Baseball’s Magic Numbers & Wild Cards

September is here and that means… football?

No. It means pennant races, hunting wild cards, magic numbers, clinching divisions in the American and National Leagues. We will take a look at each division, where playoff-bound teams stand and projections.

American League EAST

Prior to the all-star break the Yankees looked as though they were going to run away with the division and maybe set or come close to a record for wins. The 1998 Yanks won 114 games, third all time, behind the 1906 Chicago Cubs and 2001 Seattle Mariners (both 116). With a record of 64-28, New Yorkers were talking loud about clinching by Labor Day, the World Series and Aaron Judge as MVP.

Things went severely south after the break, however, losing two at Houston, taking two of three at Baltimore, then losing two straight across town to the Mets. Well, nobody was too worried. After all, it was only July. August would prove worse, as the Bombers went 10-18, and then started September losing two straight at Tampa Bay. Their lead was down to 4 games.

The Yankees won the third game of that series and headed back to New York, wounded but not defeated. They took the first of a three-game set with the Twins in the Bronx, 5-2, while the Rays took a 4-3 decision over Boston. The lead is currently five games, but Toronto, which is arguably the best team in the division, is just a 1/2 game behind Tampa Bay. Both the Rays and Jays look like sure bets to make the playoffs as wild cards, though one of them might just run down the ailing Yanks. Toronto and Tampa play each other nine times between September 12 and 25, a good sign for New York.

The Yankees, a lock for the playoffs, do not look particularly good. Basically, after Judge, their offense is quite limited. He’s carried the team thus far, but he can be pitched around in most cases. The bonehead move by NY, to trade lefty starter, Jordan Montgomery, to the Cardinals at the trade deadline for center fielder Harrison Bader, offers a glimpse of the front office ineptitude. Montgomery is 4-0 in five starts for St. Louis. Bader is still on injured reserve.

Even if the Yankees win the division, they look to be knocked out in the first round.

American League CENTRAL

This division is a toss-up, with the only team advancing to the playoffs likely to be the division winner. Cleveland holds a one-game lead over the Twins and has two on the White Sox. Any of the three can take this division. How long they last in the post-season is questionable, as each team has defects.

American League WEST

Two teams from the West division will be in the playoffs. Houston holds a commanding 11-game lead over Seattle and should cruise to clinching within two to three weeks. Both Seattle and Houston have 27 games left. 27-11 = 16, Houston’s magic number.

Seattle is a dangerous bunch, currently tied for the top wild card with Tampa Bay, with Toronto 1/2 game back. The only threat to any of these three is Baltimore, currently 4 1/2 behind the Blue Jays.

National League EAST

The Mets have been in first place since Day 1, but their once-prodigious lead has dwindled down to one, with the Braves breathing down their backs. The red-hot Braves have won five straight and were the hottest team in baseball since August 9, going 20-5. They have he Mets in their sights and are a lock for the playoffs even if they fail to win the division. Their wild card lead of 11 1/2 games over Philadelphia and San Diego appears unassailable. Fading Milwaukee is two games out of the third wild card spot.

The Mets have three games in Atlanta, September 30-October 2, which may decide the division. The Phillies have to keep winning, unless the Padres or Brewers fold up entirely. They’ve dropped three straight, but the schedule appears kind. They host three with the Marlins starting Tuesday (Sept. 6), followed by three with the last-place Nationals, then it’s off to Miami for another three-game set with the Marlins.

National League CENTRAL

This division changed dramatically in August when the Cardinals won seven straight to go from four games back of Milwaukee on July 30 to a two-game division lead on August 7 as the Brewers were losing six of seven. Completing a three-game sweep of the Yankees at Busch Stadium, the Cardinals never looked back. Milwaukee stayed close for about a week, but from August 14 through the 22nd, the Cards won eight straight to pull further ahead. St. Louis has won seven of their last nine and appear to be on track to capture the division.

Milwaukee is two games out of the last wild card spot and will need to play better if they plan on playing in the post-season. Since the all star break they’ve been dismal, going 21-20.

National League WEST

With a record of 92-42 (47-18 at home), the Dodgers have the best record in the majors and a 19-game bulge over second place San Diego. Their magic number is nine (9), and it’s conceivable that they could clinch the division title as early as this coming weekend. If they take two at home from the Giants and sweep the Padres in San Diego, and the Padres split or lose both games against Arizona Tuesday and Wednesday, it’s over.

While that scenario may or may not play out, the Dodgers will win the division going away, clinching, at the latest, by next Friday (Sept. 16). Los Angeles is clearly the favorite heading into the playoffs, but Atlanta, St. Louis, or the Mets will likely have a shot at them in the NLDS or Championship series, come October.

The makings of a fun September are in place. The races to watch closely are the AL East and Central, the NL East and the NL Wild Card. Check back here for updates.

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