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Breaking down the National League’s most crowded, unique playoff race ever

6 teams fighting for 4 playoff spots

Six teams are fighting for the final four spots in the National League playoff race.
Six teams are fighting for the final four spots in the National League playoff race. (2020 Getty Images)

It’s not an exaggeration to say the National League could be hurtling toward one of the best playoff races ever, as this final week has nothing but great matchups and crowded standings at the end of a truly unique MLB season.

It’s hard to believe less than a week remains. At times, it felt like the offseason bickering between owners and players would leave us without any baseball at all, and the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreaks in the early weeks had many wondering if the season would be shut down.

But here we are, eight weeks later. Six nights of baseball remain until the first-ever 16-team MLB playoff.

The American League bracket could see some movement in terms of seeding, but the eight postseason participants are firmly set.

The NL -- not so much.

Four teams are guaranteed postseason spots: the Los Angeles Dodgers, San Diego Padres, Chicago Cubs and Atlanta Braves. Only the Dodgers and Padres have officially clinched, but when the dust settles, those will be the top four seeds in the NL.

It’s the rest of the contenders that deserve your attention this week.

Teams still in contention

There are six contenders below the aforementioned top four, and all are within 1.5 games of each other with between five and nine games to go.

  • Miami Marlins -- fifth place in NL
  • St. Louis Cardinals -- sixth place in NL (0.5 games back)
  • Cincinnati Reds -- seventh place in NL (0.5 games back)
  • Philadelphia Phillies -- eighth place in NL (1 game back)
  • Milwaukee Brewers -- tied for ninth place in NL (1.5 games back)
  • San Francisco Giants -- tied for ninth place in NL (1.5 games back)

NOTES

  • The Reds trail the Cardinals by just percentage points for sixth place.
  • All “games back” totals show how far teams are behind the Marlins.
  • Two teams from each division have to make the postseason, so at least one of the Marlins or Phillies WILL get in and at least one of the Cardinals, Reds or Brewers WILL ALSO get in.

Six teams are right on top of each other with only four spots up for grabs. The Marlins could lose the next two games and find themselves on the outside looking in. Meanwhile just one victory could put the Brewers or Giants back on the right side of the cut line.

Every single night matters, and that means every pitch of every at-bat could change the postseason landscape. In a way, the playoffs have already begun in the National League.

Here’s a look at the specific situations for all six teams.

Miami Marlins

Current standing: Fifth place, 1.5 games above cut line

Remaining schedule: 3 @ Atlanta, 3 @ New York Yankees

There have been a handful of surprises this season, but none compare to the Marlins. Not only was this one of the worst teams in baseball last year, but Miami also overcame the worst COVID-19 outbreak of the season. It sent half of the active roster to the injured list.

The Marlins have a head start on the other six teams in the standings, but their work isn’t done yet. They have six road games left against World Series contenders.

St. Louis Cardinals

Current standing: Sixth place, 1 game above cut line

Remaining schedule: 2 @ Kansas City, 5 vs. Milwaukee, (2 vs. Detroit)

The Cardinals are the perfect example of why this playoff race is so unique.

With six days left until the end of the regular season, the Cardinals will either play seven or nine games. They have a doubleheader scheduled for Friday against the Brewers, and unless the standings are set in stone by Sunday -- which is extremely unlikely -- they’ll have to make up two games that were previously postponed against the Tigers.

Those games would be made up as a doubleheader on Monday, after the rest of the league is finished.

Kwang Hyun Kim #33 of the St. Louis Cardinals pitches in the second inning against the Milwaukee Brewers during game one of a doubleheader at Miller Park on September 14, 2020 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Kwang Hyun Kim #33 of the St. Louis Cardinals pitches in the second inning against the Milwaukee Brewers during game one of a doubleheader at Miller Park on September 14, 2020 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (2020 Getty Images)

Sure, doubleheaders are a part of baseball every season, but we’ve never seen anything like this. The Cardinals played doubleheaders on Monday, Wednesday and Friday last week. The week before that, they played doubleheaders on Tuesday and Thursday.

Since being off for 16 days due to the coronavirus, St. Louis has played 46 games in 38 days. It only seems fitting to finish the season with nine games in seven days.

The five-game series against the Brewers will be must-watch baseball. Jack Flaherty, Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff, Adam Wainwright and Kwang-Hyun Kim are all scheduled to start in that series, which could make or break the season for both teams.

Cincinnati Reds

Current standing: Seventh place, 1 game above cut line

Remaining schedule: 2 vs. Milwaukee, 3 @ Minnesota

Of all the teams involved in this playoff race, the Reds have the fewest remaining games, with a day off Thursday and a three-game series against the Twins this weekend.

Cincinnati was one of the greatest underachievers for the first two-thirds of the season. Just 10 days ago, the Reds were 20-26 and well outside the top eight in the NL.

But now, after winning eight of nine games, the Reds are in position to sprint into the playoffs as a dangerous underdog. Nobody wants to run into the trio of Trevor Bauer, Sonny Gray and Luis Castillo in the playoffs.

