MLB Coverage: The National League Playoff Race

The National League playoff race stands in sharp contrast to where the American League is at right now. While the AL has nine teams within five games of postseason play, the NL has only six, and it’s looking like the prime drama is going to be the fight in the NL Central to see which team at least earns automatic passage into the Division Series.

What’s taken place in Pittsburgh this week has been positively eye-opening. Even as I’ve come around to believe in the Pirates, I certainly wasn’t expecting them to take the first four games of a five-game set against the Cardinals, with the finale taking place as this post goes online Thursday night. Pittsburgh has moved out to a 2 ½ game lead over the Redbirds.

Cincinnati has slipped six off the pace, and I think we can cautiously eliminate the Reds from the division championship radar. It’s the same rationale I used in this afternoon’s MLB coverage on the American League, with regard to the Baltimore Orioles. It’s not that the Reds’ margin is impossible, but they have two teams to pass, and both teams happen to be the best in the league overall.

The Reds do continue to hold down the second wild-card spot, and they’ll get their crack at St. Louis in a big weekend series. Win or lose tonight, the Cardinals have to stop the bleeding, as they’ve lost seven in a row in road games against the Braves and Pirates.

Atlanta has blown the NL East wide open, and now has an eleven-game lead on the Washington Nationals. I stuck with my Nats pick in this division longer than most, but even I’m throwing in the towel now. The Braves will spend the next two months playing for the top seed in the National League and sorting out their pitching rotation in light of the season-ending injury to Tim Hudson. They’ll be in Philadelphia on the weekend, and one of the new starters, Alex Wood, will pitch on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball.

The National League West offers the best chance for drama. The Los Angeles Dodgers are 2 ½ up on the Arizona Diamondbacks right now, with the D-Backs going to Boston for the weekend while the Dodgers play the Cubs, that gap could widen. But Arizona looks like they’ll get Brandon McCarthy back in the rotation for the weekend with Trevor Cahill soon to follow. Meanwhile, the Dodgers can’t get Matt Kemp healthy, as he won’t be activated from the disabled list in spite of being eligible.

Up to now, we’ve assumed that Los Angeles and Arizona would not have a wild-card fallback, but the Cardinals ‘losing streak and the Reds having injury problems of their own—no word on when Johnny Cueto might be back—the Diamondbacks are in striking distance, at 3 ½ games.