Predicting The National League Pennant Race
Eleven games remain in the 2013 schedule. A crazy season for the Cardinals will apparently end fittingly, culminating in a vicious, fight-to-the-death battle between five teams that nobody would’ve dared to predict a few months ago.
It all seemed so simple back then. The Cardinals had raced out to baseball’s best record. The expensive Dodgers were floundering. Talented-but-young teams like the Pirates and the Nationals were admirably keeping pace, but looked to falter at any moment. The Giants and the Rangers still looked like the favorites they were in spring training.
Now baseball’s unpredictable magic has scrambled the matrix and turned logic on its head. Combustible calculus threatens to make the 2013 pennant race one of the craziest finishes in recent memory. The Cardinals are right in the middle of it, currently enjoying a one-game foothold in the ever-changing landscape.
Barring a stunning collapse, the Cardinals will likely reach the postseason. But can they win the division and avoid the sudden-death play-in game? Can they beat the Braves for the National League’s best record and retain home-field advantage? These pregnant questions hang in the air as players and fans alike hold their breath for the answers revealed over the next two weeks.
It’s impossible to see the future of a pennant race dependent on the fickle flights of a little white ball, but let’s look at the upcoming schedules for each team and make some predictions, Baseball Gods be damned!
THOUGHTS ON THE SCHEDULE: The two teams really in trouble in the final two weeks are the Nationals and the Pirates. Both teams end the season with multiple-team road series, and both teams have .500 averages in road games. Things look really bad for Pittsburgh, who must face the Reds at Great American Ballpark to end the season; Cincinnati has a 48-26 home record, third-best in baseball. Even worse, the Reds have Johnny Cueto back from the disabled list just in time to potentially dismantle any obstacles to a postseason berth.
I did not include the Dodgers because they will easily win their division, but I don’t believe they will have the NL’s best record. They have a long road trip to end most of the season and the early clinch will make them ease up.
KEYS FOR THE CARDINALS:
1. Win the National League’s best record. Despite a (relatively) soft schedule, the Cardinals cannot relax. They absolutely need to capture the National League’s best record and ensure home field advantage (47-28 at Busch Stadium this season). All of the teams vying for a postseason chance have incredible home records, so avoiding that pitfall should be their first priority.
2. Get Allen Craig back in one piece. Craig’s boot comes off next week, and we could see him back in action sometimes during the final week of the season. DON’T RUSH HIM BACK. Craig’s return is of vital importance to this lineup, but he’ll be more important in playoff games than he will be against the Cubs. I’m just hoping that Matheny uses some common sense with Craig’s injury (something we have yet to see from Matheny in regards to injured players this year) and gives Craig some rest.
3. Achieve some breathing room. Right now, the division race is so tight that the Cardinals would have no chance of configuring an advantageous rotation if they fell into a one-game playoff or tied for the division lead. Given the injuries to the staff over the season and the heavy workload, a spot start could be the difference between surviving the playoffs and going home early. Allowing Adam Wainwright or Shelby Miller a chance to breathe in the final week could be huge for this team.
I think the Cardinal will split the series with Colorado (losing Wednesday night, winning Thursday afternoon). The Cardinals should take 2 of 3 from Milwaukee; they should pulverize Johnny Hellweg on Friday and Wily Peralta on Sunday. The Cards could sweep the Brewers if Lance Lynn produces his third solid start in a row. After that are two home series, both of which the Cardinals should win. The only danger area involves the Nationals, who are suddenly hot and scrambling for a playoff spot; if the Cardinals face Rafael Soriano (winner of his last 10 decisions) and Dan Haren, we could possibly lose that Nationals series. However, I’m guessing the Cardinals take at least 2 of 3 from both teams.
That would give the Cardinals a record of 95-67. The big question: will it be enough?
