MLB playoff race heats up
The sun is beginning to set on what has been a wild 2016 MLB season. Most of the division races — save for two — are all but decided thanks to some massive gaps between the division leaders and those trying to chase after them. The Wild Card races are far from over, however, and there are no doubt some exciting late-September games on the horizon.
The one division race that has essentially already come to an end is the National League Central. After boasting three teams that won 97 games or more in 2015, the NL Central had high expectations heading into 2016. However, the team that probably had the most unfair expectations going into the season — the Cubs — ended up running away with the division and lived up to those hefty expectations. Chicago possesses one of the most dangerous hitting combinations in the game in Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant, as well as what will likely be the most feared starting rotation in the postseason: Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, and John Lackey. A team with very few flaws, the Cubs have far and away the best record in the game at 90-51; the next best is the Nationals at 85-58. The Cardinals — currently in second place, yet 15.5 games back — were the only other team in the division to put up a fight, but even they never really challenged the Cubs for the top spot.
There are a few other divisions that are closed books at this point. After a midseason meltdown in 2015, the Nationals came back this season and took the National League East by storm. They sit in first place a comfortable nine games ahead of the reigning NL champion Mets. The Rangers control the American League West by the same amount, despite solid seasons from the Astros and Mariners. The Indians don’t have quite the same stranglehold over the American League Central, but at seven games ahead of the Tigers, their lead seems safe.
The American League East might be the most exciting race at the moment, as the division features a four teams contending for first place, which is very rare to see at this point in the season. The Red Sox currently hold a slim two-game lead, with the Orioles and Blue Jays — two dangerous teams should either of them make the playoffs — tied for second place. However, the biggest surprise in the division has been the Yankees, who sit just four games back despite being sellers at the Trade Deadline.
The National League West is another intriguing division. San Francisco had the best record in baseball prior to the All-Star break, while the Dodgers lost Clayton Kershaw, one of the best pitchers in the game, to the disabled list in late June. The Giants appeared to have an easy route to the postseason, but they have fallen to the other end of the spectrum: they have the worst record in the Majors since the All-Star break. The Dodgers, despite sustaining injuries to several more of their starting pitchers, managed to stay afloat during the Giants’ skid, and that was more than enough to pass their struggling rivals in the standings. Los Angeles is just three games ahead at the moment, but the Giants will have to get their act together if they want a division title.
Lucky for San Francisco, they still own the first NL Wild Card spot by 1.5 games. The Mets currently hold the second Wild Card, but the Cardinals are just half of a game out, and it’s very possible these three teams will continue to swap places in the standings until the end of the regular season.
There are many more teams involved in the AL Wild Card race. Baltimore and Toronto, who both have a 78-64 record, possess the two Wild Card spots, while the Tigers and Yankees are each two games behind. Houston and Seattle are three and 3.5 games out, respectively, and the Royals, who are four back, can’t be counted out either.
While there are some races that can be considered finished, there are still many teams in contention — particularly in the Wild Card races — that make for an abundance of playoff scenarios. As always, it appears the season is headed for an exciting conclusion with many memorable September games to be played.