The 2014 National League Wild Card race is a five-team dogfight that might last until the final day of the regular season. The defending NL champion-St. Louis Cardinals are the hands-down favorites to land a spot in the one-game playoff, assuming they fail to overtake the Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Central, but the San Francisco Giants and Atlanta Braves are equally as capable of taking over the top slot.
The oddity about this particular playoff race is that each team shares an unflattering characteristic in common: mediocrity.
After the completion of Sunday’s action, the Cardinals (70-59) own a two-game edge over the Giants (68-61) for the top slot in the Wild Card hunt. All five teams in contention, including the Pittsburgh Pirates and Miami Marlins, have encountered prolonged struggles this season.
The Cardinals are without team leader Yadier Molina, who could miss the remainder of the regular season with a torn thumb ligament, and have also been forced to essentially retool their entire starting rotation. Yet somehow St. Louis remains in good standing in the playoff picture, despite ranking 28th in runs scored (490).
The Giants have been one of the worst teams in all of baseball since June 9, posting a 26-40 record after initially surging to a league-best 42-21 mark. San Francisco has injury problems of their own, namely to first baseman Brandon Belt and former staff ace Matt Cain, who has been officially sidelined for the rest of the season after undergoing elbow surgery to have bone chips removed.
The Giants, Braves, Pirates and Marlins are separated by no more than four games with each team having 33 games or less remaining. The Braves have been the best of the bunch as of late, winning seven of their last 10 games on the heels of an ugly eight-game losing streak. That said, Atlanta (68-63) blew an opportunity to overtake the Giants over the weekend, matching San Francisco’s pair of losses.
Assuming the Cardinals are able to continue playing at a high level for the remainder of the season, as they’ve demonstrated an ability to do despite being challenged by forced trades due to multiple injuries, they should at least earn a spot in the NL Wild Card Game. According to ESPN, St. Louis currently has a 69.9 percent chance of making the playoffs.
It’s possible that no team has a bigger advantage than the Giants in earning a bid for the NL Wild Card, considering their schedule down the stretch. Of the teams in the hunt, the Giants are the only Wild Card contender that doesn’t face inter-division competition.
The Giants play just 12 more games against teams with a winning record this season, and that’s a good thing for the orange and black, considering they’ve won just six of their previous 30 games against teams over the .500 mark. They also don’t play any more games against teams currently in direct competition for the NL Wild Card.
At the moment, San Francisco has a 57.0 percent chance of making the playoffs, according to ESPN.
To compare, the Cardinals play 13 of 33 remaining games against teams with a winning record, including seven against the division-leading Brewers and six against the Pirates. Pittsburgh (67-63) also plays 13 remaining games against teams over .500, including head-to-head showdowns against the aforementioned Cardinals in addition to three games at home against Milwaukee and four crucial road games at Atlanta.
The Braves have one of the most difficult schedules remaining. They have 16 games left against teams in contention, including six against the Marlins and another six contests in opposition of the NL-leading Washington Nationals. The Marlins (64-65) are the most disadvantaged team in contention and not just because of their losing record. They play eight of their final 11 games against the Nationals and 24 of their final 33 games against contending teams.
Late season scheduling will prove to be the defining factor in who wins the right to compete in the winner-take-all NL Wild Card Game in October. The Cardinals and Giants have the best cross-division rivalry in the league, adding intrigue to a contest that will pit two teams who have combined to win the last four National League pennants and three of the last four World Series titles.
Gear up for Madison Bumgarner vs. Adam Wainwright in the NL Wild Card Game. It could be one of the best contests of the entire 2014 MLB postseason.