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Sunday, June 23, 2024
The Observer

McGuinness: Sizing Up MLB’s Tightest 2021 Postseason Races

Depending on your rooting interests, this is either the most exciting or stressful time of the baseball season. If your team is a bottom feeder or can already see the X next to their name, you can sit back and watch the chaos unfold. Everyone else will spend the next month biting their nails and wearing a rally cap 24/7 in hopes of their favorite squad finding a way to the postseason.

Last year’s expanded 16-team postseason made for a pretty cut and dry finish in the AL but an exhilarating finish in the NL that saw three teams competing for the last Wild Card on the season’s final day. With the normal 10-team format back in play for 2021, there are several divisions (and both Wild Cards) that remain up for grabs heading into the home stretch. With one month and two days left in the regular season, let’s take a deeper look at some of these races and forecast who will come out on top.

*Standings as of the beginning of play on Wednesday 9/1

AL West

1st: Houston (78-54)

In the Hunt: Oakland (73-59, 5 GB)

There are many fans who will never forgive the Astros for their infamous trash-can scandal in 2017, but one way to erase all of the doubts around their team would be to win a non-tainted fall classic. They certainly seem capable, adding an elite closer from division rival (and postseason contender!) Seattle at the deadline in Kendall Graveman. Pair him with a stacked lineup that’s getting Alex Bregman back from injury, and the ‘Stros are poised to win their fourth AL West pennant in five years.

1st & 2nd AL Wild Card

1st: NY Yankees (76-56, +2 GB), 2nd: Boston (75-59)

In the Hunt: Oakland (73-59, 1 GB), Seattle (71-62, 3.5 GB), Toronto (69-52, 4.5 GB)

As you’d expect, the wild cards are the two of the tightest races in baseball. It’s even more wide open in the AL, where both spots are up for grabs with even a white-hot Yankees team unable to significantly pull away from the field. New York’s all-in push for Joey Gallo and Anthony Rizzo have created one of the AL’s deadliest lineups and all but locked the Bronx Bombers into a fifth straight Postseason trip.

Spot number two is naturally more wide open. The Red Sox are enjoying a nice boost from the return of Chris Sale, who’s been great since returning from Tommy John in August, and trade deadline pickup Kyle Schwarber. Shoutout to the Mariners for hanging around despite a -61 run differential, and to Toronto despite spending the first four months of the season in the U.S and a myriad of injuries to star free-agent George Springer. Ultimately, I like Oakland for this last spot. Starling Marte’s been phenomenal since coming over from Miami, and besides, the A’s usually wait until reaching the postseason to break your hearts. It would also set up a 2017 WC Game rematch, which I suppose is kind of cool.

NL East

1st: Atlanta (70-61)

In the Hunt: Philadelphia (68-64, 2.5 GB), NY Mets (65-67, 5.5 GB)

What was set to be a comedic yet tense pennant race turned into more of a one-trick pony in August. It turns out the Braves have been emulating The Freeze this entire season; giving hope and a head start to the Mets and Phillies before passing them at warp speed with an incredible August. An aggressive deadline spent splurging on outfielders to recreate whatever of Ronald Acuńa Jr.'s production they could (plus a nice closer in Richard Rodríguez) has worked out extremely well for Alex Anthopoulos and company.

Philadelphia is still hanging around, but between season-ending injuries to lineup heartbeat Rhys Hoskins and solid starter Zach Eflin and their only consistency being in playing down to competition, their chances aren’t great. A five-game winning streak driven by their longest streak of scoring seven-plus runs since 1933 has certainly helped. At least they’re not in as much turmoil as the Mets… the less said, the better. The Braves are in the driver’s seat en route to their fourth straight NL East crown, as improbable as it was a month ago.

NL West

1st: San Francisco (84-48)

In the Hunt: LA Dodgers (84-49, 0.5 GB)

Rarely do we see the two of the three best teams in baseball locked in a pennant race heading into September, but the NL West has been as cutthroat as advertised. The only thing is San Francisco and San Diego have traded scripts, with the latter scraping to stay in the Wild Card race and the former emerging as a juggernaut.

Even though it’s an odd year, this has felt like the Giants season for some time now, at least until the postseason arrives. Veterans like Brandon Crawford and Buster Posey are as productive as ever in their mid-30s. Under-the-radar players like Mike Yastrzemski and Kevin Gausman have produced in spades. Everything second-year manager Gabe Kapler has touched has turned to gold, a stark contrast from his first managerial stint in Philly.

Thanks to their incredible depth and a nice buy in Kris Bryant at the deadline (though not as good as LA’s haul of Max Scherzer and Trea Turner), it feels like San Francisco has just enough in the tank to squeak out a division title. The Dodgers are definitely the better team on paper; there isn’t enough space in this entire paper to list all of their stars. But the Giants have been more than the sum of their parts all season, and it feels like a division title is the logical conclusion to this dream regular season.

2nd NL Wild Card

Leader (Tied): Cincinnati (71-62), San Diego (71-62)

In the Hunt: St. Louis (67-63, 2.5 GB), Philadelphia (68-64, 2.5 GB), NY Mets (65-67, 5.5 GB)

A whopping 13 games separate first wild card LA and second wild card Cincinnati/San Diego in the standings. For reference, that margin is as wide as the one between the Reds and the league’s 24th best team (the Cubs). Perhaps the biggest surprise to see on this list is the Cardinals. April’s NL Central favorites slogged through the season’s first four months due to a combination of injuries and underperformance. Their rotation at the start of the month looked more like it belonged in Jurassic Park than The Show. But an under-the-radar 16-11 run has proved enough to get them back in the mix, though Jack Flaherty’s injury relapse has dampened the Red Birds’ spirits.

Credit to the Reds for showing they’re more than pretenders. Some low-risk, high-reward bullpen buys at the deadline have stabilized the team, which is getting tons of production from Jesse Winker, Nick Castellanos, and 37-year old Joey Votto. They deserve a ton of credit for making the Padres sweat bullets. A frustrating August plagued by injuries and underperformance has the Friars feeling the heat. That being said, there’s just too much talent in Slam Diego for me to believe they’ll miss the Postseason. Though you argue the Phillies would be the most difficult opponent for the Dodgers or Giants in the WC game, if only because Zach Wheeler and Bryce Harper have emerged as Cy Young and MVP candidates, if not favorites, respectively. Same for the Mets if Jacob deGrom returns, but that’s sadly looking doubtful.