Major league baseball's decision to add an extra Wild Card, in hopes of recreating the exciting last day of 2011 seems to be a successful one. With three weeks remaining in the regular season, there are 5 teams vying for that last playoff spot. And if you think the Braves might fall apart like they did last year that would make it 6 teams vying for 2 spots.
The Phillies have gone 10-2 in their last 4 series with series wins against the Braves, Reds, Rockies and Marlins. They have outscored their opponents during that span 59-40. They have series remaining against the Marlins, Mets, Astros and Nationals on the road; and against the Braves and Nationals at home. Their best performers this season have been C Carlor Ruiz, SS Jimmy Rollins and P Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Jonathan Papelbon. Baseball Prospectus gives them a 2.7% chance of making the playoffs.
The Brewers have gone 10-3 in their last 4 series with series wins against the Pirates, Cardinals and Braves and a split with the Marlins. They have outscored their opponents during that stretch 77-50. They have series remaining against the Pirates, Nationals and Reds on the road (in succession) and home series against the Mets, Astros and Padres. Their big performers have been 1B Corey Hart (who is nursing injury right now and has missed 3 straight games), 3B Aramis Ramirez and LF Ryan Braun*. Baseball Prospectus gives them a 3.8% chance of making the post season.
The Pirates have begun to slip. They have gone 2-10 in their last 4 series, having been swept by the Brewers, Cubs and Reds, wtih a series win over the Astros. They have been outscored by a tally of 35-60 over that stretch. They have series remaining against the Cubs, Mets and Astros on the road, with home series against the Brewers, Reds and Braves. They have the best overall team defense among the teams in this race and they are led by 2B Neil Walker (who has not played since the end of August) and CF Andrew McCutchen. Baseball Prospectus gives the Pirates a 5.6% chance of reaching the playoffs.
The Dodgers are also on a bit of a slide right now. Although doing better than the Pirates have lately, they have gone 4-9 in their last 4 series with a split against the Diamondbacks, getting swept by the Diamondbacks in a mini 2 games series, and series losses against the Giants and Padres. They have a key 4 game series this weekend against the Cardinals at home, followed by series on the road against the Nationals, Reds and Padres before heading home to finish the year against the Rockies and Giants. They are led by RF Andre Ethier and P Clayton Kershaw and Kenley Jansen, in addition to newcomers 1B Adrian Gonzalez, SS Hanley Ramirez and P Josh Beckett. Baseball Prospectus gives them an 18.5% chance of making the postseason which includes a 1% chance of beating out the Giants for the NL West crown. They currently trail that race by 7 games.
The Cardinals lead the 2nd Wild Card spot and have the best chance of retaining it when the music stops. They have also gone 4-9 in their last 4 series with series losses against the Brewers, Nationals and getting swept by the Padres, and a series win against the Mets. The have series remaining against the Dodgers, Cubs and Astros on the road and home series against the Astros, Nationals and Reds.they are led by C Yadier Molina and P Adam Wainwrigtht and Kyle Lohse. Baseball Prospectus pegs them as the winner in this race with a 65.4% chance of retaining that 2nd Wild Card spot.
What can we infer/surmise/predict from all of this information. Anything and everything just as MLB and Bud Selig would hope (and the impartial commish would probably hope just a bit more so he could throw out the first pitch for his home town Brewers if they were to host more playoff games this season). I tend to agree with BP's computers and say the Cardinals have to be the favorites in this race. They have the lead now, they have 9 games against the dregs of the NL (Cubs and Astros), and they along with the Phillies have the best starting pitching among the teams still in contention.
The Cards could easily go 12-7 the rest of the way forcing all of the contenders behind them to have monster season endings just simply to tie. The Brewers and Phillies would have to go 15-4 the rest of the way just to get a tie in this situation and for the Brewers that stretch on the road against the Pirates, Nationals and Reds could spell the end for them, and although the Phillies have a bit weaker of a remaining schedule compared to the Brewers, they would still have to have at least one sweep against a divisional opponent, and win the rest of their series 2-1.
The teams that could most influence the last playoff spot are the Nationals, Reds and Astros. Both the Reds and Nationals have playoff spots wrapped up and the Astros are the worst team in baseball
The Phillies have the most momentum coming into the end of the season and are probably the most balanced of those mentioned here (on paper), they also have a lot of ground to make up and a slightly beneficial remaining schedule. The Brewers also have a lot of ground to gain, and have a very tough remaining scedule, they have the best offense of the group, and have relied a ton on young arms in their recent resurgence. The Pirates jsut seem to be in this conversation and have free fallen themself out of serious consideration, at the beginning of the month they were 10 games over .500 and had the 2nd Wild Card spot in their grips. If the Cardinals were to completely collapse, the Dodgers have the best chance to claim that last spot, if it comes down to the series of the year against the Giants, dont look for them to pull it out.