Wild-Card Races Muddled by Streaks, Injuries and the Virus

Wild-Card Races Muddled by Streaks, Injuries and the Virus

The beginning of September is often a good time to take stock of the six-month Major League Baseball regular season. Rosters expand. The playoffs are a month away. It’s crunchtime in the pennant races.

With the playoffs scheduled to begin Oct. 5, the final four and a half weeks of the regular season figure to be a mad dash to the finish line — at least in a few races. In a handful of divisions, such as the American League East, the A.L. Central and the National League Central, the teams in first place have sizable leads (at least six and a half games through Thursday). The most intrigue — by design, of course — lies in the wild-card hunts, where the format has returned to prepandemic form.

Between division leaders and wild card contenders, 17 teams entered Friday’s action within five games of a playoff spot.

While each team has unique challenges ahead of it, the Boston Red Sox have had the added complication of a coronavirus outbreak.

The Red Sox, who fell from their perch atop the A.L. East in late July, have fought to hold on to a wild-card spot. As of Wednesday afternoon, nine members of the organization, most of them players, had tested positive for the virus, while a few others were in quarantine as close contacts.

An 8-5 loss on Tuesday to the A.L. East-leading Tampa Bay Rays was one of the lowest points of Boston’s season. Shortstop Xander Bogaerts, the team’s best all-around player, slashed a run-scoring single in the first inning but later exited the game because his test result had also come back positive. Manager Alex Cora waved Bogaerts back into the dugout after he had taken the field in the second inning.

“We’ve got to keep going,” Cora told reporters. “They’re not going to stop the tournament for the Red Sox. We know that. So we’ve got to figure this out, show up tomorrow, play good baseball, do it the next day.”

Chaim Bloom, the team’s chief baseball officer, told reporters before Wednesday’s game that the outbreak was “gut wrenching,” that the level of people’s symptoms varied and that the Red Sox were optimistic everyone would pull through without long-term concerns — “but obviously we don’t know that for sure until everybody’s through it.”

Bloom said “a majority” of the Red Sox who had tested positive had received a vaccine. Still, despite what Bloom called the team’s best efforts to educate its players, the Red Sox are one of seven teams in the majors who have not reached the 85 percent vaccination threshold for key staff and players — a line established by M.L.B. and the players’ union for loosened coronavirus restrictions.

“Every person in this organization that isn’t vaccinated pains me,” Bloom told reporters.

As the Red Sox try to get healthy, and the rest of the teams gear up for what should be an exciting stretch run, the various wild-card battles offer plenty of intrigue.

According to FanGraphs’s postseason odds, the Houston Astros (A.L. West), the Chicago White Sox (Central) and the Rays (East) all had odds of at least 80 percent to win their divisions, through Thursday.

Despite a recent skid, the Yankees saved their season with a 21-8 record in August, which included a 13-game winning streak. But that still hasn’t been good enough to catch the Rays, the defending A.L. champions. So, for now, the Yankees are in the driver’s seat for the top A.L. wild-card spot thanks to strong pitching led by Gerrit Cole (2.73 earned run average and 215 strikeouts) and a stout lineup led by outfielder Aaron Judge (30 home runs and a .934 on-base plus slugging percentage).

The Red Sox were one and a half games behind the Yankees through Thursday and, despite their virus outbreak and some pitching troubles, they have stayed afloat. On their heels: the Oakland Athletics, who overcame losing streaks of four and seven games in August to be two games behind the Red Sox through Thursday.

Just behind the Athletics are the Seattle Mariners, who might be the most surprising playoff contender in baseball. They have the longest playoff drought in the four major North American sports leagues, having last reached the postseason in 2001. The Mariners have remained in the mix for a wild-card spot because of contributions from, among others, their longtime third baseman, Kyle Seager (15 home runs in the second half), and because of a 28-16 record in one-run games through Thursday.

The Toronto Blue Jays, who reached the expanded postseason last year as one of the most exciting young teams in baseball, could make a late charge. With a lineup led by first baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and second baseman Marcus Semien, the Blue Jays have one of the most potent offenses in baseball. Their run differential — the number of runs scored minus those allowed, which often serves as an indicator of a team’s overall quality — was the fourth best in the A.L. through Thursday.

According to FanGraphs’s postseason odds, the surest division race is in the N.L. Central, where the Milwaukee Brewers have a nearly 100 percent chance of winning through Thursday. The East (with the Atlanta Braves leading) and West (where the Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Francisco Giants are tied) are more muddled.

The best two teams in the N.L., in terms of record and run differential, are in the same division: the San Francisco Giants and the Dodgers. Only one, though, can win the division, and the other will instead have its season come down to a win-or-go-home wild-card game against a team with a lesser regular-season record.

After leading the division by five games in mid-August, the Giants lost their grip on it this week and they entered Friday tied for the lead with Los Angeles ahead of a three-game series between the teams that could heavily swing the balance of power in the division.

The Giants, who are dealing with a smaller virus outbreak than the Red Sox, and have hit the 85 percent vaccination threshold, were 19-9 in August — good, but not good enough to stave off the streaking Dodgers, who were 21-6. Since the All-Star break, the Dodgers’ All-Star starter, Walker Buehler, leads the major leagues with a 1.46 E.R.A.

After a rough April and May, the Reds have slowly climbed the standings into the second wild-card spot. They have been powered by the hitting of first baseman Joey Votto (17 home runs in the second half, tied for most in M.L.B.) and the pitching of Wade Miley, who, by some advanced metrics, has been one of the best starters in baseball this season.

After those teams, it gets messy: Through Thursday, four teams were within five games of the Reds for the second wild-card spot — the San Diego Padres, the Philadelphia Phillies, the St. Louis Cardinals and the Mets, in that order.

The Padres, who reached first place in the highly competitive N.L. West in late May but sputtered in July and August, are fighting to reclaim a playoff spot. The Phillies have surged in their division and wild-card races with the help of outfielder Bryce Harper, who surpassed Fernando Tatis Jr., Shohei Ohtani and Guerrero as the major league leader in O.P.S. (1.014) through Thursday.

A half-game behind the Phillies were the Cardinals, who, in the span of two weeks in June, dropped from first in the N.L. Central to fourth, and have been trying to make it up since. Once in first place in the N.L. East, the Mets were overtaken by the Braves and the Phillies in August, and have been a mess on and off the field.

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