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Monday, March 4, 2024
The Observer

What To Watch For In Final Week Of MLB Regular Season

Six months have never gone by so fast. It seems like just yesterday it was Opening Day with hope abounding for all 30 clubs. It never lasts, of course. As always, there have been over and underachievers, and a season that figured to be unpredictable as any coming off a shortened 60-game 2020 season has been just that.

Five teams have already clinched berths in the 2021 Postseason; fifteen have already been eliminated. While fans of the other ten teams will be biting their nails non-stop for the next seven days (longer if they’re lucky), others may think it’s time to shift their focus to football, at least temporarily. But as Lee Corso would have said if you tried to pick Wisconsin on Saturday, “Not so fast, my friend.” Here are some storylines to keep your eye on before the regular season wraps up.

Thrilling Races For NL East, AL Wild Card Spots

As mentioned above, there are still ten teams alive in the postseason chase to varying degrees, with five spots still up for grabs. That technically includes the NL Wild Card and AL West, but closing those out is all but a formality. First in the NL West is still up for grabs between the Giants and Dodgers, but both clinched postseason berths a while ago.

Far more compelling are the NL East and AL Wild Card races. All eyes from Tuesday through Thursday will be on Truist Park, where the Braves host the Phillies. At 2.5 games up, Atlanta has the upper hand and could clinch as soon as Thursday with a sweep. However, the Phillies still control their destiny, and there’s potential for a Game 163 in Philadelphia should the teams finish the year deadlocked. The Braves are probably the better team, but with how crazy following the Phillies has been this season, I'll let my bias guard down and pick Philly. It's a great week to end a 3,600+ day postseason drought.

If the NL East race is tense, the AL Wild Card battle is pure chaos. The Blue Jays started the month on absolute fire and are the closest ones out at one game back. The Mariners are an AL-best 8-2 in their last ten games; it would be incredible to see the Cinderella M’s end their 20-year Postseason drought. Oakland, my early September selection for this spot, is technically still in the mix, but at three games out things are looking bleak. But after the pandemic, the league is desperate for all the revenue it can get, so I’ll bet on the chalk picks of Boston and the Yankees here, in that order.

MVP Madness: Vladdy, Ohtani, Harper, And More

It’s not just teams that are making headlines right now; there are plenty of individuals vying for MVP and Cy Young Awards in both leagues. Oh, and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. has an outside shot at becoming just the second player to win the Triple Crown since Carl Yastremski in 1967 (Miguel Cabrera in 2012 was the other). Winning it would be a crazy feat; winning it and not winning MVP would be even crazier. Yet it feels like that’s the most likely outcome because of the unbelievable year Shohei Ohtani has had: 46 home runs and a .966 OPS at the plate, a 3.28 ERA with 10.5 strikeouts per nine innings on the mound. There’s no beating that.

If the Phillies reach the Postseason, Bryce Harper is a shoo-in for the NL Award. Since the All-Star break, Harper is hitting .347/.490/.735 with 19 home runs and 48 RBIs, carrying a battered team on his back more than once. Don’t overlook his former Nationals teammate Juan Soto. His post-ASG numbers are nearly as impressive: a .371/.544/.690 slash line with 18 home runs and 50 RBIs. Fernando Tatís Jr. will receive votes as well, but the Padres’ September implosion won’t help his case.

The Cy Young Races Are Nearly As Close

The biggest swing of the MLB season occurred when the Dodgers beat the Padres to the punch in trading for Max Scherzer in July. In LA, Scherzer has been all but untouchable, posting a 1.43 ERA and 85 strikeouts in seven starts for the Dodgers. He’s probably the favorite for the NL Cy Young Award as a result, but Corbin Burnes and Zack Wheeler are close behind.

A surprise name has emerged as the favorite in the AL: Toronto’s Robbie Ray. He leads the AL with a 2.68 ERA and is tied for first with a 1.04 WHIP with the other contender, Gerrit Cole. Cole struggled a bit after the sticky stuff crackdown mid-year, but overall he’s delivered a strong year and is the bigger name. Toronto making it would certainly help Ray’s (and Vlad Jr.’s) case.

Will The Cardinals Ever Lose Again?

If you had asked this question on September 10, the answer would’ve been, “Yes, eventually.” I’m less convinced now. The Cardinals have won a franchise-record 16 consecutive games, ruining the NL Wild Card race with a run that makes their historic September 2011 run seem like a cakewalk. A resurgent offense and one of the oldest rotations in the sport has churned out the longest win streak since Cleveland won 22 straight in 2017. For any fans trying to justify their hope for a last-week miracle, here’s some evidence. What a run for the Redbirds.