The Pirates will beat the Padres tonight, but tomorrow night (Ian Kennedy vs. Gerrit Cole) could be a toss-up — I’m picking the Pirates to win it. The Pirates are facing two of the Reds’ top three starters in their weekend showdown in Pittsburgh, but I’m thinking the Pirates will win Francisco Liriano‘s start Friday and they’ll destroy Bronson Arroyo on Sunday. After that, the Pirates go into Wrigley Field, where they should win 2 of 3 from the Cubs despite some inspired recent play from Chicago. Then the Pirates go to Cincinnati for a season-ending bloodbath — I’m predicting things go very poorly for Pittsburgh here. The Reds will win 2 of 3, and possibly sweep depending on the availability of Cueto for the series.
I’m predicting a season-ending record of 94-68 for the Pirates, but it could very easily end up 93-69.
The Reds are just a volatile as the Cardinals, often suffering from offensive mood swings and some weird rotation issues. The Reds are starting rookie Greg Reynolds tonight against the Astros — they don’t want to waste their big guns on the lowly Astros – which should offend Houston enough to beat them in Minute Maid. One caveat — the Astros have an atrocious home record. The Astros are countering with Brad Peacock, who has a 0.77 WHIP in September, so I’m guessing the Astros take the final game. The Reds travel to Pittsburgh, where I believe the Pirates will take 2 of 3. After that, they have two final series at home. The Reds should take 2 of 3 from the Mets despite the fact that New York has a solid road record. Then comes a second round against the Pirates, which I believe the Reds will dominate – at least 2 of 3, if not a sweep.
That gives the Reds a record of 91-71, or possibly 92-70 if they sweep the Pirates to end the season.
The Braves were humiliated yesterday when the upstart Nationals swept them in a double header. The Nationals are pitching Ross Ohlendorf (winner of his last five starts) against rookie Alex Wood, who has been decimated in September. I think the Nationals are going to sweep Atlanta tonight. After an off day, the Braves go into Wrigley Field, where they should take 2 of 3 against the Cubs (they swept the Cubs earlier in the season). After that, they host Milwaukee for three games (they should take 2 of 3, although the Brewers are playing spoiler). Then comes a four game series against the Phillies to end the season; the Braves have a .500 record against Philadelphia this season, so this could be a toss-up. I’m predicting Atlanta takes 3 of 4 from the Phillies.
That would give the Braves a record of 96-66. Much could change against the Cubs and Brewers, however.
The Nationals are baseball’s hottest team right now, and we know that can spell trouble in this reconfigured playoff format. I think they’ll finish off the Braves tonight. They should also (at least) split the series against the reeling Marlins, but I’m predicting them to take 3 of 4 from them. Despite being a solid road team, I think the Nationals will lose 2 of 3 to the Cardinals. The Nationals will also have trouble finishing the season against the Diamondbacks on the road; I’m thinking that Arizona will take 2 of 3 unless the Nationals really stay hot and steamroll over them.
That would give the Nationals a record of 87-75. Lots of play in that, though.
A long road trip against tough home teams (Arizona, San Francisco) could be trouble for the Dodgers. They will also likely ease up after clinching early. I’m thinking they end up with 94 wins.
WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?
If correct, that would mean the Reds and Pirates would battle in the Wild Card Game on October 1st (just two days after the end of the season). Home field advantage goes to the winner of the season series between the two clubs; in my model, the Pirates win it with a record of 10-9, but that final series of the year will decide it. Either way, I think the Reds beat the Pirates due to the fact that they have Cueto added to their already-potent rotation, and he’s rested.
The Braves would then face the Reds at home in the NLDS #1, while the Cardinals would tackle the Dodgers (with the Cardinals most likely enjoying home field advantage) in the NLDS #2. From there, I’m thinking the Braves and Cardinals would face each other in the NLCS in Atlanta.
From there, it’s anybody’s guess.
The ebb and flow of a long, torturous season has come down to this — two weeks of madness. Predicting the outcome of a baseball pennant race is more difficult than deciphering the next twisting of the wind. Still, it’s fun to try, isn’t it?