Since the All-Star Break, the National League Wild Card race has virtually been a five-team slugfest. The San Fransisco Giants, St. Louis Cardinals, New York Mets, Pittsburgh Pirates, and Miami Marlins have all, at times, looked like strong threats to the rest of the National League. Then, on August 14th, Giancarlo Stanton got hurt, and the Marlins’ playoff hopes were all but ended. Then the Pirates lost their identity and a lot of games in the second half, including big series losses to the Cardinals, Reds, Phillies, and Giants.
Which left us with three.
The Giants, Cardinals, and Mets are in a three way tie for the National League Wild Card spot. Two spots, three teams. There has never, in the Wild Card Era, been a three-way tie, and if the season finishes this way, it will be pure, wonderful, baseball chaos. On Wednesday night, the stars were aligned for the Cardinals to take the first step towards clinching one of those two spots. Playing in Denver against a sub-par Colorado Rockies team, the Cardinals laid an egg in the series finale. But as fans, we sat back and watched as the Giants were swept under the rug by division rival Los Angeles, and the Mets hopes of taking a one game lead were dashed by a game-winning catch by the Atlanta Braves’ Ender Inciarte.
Another day down, still in a three way tie.
With just ten games left, the Cardinals have the most difficult remaining schedule. They travel to Wrigley Field for a three-game series against the (already crowned) NL Central Champions, before closing out the season with home series’ against the Reds and Pirates. By the time the Pirates come to town, they will likely be eliminated, and will want to play spoiler. But at this point, every single game means something for the Cardinals.
The Giants, with one of the most unreliable bullpens in baseball, have been letting games get away late. But with series against the Padres and Rockies remaining, the Giants have a good opportunity to seal their own fate. That is, until the Dodgers come to town to finish off the season with a three game series. We all saw how heated things get between these two teams, and don’t expect the Dodgers to take a seat just because they’re the division winner. (Side note: are the Dodgers begging to get beaned by wearing these shirts?)
Which leaves us with the Mets, who just a few days ago were dealt the spine-tingling news that Jacob DeGrom would undergo season-ending elbow surgery. For Mets fans, this is not only bad news for their hopes this season, but also DeGrom’s future. Mets fans across the country are keeping their fingers crossed that they don’t have another Matt Harvey on their hands. The Metropolitans have an easy path to the one-game playoff as well, with two series against the Phillies and one against the Marlins. However, two of the three series are on the road, where the Mets have struggled. The Marlins and Phillies would love nothing more than to bury the Mets’ hopes.
All of that said, the newly adorned “America’s Team” (the Cubs) await the Wild Card winner, with their National League Central title and (more than likely) 100 wins under their belt. The smell of champagne will be stale in the locker room, as it will have been nearly a month since they clinched the division. The Cubs won’t have played a meaningful game in nearly that same amount of time. The Cubs are clearly the best team in baseball, and all signs are pointing towards their first World Series title since 1906.
Which is exactly why they should be terrified.
Whoever comes out of the Wild Card game will have been playing playoff-atmosphere baseball for going on two weeks. The atmosphere won’t change. Whatever team arrives on the north side will have survived not only a grueling two-week, three-team battle, but also a winner take all game for the chance to take on the Cubbies.
All three wild-card teams are an omen to the Cubs. The Mets ended the Cubs’ dreams last season, when the over-performing Cubs had just ousted their bitter rival Cardinals in the NLDS. Don’t think the Cubs have forgotten about that, but don’t think that the Mets aren’t capable of doing it again. The Mets are 5-2 against the Cubs this season. The Giants are doing their even-year tribal dance, trying to overcome a miserable bullpen for the chance to work their even-year magic. The Giants are 3-4 against the Cubs this season, but 5 of those 7 games were of the one-run variety.
And then there are the Cardinals. Not only are they the team everyone (especially the Cubs) love to hate, they’re the team that, by all accounts, shouldn’t be in this conversation at all. Matt Holliday, Matt Adams, Matt Carpenter (maybe it’s a Matt thing?), Aledmys Diaz, Lance Lynn, Trevor Rosenthal, Michael Wacha and Jhonny Peralta have all missed significant time this season. Jason Heyward and John Lackey left the green grass of Busch Stadium for the greener grass (and ivy) of Wrigley Field. The Cardinals, who had the best rotation in baseball last season, have lost their pitching seemingly overnight. Rosenthal couldn’t save a game. Wacha couldn’t keep the ball on the ground. Jaime Garcia couldn’t keep the ball in the ballpark. Adam Wainwright has looked like a shell of himself, and free agent signee Mike Leake has failed to meet expectations.
But, as the Cardinals do, here they sit in playoff contention. Rookie Aledmys Diaz, if not for the outstanding season by the Dodgers’ Corey Seager, would be a shoe-in winner for NL Rookie of the Year. Padres defect Jedd Gyorko came to St. Louis and leads the team in home runs (27). Brandon Moss, who looked like a lost cause last season, also has 25+ home runs. Randal Grichuk and Kolten Wong, after being demoted to AAA-Memphis, have found their stride. Yadier Molina is hitting the ball like he has never hit it before. The Cardinals are finding ways to win, and it mainly involves the long ball.
All three teams pose a threat to the Cubs and whoever awaits in the NLCS. As a matter of fact, one could almost make the case that the Cubs will be at a disadvantage having to play the wild card winner in the NLDS. There’s no team more dangerous than an inspired team — and whatever team survives this gauntlet will be just that.
The Cubs should be doing their best to prepare for the inspired Wild Card team to come in and hit them in the mouth. And while all three wild card hopefuls have their weakness, the Cubs should keep their fingers crossed it’s not the birds on the bat who roll in to Chicago. Because as history tells us, the Cardinals thrive as underdogs — and that’s exactly what they would be.