fuzzier in the event of a three-way tie between the Reds, Brewers, and Cardinals, but all in all, it’s not a bad place to be.

The only negative news for the Reds is that this weekend’s opponent, the Twins, has as much to play for from a seeding perspective as any team that’s already locked up a playoff spot. Minnesota just took over first place in the AL Central on Wednesday night, but with a slim half-game lead over second-place Chicago, the Twins will be well motivated to avoid a 4-5 first-round matchup against the Yankees. The past four times the Twins have made the playoffs, dating back to 2009, they’ve been knocked out by the Yankees without winning a game, and they also lost first-round series against the Yankees in 2003 and 2004. It’s unlikely that there’s an actual karmic component that connects the Twins of José Berríos to those of Brad Radke, but evidence continues to pile up, and it’s better to be safe than sorry. Besides, the AL playoff race is still tight enough that the Twins could end up as high as first or as low as seventh, so there’s a very real, tangible incentive for them to win this series.

Miami Marlins at Atlanta Braves (One Game)
Miami Marlins at New York Yankees (Three Games)

The Marlins beat the Phillies on Opening Day and have been at least tied for a playoff spot ever since. Miami is currently half a game behind the ninth-place Giants, but the Byzantine rules of the current NL playoff format dictate that two teams from each division must make the playoffs. In other words, one of the Marlins or Phillies must get in, and the Marlins not only lead the Phillies by half a game, they own the head-to-head tiebreaker. The Marlins are in the clear if they win three of their final four games, regardless of what any of their competitors do.

Miami will be grateful for that buffer, because winning three of the last four games will be easier said than done. Sixto Sánchez likely threw his last pitch of the regular season on Wednesday (and got knocked around by Atlanta in the process), and while Sandy Alcantara is lined up to oppose J.A. Happ in the opener of the weekend series, José Ureña and Trevor Rogers are slated to start the final two games. Against a Yankees team that (at least for now) still has a shot at home-field advantage in the first round, that’s like opening up a cooler of cuttlefish within smelling range of a hungry walrus. It could get messy.

Between that buffer and the Phillies bullpen, though, Miami looks like a good bet to hang on to that playoff spot until the season’s end.