The Nationals made things interesting for a while, but we now know for certain which five NL teams are going to the postseason. Atlanta, LA, St. Louis, Pittsburgh (yay!) and Cincinnati are in. The other 10 will be playing golf in a week.
Moreover, the division winners are all but decided. With tonight’s win and the Reds’ and Pirates’ losses, the Cardinals trimmed their magic number to win the Central to one. The Cardinals need only win one of their last three games to punch their ticket to the NLDS.
Home-field advantage, though, is still at stake, and that leads to an especially interesting (if unlikely) scenario.
The Reds are four games back in the Central with three to play; in other words, they’re out of contention. They’re going to be in the one-game Wild Card playoff no matter what happens; the only question is whether it will be at home or on the road. The Reds are also playing the Pirates, who still have a theoretical shot at winning the division, in their final three-game series of the season.
In football, we often say that certain teams “control their own playoff destiny.” Right now, the Reds control their own destiny, in a manner of speaking. What they do in the next few days will determine their home-field advantage.
The obvious course of action for the Reds is to try to take at least two from the Pirates, thereby securing the first Wild Card and getting home-field advantage in the one-game playoff.* The Reds have a pretty serious home/road split this year with a .645 winning percentage in Cincinnati and .500 elsewhere, so that’s not insignificant. You can bet that that’s what manager Dusty Baker will try to accomplish in this series
*If the Reds were to win exactly two games, both teams would have identical 92-70 records, but the tiebreaker would favor Cincinnati.
I wonder, though, if the Reds could pull off something even better by losing all three games.
Remember, the Pirates are still theoretically in contention for the NL Central. If they win all three of their remaining games and the Cardinals suffer a sweep at the hands of the Cubs, Pittsburgh and St. Louis will end up in a tie for the division. They’ll then have to play a one-game playoff, with the winner advancing to the NLDS and the loser facing the Reds in the Wild Card game.
In other words, if the Reds mail it in for the next three games, rest their starters and re-set their rotation, they could theoretically take an extra day off while the Cardinals and Pirates play (burning their best available starters in the process) that playoff game. The one downside is that Cincinnati would have to play the actual Wild Card game on the road, but I’d still give them better than even odds to win given the circumstances.
Now, this is an admittedly unlikely gambit. It would take something resembling a miracle for the Cubs to sweep the Cardinals in St. Louis, and even if the Reds tryto lose all three games, they could very well screw up and win one. The Reds have a deep rotation with no true ace, so it’s not as though they can benefit disproportionately from throwing their best pitcher out there in a one-game playoff. Odds are good that trying to beat the Pirates and secure that home-field advantage is the right move.
The fact that this scenario is even on the table, though, is proof positive that the second wild card needs to go.
Addendum: The more likely issue that bothers me about this situation is that, unless the Pirates and Reds split the first two games of the series, the final game will be meaningless. If either Cincinnati or Pittsburgh takes the first two, Game 162 will be absolutely pointless. The Wild Card spots will be set and neither team will be particularly trying to win; instead, they’ll both be resting up for the winner-take all rematch in game 163.
What’s the point of that?