Contrary to what you might hear from alarmists, baseball’s stretch run has retained some of its magic even with an expanded field of postseason teams.
Be it issues of pride, home-field advantage, a first-round bye in the playoffs or the threat of not making the postseason at all, the final month of the regular season has multiple notable division races.
National League East
For months, the Atlanta Braves were threatening to overtake the Mets in the National League East. A gap of 10.5 games on June 1 was reduced to half a game on July 23, but each time it got close, the Mets built it back up. On Tuesday, with the Mets losing to Pittsburgh and Atlanta beating hapless Oakland, the teams finally pulled into a tie, both for the division lead and for the second-best record in the N.L. behind the Los Angeles Dodgers
“It’s where you want to be, you’d rather be here than somewhere else,” Atlanta Manager Brian Snitker told reporters after Tuesday’s win. “You want to be in the thick of the thing.”
For the Mets, it hardly qualifies as a collapse. Since Aug. 12, the Mets are a respectable but frustrating 12-12, winning a series with the mighty Dodgers, while mixing in some losses against lesser teams. But that has coincided with a stretch in which Atlanta is 19-5.
The good news for both teams is that they are going to the postseason. While ESPN rates both teams’ chances of qualifying for a spot at a relatively conservative >99.9 percent, FanGraphs does not hesitate at all, giving both a 100 percent chance. FanGraphs also lists the teams as having the second (Mets) and third (Atlanta) best odds of winning the World Series.
But there is still quite a bit on the line.
The N.L. East champion will most likely be their league’s No. 2 seed in the playoffs, which would result in a first-round bye and advancement directly into a division series. The second-place team will almost certainly be the No. 4 seed — the spot given to the league’s top wild-card team — and have to face the No. 5 seed (currently Philadelphia) in a three-game wild-card series. The good news for the No. 4 seed, be it the Mets or the Braves, is that they would host all three games of that wild-card series.
American League Central
The Chicago White Sox won this division easily last season, and the Minnesota Twins made several notable upgrades over the off-season, while the Cleveland Guardians were written off by many, with speculation that they might trade away the star third baseman José Ramírez. Instead, they extended Ramírez for seven years at $141 million, had Andrés Giménez develop into a star at second base, and have pitched well. With less than a month to play, they are clinging to baseball’s most surprising division lead.
The stakes of holding onto that lead could not be higher. The team that wins this division will earn the A.L.’s No. 3 seed in the playoffs, while the other two will almost certainly watch the postseason from home.
Currently FanGraphs gives Cleveland (70-64) a 52.6 percent chance of winning the division, while Minnesota (68-65) has a 30.9 percent chance and Chicago (68-68) is at 18.9 percent. But it is division or bust, as all three teams trail the A.L.’s wild-card leaders by quite a bit, resulting in each being given less than a 1 percent chance of earning one of those three spots.
American League East
Remember the Yankees’ insurmountable division lead? On July 8, a win over Boston pushed New York’s lead in the A.L. East to a season-high 15.5 games. It was 10 games as recently as Aug. 17. But with Tampa Bay beating the Red Sox on Tuesday, the Yankees’ lead over the Rays shrank to 4.5 games — the second lowest it has been since May.
The Yankees’ struggles with injuries and inconsistency since their white-hot start to the season have been well documented, and their efforts to pull out of the spin have largely sputtered. They have three games against Minnesota over the next two days — a doubleheader on Wednesday and a series finale on Thursday — and doing well is vital, as their final regular season series against Tampa Bay looms over the weekend. If the Yankees’ lead has shrunk to three or fewer games by Friday, the A.L. East could have a new leader by Sunday.
Similar to the N.L. East, the “loser” in this division race will quite likely earn a wild card, with FanGraphs giving the Yankees a 100 percent chance of making the playoffs and the Rays a 96.7 percent chance. But for the Yankees, going from talk of the team ranking among the best in franchise history to worrying about the randomness of a three-game wild-card series would be quite a fall.