In the endless season of baseball, saying there are 30-some odd games left might seem like a lot, but it’s merely a drop in the bucket and the last month of the 2015 season is heating up for a wild wild finish. Of the six division leaders in Major League Baseball, five of them hold leads of five games or less, and in the American League Wild Card race, the distance between the top seed and the eighth seed is a scant six games. A bad trip here, a surge in wins there, and the entire enterprise could be turned upside down. While mathematically some of these teams have yet to be eliminated, the real watch should be on the upper tier of the Wild Card race. Let’s break it down, shall we?
New York Yankees
After a less-than-Yankee season in 2014 and some less-than-blockbuster moves in the offseason, the Yankees were content letting their aging players welcome in a a new crop of young talent from their farm system and let the chips fall where they may. But 124 games into the season the Yanks are 14 games above .500 and one of the best teams in baseball. In fact, the Yankees looked ready to take the 2015 AL East title on the will of Alex Rodriguez’s post-steroids recovery, but the Toronto Blue Jays backed up the truck and loaded their roster for a run at the title. The Yanks have dropped out of the number one spot (pulling even with the Blue Jays yesterday on their off-night), but are a solid lock for the a Wild Card spot, with a 4.5 game cushion over the second Wild Card and six games up overall. The only thing that might hold them back is the aforementioned aging players. If the injury bug continues to swirl after CC Sabathia’s possible season-ending injury over the weekend, it could prove to be a painful end of the season for the Yankees fans as well.
The Cubs overcame a rough start to the season by bringing up prospects Kris Bryant and Addison Russell and letting them bring their game to The Show. Bryant has been especially noteworthy; his walk-off home run last night against the Indians was his 20th of the season, giving him 75 RBIs in just 416 at bats. The pitching in Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta and Jason Hammel have been hovering around just-above-solid-but-not-quite-great, while the strength of their bats is keeping them in the race. But this is the Cubs were talking about and September has historically been their prime folding season. Sharing the division with the best team in baseball (Cardinals) and the Pittsburgh Pirates means being 21-games over .500 will only get you a Wild Card spot, but they currently hold a pretty 6.5 game cushion over the World Series Champion Giants.
Los Angeles Angels
In a similar situation as the Cubs, the Angels of Anaheim are 5.5 games behind the surging Houston Astros in the American League West, and don’t seem to be in a position to catch them for the division crown. To make matters worse, the Angles have dropped seven of their past 10 games to fall 1.5 games behind the Rangers for the second Wild Card spot. Despite having the best hitter of this generation (Mike Trout) and the last (Albert Pujols) in the same lineup, inconsistencies have plagued the Angels, and with a -2 run differential, they need some chips to fall their way to slide into the play-in game. Their pitching has been, in a word, average, with a team ERA smack dab in the middle of MLB (2.84). In fact, all of their major pitching statistics fall somewhere between 12th and 18th place in the league standings, with 68 quality starts, a team WHIP of 1.22, and a batting average against of .245. Ultimately it will be the bats of guys not named Trout or Pujols that determine the Angels fate.
San Francisco Giants
One-and-a-half games behind the Dodgers and six games outside of the Wild Card spot; if this sounds like familiar Giants territory, don’t worry, the record isn’t skipping. The Giants always seem to have this preternatural ability to show up in the fall and make it look easy, even if their season hasn’t followed form. Madison Bumgarner looks ridiculous lately with a 2.98 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, 14 wins… he’s even hitting home runs off of Clayton freaking Kershaw. The outfield has been riddles with injuries to Nori Aoki, Hunter Pence and Angel Pagan, and this year they’re chasing not one, but two teams with 20+ game win differential, so their patience will be tested in 2015. Then again, one of the teams their chasing is the Cubs.
So much attention has already been set upon the 2016 election cycle, but if you want to see someone get ousted in DC before then, just give the Nationals until the end of the 2015 MLB season. Matt Williams has blundered a lineup many expected to compete for a World Series title, so missing the playoffs, let alone winning the NL East, will be viewed as a total failure. Yet mediocrity has run so rampant on the Nationals that their 3.76 team ERA is their highest league ranking—11th overall—as of today. Mind you, this is a pitching rotation that had to move their fifth starter, Tanner Roark, to the bullpen because they leveraged half of the beltway to get Max Scherzer in town. It doesn’t help matters that the Mets finally got some hitting to go with their rotation, but this is not a team that should be meandering around .500. The office calendar for Williams has got a big red X at the end of September.
The O’s won the AL East by a wide margin last year, but an inactive offseason and the improvement of nearly everyone around them has left them gasping for a return to the postseason. They’ve fallen seven games behind the division leaders and after getting swept in four games by Minnesota, have swapped positions with the Twins and are sitting 2.5 games out of the final Wild Card Spot. If you can’t figure out what kind of team the Orioles are, don’t worry, neither can they. After getting no-hit by Hisashi Iwakuma in Seattle they came home and put up 34 runs in four games against the woeful Oakland Athletics. They haven’t had a full series where the pitching and hitting have come together, even though both have improved dramatically since their rocky start. Their hitting is still one of the most feared in the league, with Manny Machado and the always dangerous Chris Davis, who has rebounded from a poor showing last season and is currently tied for second in the MLB with 34 home runs. As a team the Birds are fourth with 162 home runs, so it’s not hard to figure out where their problems lie. Sitting at .500 with just a few squeaks one way or another from either being in or out of contention, the Orioles are prime to make a move—we’re just not sure which way. That said, we’ll never discount the wizardry of manager Buck Showalter who has made a career out of coaching guys above their level.