We're in for another doozy last seven weeks of the MLB season.
The MLB's new Wildcard format, which expanded the playoff field from four to five last year when it added a second Wildcard winner, has more teams hanging around contention in both leagues. But the National League has an interesting race between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the two teams that have won the last four NL pennants, combined.
Entering the weekend, only percentage points separate the Cardinals and Giants. The Pirates sit on top of the trio, but only because they have played one more game than St. Louis - and won it. The Bucs have played one less game than the Giants - and San Francisco lost that. Pittsburgh holds the 0.5 game lead, but all three teams are virtually deadlocked at this point in the season.
The race involves a team that snapped a 21-year streak of losing in 2013 when the Pirates finally had a winning season and advanced to the NL's play-in round of the playoffs under Clint Hurdle. Pittsburgh advanced with a win over Cincinnati and went on to lose to those St. Louis Cardinals. The Red Birds eventually went on to the World Series and lost in six games to the Boston Red Sox.
And then, of course, the Cardinals and Giants are tied for that all-important second spot. The two great franchises have been alternating National League pennants since 2010 when the Giants went on to win their first World Series since moving to San Francisco. They beat the Texas Rangers in five games. The Giants also went on to the World Series in 2012 when they swept Miguel Cabrera and the Detroit Tigers. St. Louis also beat Texas, in 2011, after clinching the NLCS.
It's tough to identify who exactly the favorite may be. St. Louis and Pittsburgh share a division, and therefore, will play each other six more times. That certainly helps the Giants. But both the Pirates and Cards are within striking distance of the division-leading Brewers. That doesn't necessarily help the Giants at all, but gives either of the NL Central teams a distinct shot at not even needing the Wildcard to reach October.
Meanwhile, the Giants are falling behind the runaway Dodgers in the NL West, which makes it more and more likely that they will need a Wildcard berth to reach the playoffs. But their division will help them - other than LA. The Giants have games against the Diamondbacks, Padres and Rockies who are a combined 51 games under .500. The Giants get those three teams 20 times from here on out.
Schedule will certainly be a factor, but often the team - or teams - that emerge will simply be the squad that gets hot at the right time. And one very good NL contender's season will end when everyone else's is just getting started.
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