It’s a testament to how compelling this NL playoff chase has been that there are five days remaining in the regular season and only one team has guaranteed themselves a playoff berth.
While all five tickets to the postseason have been punched in the AL, only the NL East champion Atlanta Braves know for sure that they’ll be participating in postseason action on the NL side.
A frenzy involving the Los Angeles Dodgers, Colorado Rockies, Chicago Cubs, Milwaukee Brewers, and St. Louis Cardinals is currently on display.
It’s an anxiety-inducing game of musical chairs, which will surely prompt the question from the eventual vanquished team of whether it would have been easier from an emotional standpoint to have been eliminated from contention with a couple weeks left in the season instead of a couple days.
Judging from how the standings look right now, it seems pretty safe to say that the NL Central is going to host the wildcard game.
The Cubs are 0.5 games ahead of the Brewers and 4.5 games ahead of the Cardinals. The Cardinals have four games remaining, meaning that they basically have to win out to have a chance at the division crown.
All four of their remaining games are against the Brewers and Cubs, however; so they have the opportunity to make up that ground.
They need some help, though. If the Cardinals beat the Brewers tonight, then they’d have to hope the Brewers get swept by the Detroit Tigers in this weekend’s series.
The Cubs would have to lose their next two games against the Pittsburgh Pirates and then get swept by the Cardinals this weekend to close out the season.
So the NL Central can still theoretically be won by any of those three teams, with the most unlikely scenario obviously being the Cardinals.
It seems like the more realistic goal for the Cardinals at this point would be to try to grab one of the wildcard spots.
The good news for the Cubs and the Brewers is that both teams seem extremely likely to make the playoffs in some capacity.
One of them will win the NL Central and the other will get a wildcard spot, so the drama facing them isn’t quite as powerful as what’s facing the other three teams in this equation.
The Dodgers are 0.5 games ahead of the Rockies in the NL West. The Dodgers have four regular season games remaining this while the Rockies have five.
The Brewers are 3.5 games up in the top wildcard spot with four games remaining on their schedule. The second wildcard spot is the one that’s up for grabs.
As of now, the Rockies are 0.5 games ahead of the Cardinals for the second wildcard spot, and it’s poised to be a thrilling battle.
Obviously, at least one of the Dodgers or Rockies will make the playoffs, but there’s a fairly strong chance that the team who doesn’t win the NL West isn’t going to advance to the postseason.
The Dodgers, Rockies, and Cardinals have gotten to the point where they can’t feel totally comfortable losing any more games this season.
The Dodgers have one more game against the Arizona Diamondbacks and three more games against the San Francisco Giants, all on the road.
The Rockies have two more games against the Philadelphia Phillies and three more games against the Washington Nationals, all at home.
Neither the Dodgers nor the Rockies play teams with anything left to gain at this point beyond being spoilers.
The Giants series brings concerns because although the Giants collapsed this September, they’d still love nothing more than to play spoiler to their arch-rival at AT&T Park.
It’s been a lost season for the Giants, but there’s some glory in being the ones responsible for ensuring the Dodgers don’t play October baseball.
The Rockies get to play their remaining games at home, which certainly brings with it an important advantage in such contentious times.
The Cardinals are the ones in the most difficult position. They have three games remaining against the Cubs, who are going to be playing at full throttle to win the NL Central and avoid the wildcard game.
The safest bet out of the Dodgers, Rockies, or Cardinals to miss the playoffs would probably be the Cardinals.
A compelling case could be made for either the Dodgers or Rockies being the most likely NL West champion at this point.
The Dodgers play worse teams than the Rockies, but they do it on the road instead of at home, which could be a huge factor.
The good news for the Dodgers is that they’ve compiled a better winning percentage on the road than at home this season.
However, the Rockies have also registered a better winning percentage at home than on the road, so both teams are theoretically in a more comfortable setting in these crucial games.
While it’s certainly not the time to get overly complacent, there should be at least a moderate level of confidence that the Dodgers are going to make the postseason.
Whether it’s the division crown or a wildcard spot, is a lot less safe to predict, and obviously, the division title brings with it much more certainly to prolong a playoff run.
Wildcard teams have gone on to win the World Series in this current format, but the randomness of a one-game playoff shouldn’t make anyone feel secure.
Baseball is at its best when the stakes are highest, and if fans want suspense, this NL playoff picture has been drawn up pretty spectacularly.
The Dodgers are in the advantageous position of not needing to make up any ground on anyone. If they win their remaining games, they’re in.
That’s easier said than done, but at least they’re more in control of their playoff fate right now than the Cardinals, and that counts for something.