With less than a third of the season to go, the NL playoff picture is coming into better focus and while the finish line is certainly quite a ways in the distance, it’s not an exaggeration to say that we can at least see it at this point. Despite an off-day, the Cubs gained on both the Pirates and the Giants last night, though not everyone was in agreement on who to cheer for in the latter contest.
On one hand are the folks who were rooting for the Giants to win in order to increase the Cubs’ chances at winning the NL Central, while those claiming to be more pragmatic about their choice were pulling for the Giants. The latter scenario, backers reasoned, improves the odds of making the playoffs in the first place. One group believes the division is still winnable, the other feels it’s probably a lost cause.
So that begs the question, “Who should we be rooting for as the season enters its stretch run?” I’ve got a few thoughts.
The argument for backing the Cardinals is a relatively simple one: they have the best record in baseball and it’s incredibly unlikely that the Cubs catch them. Given the 8-game deficit, the Cubs would have to put in a Herculean effort in order to catch the Redbirds. Even if the Cards were to play .500 baseball through the rest of their schedule (22-22), the Cubs would need to go 32-14 to pass them. That’s 18 games over .500, which would equal their total through 116 games.
I’m not saying that can’t happen, just that it’s highly unlikely. Of course, we have to consider the fact that Randal Grichuk and Jason Heyward have recently joined the ranks of MASH unit the Cards have been operating all season. Still, they just seem to shrug off injuries and keep moving forward with even greater resolve. To that end, the doomsday scenario of a meteor strike in the middle of last night’s Cards/Giants game was one I wanted no part of.
My abhorrence of the idea had nothing to do with the inevitable death and destruction that would result from such an event, but rather the likelihood that the Cardinals would come away stronger. Surely, said meteor(s) would possess some kind of extra-terrestrial substance that would grant the St. Louisans all manner of super powers, not to mention the collective sympathies of the rest of the nation. This would actually be the ultimate bad-news story for the Cubs, and probably all of humanity.
In all seriousness, though, the Cards have 5 games remaining against the Giants and 6 against the Pirates, thus giving them the power to aid the Cubs’ cause when it comes to one of the two Wild Card spots. If the Cards take care of business, the Cubs need only remain upright in order to make the postseason.
Is the enemy of my enemy my friend? That’s what many were feeling about last night and moving forward as far as the Giants are concerned. Sure, San Francisco wins shave the margin the Cubs have leveraged on the second Wild Card spot, but they could also served to take a big, wet bit out of the Cardinals’ lead in the Central. And as soon as they leave St. Louis, the Giants head to Pittsburgh for a four-game set with the Pirates.
Since the Cubs now hold a nice cushion over the Giants, it’s okay to have the defending champs pick up a few wins here and there, the reasoning goes. But once they leave Pittsburgh, the Giants’ schedule basically goes intra-divisional and turns them into Public Enemy No. 1 for Cubs fans.
Whoever plays the Giants, Pirates, or Cardinals
This is basically the best of all options, as the Cubs benefit regardless of which of these teams falls on a given night. There’s really no wrong answer here. When it comes to the rest of the season, the Cards (.506), Pirates (.503), and Cubs (.507) all have a very similar strength of schedule, which means the Cubs may need a little help to get over. The Giants (.488) appear to have an easier row to hoe, which may give a bit of credence to the idea of pulling for the Cards to take them down.
According to FanGraphs, the Cards are expected to finish with a 100-62 record and the Central title, while the Pirates (94-68) will take the first Wild Card and the Cubs (92-70) the second. The Giants (87-75) and Nationals (83-79) are projected to remain well back of Chicago. That tells me that we should be pulling for the Cardinals as they play the Giants and then the Giants as they play the Pirates.
I’m not going to say the Central is a lost cause, as nothing’s over until we say it is. But my goal for the Cubs would be for them to put themselves in the best possible position to reach — and subsequently succeed in — the playoffs. If that means a Wild Card spot, I’d feel much more secure about locking down the #1 with a better record than the Pirates, thus ensuring home-field advantage.
So I’ve been writing about who else we need to pull for, but here’s a novel idea: how about just cheering for the Cubs and letting the rest take care of itself? Matthew 6:34 says “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.” Biblically inclined or not, I think Cubs fans can get with that idea. Just following this team alone gives most of us more than enough anxiety; throwing others into the mix is surely bad for your health.
As I said earlier, the Cubs have six games remaining against the Cards and another six against the Pirates (all of which come in a 3-week span in September). If they just handle their business, they’ll be playing baseball on October 7th, if not later. Ideally, the Cubs will take 4 of 6 from the Bucs and will pass them in the WC standings to set up a do-or-die game at Wrigley.
Remember 1998 and the one-game play-in? The biggest rat that day wasn’t crawling around under the bleachers, he was launching a home run into them. Gary Gaetti might not be around any longer, but I feel pretty good about the team the Cubs have now, not to mention the one they’ll carry into October with potential reinforcements like Mike Olt, Tommy La Stella, and Javier Baez.
All that said, I’m going to do my best to just sit back and focus on what the Cubs are doing each day, letting the rest take care of itself. But I can’t lie, I’m still going to take a pick at the out-of-town scoreboard every now and again.