Philadelphia Phillies

Current standing: Eighth place, 0.5 games above cut line

Remaining schedule: 3 @ Washington, 3 @ Tampa Bay

From Aug. 23 through Sept. 4, the Phillies won 10 of 11 games and forced their way back into the NL playoff picture. Since then, they’ve been very mediocre, going 8-12, including six losses to non-playoff teams and a 2-5 letdown during an unusual seven-game series against the Marlins.

It feels like the Phillies are clinging on for dear life, and they need to capitalize on the remaining three games against the Nationals, which sounds strange considering those Nationals are the defending World Series champions.

J.T. Realmuto #10 of the Philadelphia Phillies celebrates with Alec Bohm #28 after scoring on  a wild pitch by James Hoyt #39 of the Miami Marlins at Marlins Park on September 12, 2020 in Miami, Florida.
J.T. Realmuto #10 of the Philadelphia Phillies celebrates with Alec Bohm #28 after scoring on a wild pitch by James Hoyt #39 of the Miami Marlins at Marlins Park on September 12, 2020 in Miami, Florida. (2020 Getty Images)

But after Philadelphia leaves the nation’s capital, it will finish the season with three road games against the second-best team in all of baseball: Tampa Bay.

Luckily, ace Aaron Nola still has two more starts for the Phillies, and the opposing pitchers for the final six games are Austin Voth, TBA, Erick Fedde, Charlie Morton, Ryan Yarbrough and Josh Fleming.

Milwaukee Brewers

Current standing: Ninth place, 0.5 games out of playoff spot

Remaining schedule: 2 @ Cincinnati, 5 vs. St. Louis

It feels like the Brewers' season will come down to those five games against the Cardinals, but they can’t afford to drop the next two to the Reds, either.

Milwaukee is the team to watch this week because all seven games are between desperate, fringy playoff teams. That’s the most entertaining baseball in the world.

Burnes and Woodruff each have one start remaining, but what the Brewers really need is an offensive spark. That might be hard to find with Gray, Bauer, Kim, Flaherty and Wainwright still on the schedule.

San Francisco Giants

Current standing: Ninth place, 0.5 games out of playoff spot

Remaining schedule: 3 vs. Colorado, 4 vs. San Diego

The Giants have the luxury of playing their next three games against the Nolan Arenado-less Rockies, but finishing the season with four against the Padres will be difficult.

Luckily, the Giants won’t have to leave the friendly confines of San Francisco for the rest of the regular season. They’re 16-10 at Oracle Park this season, and even though they’ll technically be the road team for half of Friday’s doubleheader, the Giants' fate will be decided at home.

If you’re looking for a Cinderella team to support, it’s definitely the Giants. Forget that they’ve won three World Series rings in the last decade -- it’s more about the makeup of the current roster. The Giants are by far the least impressive, with Mike Yastrzemski and Donovan Solano as the best hitters on the team and Kevin Gausman as the ace of the staff.

Bonus: Colorado Rockies

Current standing: 11th place, 2.5 games out of playoff spot

Remaining schedule: 3 @ San Francisco, 4 @ Arizona

I didn’t include the Rockies in most of this breakdown because there’s a clear gap between them and the rest of the pack. While 2.5 games might not sound like much, it is when there are only seven games left. For example, to pass a team that goes 3-3 down the stretch, the Rockies would have to finish 7-0.

But it’s not impossible, and it helps to have four games against the second-worst team in the league. Arizona has lost 23 of 30 games and is just looking to get through this last week and put 2020 in the rearview mirror. It wouldn’t be a shock to see a four-game sweep.

Trevor Story #27 of the Colorado Rockies points skyward after hitting a solo home run during the first inning of a baseball game against the San Diego Padres at Petco Park on September 9, 2020 in San Diego, California.
Trevor Story #27 of the Colorado Rockies points skyward after hitting a solo home run during the first inning of a baseball game against the San Diego Padres at Petco Park on September 9, 2020 in San Diego, California. (2020 Getty Images)

The problem for the Rockies is they have to jump three teams to get into the postseason. That’s even tougher considering some of the contenders are playing head-to-head, so one team is always guaranteed to win.

If the Rockies can win six of their last seven and finish at 30-30, there’s a chance they could sneak into the postseason, but there’s no room for error.

How this year is different

A casual baseball fan might ask, “What’s the big deal? Why do you think this playoff race is so great?”

First of all, think of the unique schedule circumstance. The Cardinals and Reds are technically tied in the standings right now, but one has nine games remaining while the other has five. Is that more opportunity for St. Louis to separate itself, or will players be running on fumes and limp to the finish line? We don’t know because we’ve never seen this before.

Then, there are the head-to-head series between contenders. The Cardinals have five games against the Brewers -- when was the last time two teams fighting for a playoff spot finished the year with five games against each other? The Reds also have two games against the Brewers, and don’t forget about the three remaining Rockies-Giants games.

But even beyond the head-to-head games, look at the quality matchups coming up for contending teams. Miami plays six games against playoff teams in the Braves and Yankees. The Reds finish with three against the Twins. The Phillies have to travel to Tampa Bay. The Giants play their final four games against the Padres.

The Braves, Yankees, Twins, Rays and Padres are all among the nine best teams in MLB, with the Yankees having the worst record at 31-23. The best teams in baseball will be playing the most desperate teams in baseball the final weekend of the year. Everyone has to earn their spot. That’s all a baseball fan can ask for.


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