MLB Wild Card a tight race

I am insurmountably thankful for Major League Baseball’s new Wild Card one-game playoff; this National League Wild Card race would not be a story without it. The Atlanta Braves are sitting pretty — three-and-a-half games up on the field — and without any of the other teams making a strong push, that lead should feel comfortable.

But the sought-after second spot in the Wild Card race gives a team the chance to play the Braves in a one-game playoff — a rule instituted by Major League Baseball before the start of the season. That spot is separated by just one-and-a-half games, with the St. Louis Cardinals above the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Pittsburgh Pirates.

A long-awaited playoff berth for the city of Pittsburgh might signal the apocalypse: The last time the Pirates made the playoffs, or even finished a regular season with a record above .500, was in 1992. This season, behind the bat of MVP candidate and outfielder Andrew McCutchen and with some surprisingly solid pitching led by ace A.J. Burnett, the Pirates have put themselves in a spot to break their horrid streak.

But outside of McCutchen, the offense has been shallow all season. Third baseman Pedro Alvarez exhibited strokes of power with 27 home runs, but does not consistently get on base. His “success” this season has been a treat to fans, but under the gaze of unbiased eyes, his numbers are still average at best.

Outfielder Garrett Jones, newly acquired first baseman Gaby Sanchez, and second baseman Neil Walker have been solid at the plate this season, posting .280-plus batting averages. But a look at how this team has performed offensively shows a below-average offense: 23rd in runs scored and 21st in batting average.

It has been the Pirates’ pitching that has carried them into the playoff race this season. The team is ninth in the majors in earned run average (ERA), 11th in wins plus hits times innings pitched (WHIP), and seventh in batting average allowed (BAA). I’ve already mentioned Burnett, but the Pirates have also seen great play from starting pitcher James MacDonald and closing pitcher Joel Hanrahan. If the Pirates have a lead in the ninth, Hanrahan has been a model of consistency closing out games and securing victories.

The Dodgers, however, are an enigma as far as I’m concerned. The Dodgers’ new ownership, headed by Earvin “Magic” Johnson, has made drastic strides to stack the offense, adding the likes of infielder Hanley Ramirez, outfielder Shane Victorino, and first baseman Adrian Gonzalez to a lineup already headed by all-star
outfielders Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier. These moves have shown the depth of the owners’ pockets and their willingness to spend to make the team better.

Despite the talent the Dodgers brought in to beef up their offense, the bats have been average. The Dodgers are posting the 18th-best batting average and 18th-best slugging percentage, and have scored the 24th-most runs in the Major Leagues. Like the Pirates, the Dodgers’ pitching has been surprisingly good.

On paper, the Dodgers’ pitching staff is not anything to fear. Other than 2011 Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw, the starting pitching staff does not seem deep. Behind Kershaw, the Dodgers boast Chris Capuano, Aaron Harang, Joe Blanton, and Josh Beckett. There was a time when Beckett, Capuano, and Harang were elite pitchers in the league, but Capuano and Harang are past their prime and Beckett has been a head case.

Dodgers starting pitchers Chad Billingsley and Ted Lilly also went down with season-ending injuries.

Despite this, the Dodgers’ pitching is fifth in ERA, second in quality starts, and third in BAA. When healthy, closer Kenley Jensen has exhibited how dominant his pitches are, boasting a 2.54 ERA and converting on 25 of 31 save opportunities.

But as I see it, the Cardinals will finish in that second spot to play the Braves in the one-game wild card playoff. The reigning World Series champions have a deeper pitching staff and offense than anyone else in the race.

Their offense is among the best in baseball, led by outfielders Matt Holiday and Carlos Beltran and catcher Yadier Molina. These guys have led the Cardinals to second in runs scored, third in batting average, and second in on-base percentage.

The Cards’ pitching staff has been solid as well, headed by Kyle Lohse and Adam Wainwright, posting the 10th-best ERA and the sixth-most quality starts in the MLB.

This race is a tight one and should be exciting to the very end of the regular season, but I don’t see the Cardinals, with their World Series experience, giving up the lead in this race.