Yankees, Cardinals as good as in, rest of playoff field up for grabs
Posted: Tuesday July 13, 2004 12:56PM; Updated: Tuesday July 13, 2004 12:56PM
Thanks in large part to relievers like Steve Kline, the Cardinals have built a huge lead in the NL Central.
With all due respect to the Cubs and Red Sox, when it comes to getting to October, the Cardinals and Yankees have little to worry about.
St. Louis and New York each took seven-game division leads into the All-Star break. What are the odds they'll be playing in the postseason? Even better than John Stockton sinking a free throw. Forty-four previous teams have held a lead of at least seven games at the break since the All-Star Game began in 1933. Thirty-eight of them, or 86 percent, made it to the postseason.
The odds are even better since the wild-card format began in 1995. Since then, 12 of the 13 teams with leads of at least seven games at the break made it to October. The one hiccup is the 2003 Royals, a house of cards that ran out to a 16-3 record entirely inside the American League Central and have played .430 baseball since (98-130).
The five pre-wild card era teams to blow at least a seven-game lead after the break were the 1993 Giants, 1978 Red Sox, 1951 Dodgers, 1942 Dodgers and 1935 Giants. Alas, the rest of the playoff leaders should be very wary this year. The biggest story of the season thus far has been the tight races involving an unprecedented amount of teams this deep into the year.
But now the fun really starts. While the Cardinals and Yankees have history on their side, what about the other six teams who entered the break with a playoff spot to lose? Picture Shaquille O'Neal at the free-throw line and you'll get an idea of whether the Rangers, White Sox, Red Sox, Dodgers, Phillies or Giants will see October. For the first time in the wild-card era, as many as six teams hold a playoff spot by two games or fewer at the break. (The previous high for such close races had been four.)
That margin is below the clear delineation point for confidently making postseason plans. Teams with a lead of more than three games at the break are 31-4 when it comes to making the playoffs. At three games or fewer, they are 18-19. Clearly, baseball is positioned for one of the most exciting stretch runs in recent history -- and maybe the first time in the wild-card era that five playoff leaders at the break finish out of the money.
More good news for the Yankees: the AL East leaders at the break are 9-0 when it comes to keeping their spot; New York is 7-0.
The Braves will have to come from behind for a playoff spot for the first time since the Last Great Playoff Race against the Giants in pre-wild card 1993. They led the division eight times and the wild-card standings once at the break and reached the playoffs every time.
Be afraid, Philly fans. The Phillies hold a playoff spot for the fourth time in the past 10 years, each time by exactly one game. Their conversion record toward a playoff spot is 0-3.
There is no panic in Oakland. The Athletics have come from behind at the break to win a playoff spot three years in a row.
Division leaders at the break are 41-13 when it comes to getting to the postseason. Wild-card leaders are 8-10.
Now let's apply that history to current affairs by taking a look at the races:
Tom Verducci will answer select questions from SI.com users in his Baseball Mailbag.
AL East The only way the Yankees can be caught is if Kevin Brown and Mike Mussina are out with major injuries and the team doesn't trade for a replacement. Did someone say Randy Johnson? Edge: Yankees.
AL Central The Indians and Tigers are terrific, upbeat stories, but check back with us when you get on the right side of .500. It's a two-team race. The White Sox and Twins play nine times in the second half, six of them in Chicago. The White Sox are done with the Yankees. The Twins have six games left with New York. Edge: Chicago.
AL West Texas will be hard-pressed to hold off Oakland, a renowned second-half club with superior pitching. Anaheim isn't going away, either. Edge: Oakland.
AL Wild Card The AL Central never has produced a wild card team. But throw Minnesota/Chicago into a hat with Boston, Texas, Oakland and Anaheim. Edge: Boston, because it plays 17 of its final 23 games against the Mariners, Devil Rays and Orioles.
NL East Otherwise known as the NL Least. It could be had with 86 wins, which eliminates no one except Montreal. Edge: Get serious. No one. But if Atlanta triumphs again, Bobby Cox goes into the Hall of Fame next year by special exemption.
NL Central The Cubs can't be ruled out, if only because at last their rotation is intact and capable of going on an extended run. But St. Louis is a solid team with great versatility on offense and an underrated bullpen. Edge: Cardinals.
NL West The Padres have the best pitching, which usually determines the race, though not by much over the Dodgers. The Giants have the most dominating hitter (Barry Bonds) and pitcher (Jason Schmidt) in baseball. Edge: None, though get your tickets now for that season-ending, Giants-Dodgers series in L.A.
NL Wild Card The Astros may need to dump Jimy Williams for Jim Fregosi to not let this season -- and all the goodwill they have gained in Houston -- get away from them. As it is, they are chasing too many teams. Edge: Cubs.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Tom Verducci covers baseball for the magazine and is a regular contributor to SI.com.