The National League Central standings are now:
Team W L Pct. GB
St. Louis 99 58 .631 --
Pittsburgh 95 62 .605 4
Chicago 91 65 .583 7.5
The Cardinals and Pirates have five more games to play. The Cubs have six.
- If the Cardinals win two of their last five games--they finish their season this weekend in Atlanta, playing the team with the second-worst record in the majors--they'll clinch the division, regardless of what the Pirates do.
- If the Cards win just one of their next five, the Pirates will have to win every game remaining this year (two against St. Louis, three against Cincinnati) in order to play a one-game playoff on Monday to determine the division champion. The loser of that game will host the Cubs next Wednesday for the wild card play-in.
- If the Cards go 0-5 for the rest of the season and Pirates win every remaining game, the Pirates will win the Central and skip the Wild Card game. If the Cardinals go 0-5 and the Pirates go 4-1, the teams will tie and play on Monday.
Put another way: For the Pirates to win the division outright, they'll have to go 5-0 and the Cardinals 0-5 the rest of the season. That means the Pirates will have to win the next two days against St. Louis and sweep the season-ending series at home against the Reds, who are 10-6 against Pittsburgh this year. It means the Cardinals will have to drop both games against the Pirates and lose three straight on the road against an Atlanta team that hasn't won three straight against a team with a winning record since June and has easily the worst record in the majors since the All-Star Break. For the Pirates to host the Cardinals Monday to determine the championship, they still have to win both of the remaining St. Louis games, and they can lose one game to the Reds or the Cardinals can win one game against the Braves. They go 5-0 and the Cardinals 1-4, or they go 4-1 and the Cardinals 0-5.
Anything is possible. But the scenarios I described are highly, highly unlikely. They're sufficiently unlikely that we can safely say they're not going to happen.
How about the Cubs, though? Are the Pirates at risk of losing home field advantage in the wild card game next Wednesday? The Cubs will be the home field team if they finish with a better overall record than the Pirates or if the teams are tied, as the first tiebreaker for determining home field advantage is head-to-head record. The Cubs won the season series against Pittsburgh, 11-8. So in order for the Pirates to play the wild card game at home, they need to finish ahead of the Cubs. The Cubs start a three-game series against the Reds tonight and have a three-game set against the Brewers this weekend, all on the road.
- If the Cubs sweep both series, the Pirates will still finish ahead of them in the standings if they go 3-2.
- If the Cubs go 5-1, the Pirates will need to go 2-3.
- If the Cubs go 4-2, the Pirates will need to win just one game.
- If the Cubs don't win four of their remaining six, the Pirates will host the wild card game regardless of what they do in their remaining games.
Both the Brewers and Reds have been playing pretty bad ball of late. Over the past couple weeks, the Reds have the worst record in baseball, 3-10, and the Brewers are tied for the third worst, 4-9. The Cubs have beaten up on both teams this year, going 11-5 against Milwaukee and 10-6 against Cincinnati. Still, winning all six games is going to be hard, particularly since only one will be started by the unstoppable Jake Arrieta. So let's say the Cubs go 5-1. If the Pirates lose tonight, the Cardinals will clinch the division. It's not hard to see the Pirates winning Wednesday's Gerrit Cole-Tyler Lyons mismatch against a hung over Cardinals team. Then they have to take just one of three over the weekend, against a Reds team that's playing out the string, in order to stay ahead of the Cubs.
So my hope for the Pirates is that, since winning the division is now effectively out of reach, they lose tonight and start giving players days off. They've played 29 games in the last 30 days. Neil Walker's had one day off. Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte have had two. Jordy Mercer and Gregory Polanco have missed only four. Francisco Cervelli has caught all but six games. Five relievers have appeared in twelve or more games. Give them some time off. Let the bruises heal and sore muscles recover. Let them sleep in and sharpen their mental edge. Accept the inevitability of losing the division title and accept the likelihood of hosting the wild card game. The Cubs will start Arrieta. The Pirates will need all the advantage they can get.