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McGuinness: Taking stock of the MLB postseason race

There are few moments as exciting on the sports calendar as the final three weeks of an MLB season. The everyday nature of the sport captivates the emotions of fans and their teams whose destinations after the regular season ends on Oct. 5 remain unknown. Add in an extra wild card spot in each league to expand the number of teams still in the mix and the importance of finishing top-two in each league to avoid the expanded best-of-three Wild Card round, and there’s even more intensity than ever.

So, with just 20 days remaining in the 2022 season, now is as good a time as any to review where the key races stand. And there are a lot of them. Only one team, the Los Angeles Dodgers, has already punched their postseason ticket. A few others — namely the New York Mets, Atlanta Braves, Houston Astros, and New York Yankees — are all but assured to join them. But even those teams have plenty to play for down the stretch.

The West divisions in both leagues are all the easiest to analyze. The Dodgers have officially clinched the NL West pennant, their ninth in the last 10 seasons. The Houston Astros, who have won the AL West four of the past five seasons, won’t be far behind. They currently lead the Seattle Mariners by 12.5 games.

Every other division race has at least some intrigue to it. The Yankees and St. Louis Cardinals are looking like the safest bets, with six and and seven game leads over the next closest teams, respectively. The Yankees rebounded in September after a brutal August that saw a once comfortable division lead start to shrink. The Cardinals have been playing outstanding baseball over the last few months, and there’s more drama around whether Albert Pujols can slug three more home runs to reach 700 for his career than their status for the postseason.

Meanwhile, the AL Central and NL East are total dead heats. Cleveland has been in control of the Central for a little while now with the Twins going cold. Meanwhile, the White Sox are looking to avoid being labeled the season’s biggest disappointment, winning 10 of their last 14 to pull within three games of the Guardians. Cleveland’s outstanding pitching could make them a tricky Wild Card round opponent, but the Guardians have to get there first.

Like their New York brethren, the Mets have seen a once comfortable division lead dwindle to almost nothing. However, it’s not that the Mets have fallen into a significant slump. Rather, the Braves look simply unbeatable for about the third extended period since May. Both old and new faces have capitulated the Braves up the standings. Plus, two-time All-Star second baseman Ozzie Albies could return from the IL soon. A three-game head-to-head series in Atlanta from Sept. 30 to Oct. 2 could decide this race.

As is typical, the tightest races are for Wild Card spots in both leagues. The American League is largely about playing for seeding at this point, although that’s as important as ever since the best Wild Card team will host their first series. That would be especially significant for the Toronto Blue Jays, considering multiple teams have been missing players when going to Toronto throughout the year due to Canada’s vaccine mandate. Toronto’s also on a strong 7-3 run, which is tied for the third best record of any team in their last 10 games.

Just a half game separates Toronto from the Seattle Mariners and Tampa Bay Rays for Wild Card No. 1. The Rays have cooled off a bit after looking like legit challengers to the Yankees for a New York minute. Still, their depth is as outstanding as ever. And they’ll be even more dangerous if they get AL Cy Young contender Shane McClanahan back from injury soon.

Just getting in would be massive for the Mariners, who hold the longest postseason drought in the four major sports dating back to 2001. They came very close last year, missing by just two games. An aggressive offseason and infusion of youth looks like enough to push them over the top. The Baltimore Orioles are the only team within six games of the Mariners and Rays. And while it looks like the young O’s won’t have enough to make the postseason, this is still an incredibly encouraging year after losing 110 games a year ago. They could easily be on the right side of this mix in a similar article next year.

The loser of the Braves-Mets NL East race will almost certainly claim the first Wild Card spot. The other two, however, are still up for grabs. After years of not being able to make a big push from just behind the pack in September, it’s the Phillies who are currently in the best shape. Improved depth and production from their youth have pushed the Phillies, who hold the sport’s second longest postseason drought, to lead the Padres by 1.5 games and the Brewers by 3.5, holding the tiebreaker over both.

San Diego currently sits in the final Wild Card spot one year after missing the postseason in shocking fashion. The Padres are in a bit of a weird spot this year, too. They added star power in Juan Soto and Josh Hader (the latter ironically coming from Milwaukee) and quality depth in Josh Bell and Brandon Drury at the trade deadline. However, with Fernando Tatís Jr’s return spoiled due to suspension, the Padres aren’t as strong as they could be.

However, they’re still in a solid spot. The Brewers are as one-dimensional as any team still in the race. Their starting pitching is still outstanding and Devin Williams is lights out in the bullpen. But their offense lacks star power, with only one player (Hunter Renfroe) sporting an OPS above .800. Like the White Sox, that type of team can be very dangerous in the postseason if the right player or two gets hot. But they have to get there first.

Regardless of the results, it’s shaping up to be an exciting stretch run. At least three spots (AL Central champion, Wild Cards 2-3 in the NL) are undecided. And most of the other nine teams are in legitimate battles for seeding, which again is more important than ever under the new postseason format. All of it will somehow be sorted out in the next three weeks. What happens, of course, remains unknown. But whatever unfolds should be a blast to watch.

Contact Andrew McGuinness at amcguinn@nd.edu.