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Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Home Stretch - National League

We are approaching the final week of Major League Baseball's regular season. I seldom give Bud Selig a lot of credit because he doesn't deserve a lot of credit. However, his changes to MLB's playoff system - adding the Wild Card, which first played in the 1995 season, and adding a second wild card this season - were a pair of brilliant strokes.

Of baseball's 30 teams four teams, all in the National League, have clinched playoff berths. There are 11 teams, eight in the American League and three in the National League, either in the lead for a playoff spot or are four or fewer games back of a playoff spot. One spot in the National League and all five spots in the American League have not yet been clinched. Today we will focus on the playoff situation in the N.L.


National League

The San Francisco Giants and Cincinnati Reds have clinched the National League West and Central divisions, respectively. The Washington Nationals are in the driver's seat in the National League East with a four game lead over the Atlanta Braves. Both the Braves and Nationals have clinched playoff births. Both the Reds and Nationals are tied for the best record in the major leagues. The Nationals franchise is in the playoffs for only the second time in team history, reaching the National League Championship Series as the Montreal Expos in 1981.

The Braves will probably have to host the National League Wild Card game, barring an utter collapse by the Nationals in the final games of the regular season. The only mystery remaining in the National League involves who will clinch the second and final Wild Card spot. The following teams are fighting for their playoff lives over the next week and a half:

St. Louis Cardinals

The Hat Trick has warned Cards Fan of the pending late season danger on multiple occasions. The bullpen has been the Achilles heel of St. Louis over the course of the season. At one point in September, the Cardinals had lost 8 of 10 games. Interestingly, only two of those eight losses were charged to relievers. The responsibility could largely be placed on the absence of normally potent bats in the Cardinals lineup. St. Louis appears to have righted the ship and continues to control its own playoff destiny, but not before allowing the Dodgers and Brewers back into the N.L. Wild Card race.

Los Angeles Dodgers

This team is an enigma. They were in a tit-for-tat with the Giants for much of the season. Then they suffered a key injury to their star, Matt Kemp. The Dodgers made blockbuster trades to bring in Shane Victorino (.250, 10 HR, 51 RBI), Hanley Ramirez (.250, 24 HR, 90 RBI), Adrian Gonzalez (.291, 18 HR, 104 RBI), Josh Beckett (6-15, 4.78 ERA), and Carl Crawford (out for the season). Conventional wisdom dictated that L.A. should have gotten a boost and, if not catch the Giants, place significant pressure on San Francisco.

Instead the Giants clinched the West last week and the Dodgers are still trying to chase down the St. Louis Cardinals, in spite of a mini meltdown by the Cards this month. The Dodgers are 3.5 games back of St. Louis. The bats have appeared to liven up in the second half of the month and that must continue if the Dodgers expect to play in October.

Gonzalez is trying to bring some of his magic to the West Coast. 2

Milwaukee Brewers

The Brewers have set an inferno in the National League in the month of September, with a record of 16-6 on the month. Between the ineptitude of the Cardinals and inconsistency of the Dodgers, the seemingly nonstop winning of the Brew Crew has placed them in the thick of the Wild Card race. Ryan Braun (.317, 40 HR, 108 RBI) is batting .360 during this month with an on base plus slugging percentage of just under 1.000. 

Milwaukee is batting .286 as a team this month and has bashed 28 balls out of the park in September. While the Brewers have remained offensively potent in 2012, in spite of the loss of Prince Fielder to the Detroit Tigers in free agency, the starting pitching is just okay and the bullpen is unreliable. Even if the Brewers' hot streak carries them into the post season, I cannot see them lasting long in October.

Braun's MVP worthy performance has the Brewers still alive against all odds. 1

Later this week: the American League!

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