Who will prevail heading down the stretch?
The MLB 2021 season is entering its final quarter with teams jockeying for position during their final 40 games; mouth-watering schedules between divisional rivals and limited opportunities for home fans to get behind their teams (or celebrate seeing the back of them).
This year the race reverts to 10 play-off spots, as opposed to last year’s 16, and the latest projections give only 13 teams at least a 25% chance of getting over the line.
But this is sport and we dare to dream.
In mid-August exactly 70 years ago The Brooklyn Dodgers held a 13-game lead over the New York Giants before the Giants went on a tear, winning 40 of their scheduled 54 games to clinch a final day tie. The Giants and Bobby Thomson went on to win the NL pennant with the immortal shot heard ‘round the world.
For pure chaos, look no further than the climatic 2011 season. With 4 teams vying for 2 play-off spots on the final day of the regular season, the Tampa Bay Rays squeaked by the New York Yankees to steal the AL Wildcard spot from the Boston Red Sox who lost to the lowly Baltimore Orioles. In the NL race, it was the St Louis Cardinals who prevailed, despatching the Houston Astros and watching on as the Philadelphia Phillies defeated the wildcard-chasing Atlanta Braves in extra innings to set a franchise record with 102 wins in a season.
And for the purists amongst you, wanting only the strongest to survive, let our minds linger on that last great pennant race of 1993, whereby the Atlanta Braves and San Francisco Giants both finished with 100-plus-win seasons. There can be only one; the Giants eliminated despite 103 wins, eclipsed by the 104 wins of the Braves.
Back to the future….
2021 American League
With an 100% projection for making the playoffs, the Chicago White Sox may be looking to the 10 remaining match ups with play-off chasing Rays, As and Blue Jays to sharpen their sights on a long run at the World Series title. After a series win against the A’s this week, catcher Grandal heating up in the minors ahead of an expected return and starting pitcher Rodon on schedule for the upcoming Blue Jays series, the puzzle pieces are coming together.
In the AL East, the Tampa Bay Rays hold the upper hand with a 5-game lead, but face-off no less than 13 times against the chasing Red Sox and Blue Jays before an ominous looking 3-game trip to face the Yankees to close it out. The Yankees have been as good as anyone over the past 10 games and will look to feel good stories like a 2-for-4 performance and game-ending defensive gem from Andrew Velazquez against the Red Sox this week to propel them into contention.
The Houston Astros will feel the AL West is theirs to lose despite holding only a slender lead over the A’s. Leading MLB with a team batting average of .268 and facing a run-in loaded with favourable match-ups, the Astros will also be eyeing a late August return for star 3rd baseman Alex Bregman. Conversely, the chasing A’s have, on paper, the hardest remaining schedule. CF Ramon Laureano was recently given an 80-day suspension and they have just lost leading starter Chris Bassitt to the 10-day injured list after a he was struck by a line drive to the head this week against the White Sox. The Seattle Mariners would argue that they’re not out of this race, recently winning their 3rd series in a row and taking its collective ERA for August to around .252, the lowest in the AL.
2021 National League
The Milwaukee Brewers look to be having things all their way sitting atop the NL Central division with an 8 ½ game lead, a 99% projection to make the playoffs and an ERA ranked third best in all MLB. They’re feeling good about themselves after a great road trip where they won 8 out of 10, but came down to earth with news that starter Freddy Peralta was placed on the 10-day IL with shoulder discomfort. It’s also worth noting that this is a division with two form teams chasing down a wildcard spot. The St Louis Cardinals, who still have 10 games left against the Brewers – perhaps why they are given only an 8% chance of making the post season – have won 7 of their last 10 and face the Pirates and Tigers in their next 9 games. The Cincinnati Reds have the highest OPS in the NL and an impressive offensive unit in Nick Castellanos with a league leading .315 average and red-hot Joey Votto heading towards 30 home runs. With a favourable run-in they too are well positioned to make the playoffs.
Over in the NL East the New York Mets, once sitting pretty at the midway stage of the season, have seen their stock plummet, dropping 15 of their last 21 games to fall a season-high five games out of first place. In the midst of a tough series of match-ups with the Dodgers and Giants, the Mets are hopeful to have their middle infield stars Lindor and Baez back toward the end of August. But with leading starters deGrom and Syndergaard still on the mend, time looks to be running out. Part of the problem lies with the resurgence of the Atlanta Braves, currently riding a six-game winning streak and getting offensive help with 5 players hitting over 20 home runs and recent moments such as Freddie Freeman’s second career cycle. The Philadelphia Phillies continue their frustrating form, following up an 8 game winning streak, which saw them sit atop of the league with a two game lead over the Braves, with a dip in form culminating in a 3-game sweep in NL worst Arizona. They’re given a 23% shot at making the playoffs, largely due to a favourable stretch facing off against the lowly Cubs, Orioles and Pirates in the closing weeks.
Finally, to the massively competitive NL West. The Giants continue to lead the way with the best record in MLB and possibly one of the best trade-deadline pick-ups in Kris Bryant. Combining that with great bounce-back performances from Brandon Crawford and Buster Posey and a pitching corps performing near the top of the league in most categories, they are not going away. The Dodgers, however, are a projected 65% to win the division and are 9-1 over their past 10 games. The batting line-up contributes up and down the order and they have an MLB leading ERA at just over 3.00. The much-fancied San Diego Padres have endured a miserable run of late, losing seven of their past ten in match-ups with sub .500 teams. Still touted as a 43% chance to make the post-season, they will have to do it the hard way with a jaw-dropping 19 games to play against the Dodgers and Giants.
There’s still lots to play for and many stories to be written but excitement seems a sure thing as we close the summer out.