The NL Rediscovers the Pennant Race

published September 13, 2010

It’s been seventeen years since the last great pennant race, and I’d long since given up on ever seeing another one.

The structure of major-league baseball makes it nearly impossible.  This week’s series between the Yankees and the Rays proves the point.  The two teams are separated by one half-game, but there’s no real drama; barring an unfathomable collapse, both will make the playoffs, so only a slight matchup advantage in the first round and home-field edge for game seven in the second are at stake.

Where there are no consequences, there is no drama.

To increase the importance of the long 162-game season, some have proposed there should be two wild-card teams per league, meeting in a one-game playoff to see which advances to the Division Series.  (Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated wrote about the idea last week, and I have long been an advocate for it as well.)

The last great pennant race was in the National League West in 1993.  Atlanta and San Francisco reached the final day of the season in a tie for first, but after Atlanta won at home against Colorado, the Dodgers took great delight in knocking their traditional rivals out of the race with a 12-1 win over the Giants.  Barry Bonds was in his first year with San Francisco, and he and Matt Williams combined for 85 homers to lead the Giants to a 103-59 record.  But Atlanta, which trailed by ten games on July 22, stormed through the rest of the season at a .754 clip, and wound up at 104-58.  Atlanta went to the playoffs; San Francisco went home.  And the next year, the two leagues split into three divisions, bringing the words “wild card” into baseball for the first time (though only in theory, since a labor dispute eliminated the postseason).

That was a race: two great teams matching strengths through the six-month grind, with victory requiring a win total reached just four times since, and defeat meaning the end of the line.

Today, two such teams would know they were moving on; a division race only matters if the losing team won’t be the wild card, if the teams are clearly not the two best.

Yet the National League is providing us with an extended kind of throwback race this September – a six-team battle with four spots at stake.

Here’s how the standings look on a Monday morning with three weeks left in the season:

Philadelphia       83           61           .576

Atlanta                 82           62           .569

Cincinnati            81           62           .566

San Diego            80           62           .563

San Francisco     81           63           .563

Colorado              79           64           .552

Purely by coincidence, these are the six best records in the league, with two and a half games separating first from sixth.  The Reds are in the most comfortable position, holding a six-game lead over the Cardinals in the Central.  They’re unlikely to need the wild-card, and if they blow that lead in the last three weeks without playing St. Louis, they’re unlikely to get it.

The other five teams are in something of a battle royal, squaring off against their primary opponents but keeping an eye on blows that might come from unexpected places.

Beginning tonight, the reeling Padres – 7-14 over their last 21 games – are in Colorado, where the Rockies have won 18 of their last 22.  In the last two weeks of the season, there are crucial matchups nearly every night.  On September 20-22, the Braves are in Philadelphia for three games.  From the 24th to the 26th, the Rockies host the Giants while Cincinnati is in San Diego.  On the final weekend, October 1-3, the Padres go to San Francisco and the Phillies are on the road against the Braves.

But in this tight a race, every win is valuable and every loss a missed opportunity, no matter who the opponent may be.  The Washington Nationals could decide the NL East, since they have two series against each two contenders; the Cubs can play an important role in the West, with three games at Wrigley against the Giants and four in San Diego.

Four of these six NL teams will make the playoffs.  Two will not.  It’s a circle dance at an accelerating tempo, a time of tighter grips and moister palms, of taking care of your own business but watching the scoreboard too. (Notice that under the proposed two-wild-card setup, both divisional races would still be crucial and there’d be a three-for-two fight to get into the one-game playoff.  Even in this season, which is the current structure’s best-case scenario, the two-wild-card system is better.)

The best part of baseball is the pennant race, the fight for dominance over the long season.  Enjoy this one in all its complex glory, because they don’t happen like this too often any more.

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