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9/21/2007 08:55:00 AM

Wild Card: Panic Gluttons

By Cliff Corcoran

Panic! In the streets of Boston! Panic! In the streets of Queens! The Yankees are coming! The Phillies are coming! Fire the manager! String up the GM! Sound the alarms! Lock the doors! Hide the kids!

On the morning of May 30, the Red Sox were 36-15 (.706) and had an 11.5-game lead in the AL East, while the Yankees were in fourth place, 14.5 games back and eight games under .500. The Sox then went 17-19 over the remainder of the first half and have since played .561 ball in the second half. The Yankees took two of three in Boston over the first three days of June, went 19-13 over the remainder of the second half, and have since played .682 ball in the second half. In the past month, the Yankees have taken five of six from the Sox and since Sunday have gained four games in the division, closing the gap in the AL East to 1.5 games, and just one in the loss column.

Last Thursday the Mets had a seven-game lead over the Phillies in the NL East. Since then the Phillies have won six of seven, including sweeping a three game series at Shea over the weekend to reduce the Mets' lead to 1.5 games (two in the loss column).

And that's just the half of it. The Diamondbacks have never led the NL West by more than four games this year, and the Padres' 6-3 victory over the Pirates yesterday, their seventh straight, pulled them within a half game of the D'backs, and both teams have been tied in the loss column since Tuesday morning. In the NL Central, the Cubs and Brewers have been no further apart than 2.5 games since July 28, and have woken up tied ten times since then, with the Brewers holding the lead for 19 days, and the Cubs holding the lead for 25 days, including the last three.

It's all terribly exciting. Unfortunately, none of these four sets of rivals has any head-to-head games left. What's more, six of the eight teams mentioned above will wind up in the playoffs, regardless of how their individual races turn out, with both the Yankees and Red Sox virtually guaranteed a postseason berth.

That means the only things left to fight over in the American League are bragging rights and playoff seedings. Of course, that's no small thing, particularly in Boston, where the Red Sox, despite making five playoff appearances in the last ten years and winning the World Series three years ago, have never beaten out Joe Torre's Yankees for a division title. It's no small thing in the Bronx either, as Yankee fans are dreading another first-round exit at the hands of the Angels, who can clinch their division with a win over the Mariners tonight. As for the Indians, the fact that the Yanks and Sox can't play each other in the first round because they're from the same division will force the Cleveland to face one of those two teams against whom they have a combined 2-11 record this year. Thus it's all the more important to them to get home field advantage for at least the division series. The good news for Tribe fans is that the race for home field is wide open, as just one game separates the three division leaders in the standings.

The NL is where the real action is, as six teams are battling for four playoff spots, with the Brewers and Phillies currently on the outside looking in. The Phillies have shown amazing fortitude thus far, despite having a losing record as late as July 19, they've thrust themselves into the NL East race, beating the Mets in their last eight head-to-head contests and winning seven of their last eight games overall, staging late-inning rallies in five of those wins. The Phillies are also just 2.5 games behind the Padres in the Wild Card race (three in the loss column). Of course, with just nine games left, that's likely too large a deficit to overcome, and the Phillies have a 12-year playoff drought to overcome as well, but there's still an outside chance that their surge for the division crown will have a consolation prize.

Six of the Phillies' remaining nine games come against the lowly Nationals, but the middle three see them host the Braves, who hold an 8-7 advantage in their season series. The Mets, however, face nothing but patsies, with six games left against the Marlins, three more against the Nats, and a makeup game against the freefalling Cardinals. Seven of those ten games are at home. Of course, the Mets are 1-3 against the Nats and Fish thus far this week, and they have a better record on the road than at home for the season.

The Padres, however, have a much tougher row to hoe, with three games against the underrated Rockies this weekend followed by seven on the road, which concludes with a four-game set against the Brewers in Milwaukee, so there's still hope for the Wild Card in Philadelphia. Things aren't much easier for the Diamondbacks, who finish with three in Colorado and have three at home against the Dodgers this weekend, two teams against whom Arizona is 13-17 this season.

I addressed the manner in which the remaining schedules for the Cubs and Brewers favor Chicago in my NL Central post on Wednesday. Indeed, the two teams were tied for first place when I wrote that, but the Cubs have since taken a 1.5-game lead. Baseball Prospectus's Postseason Odds, which are determined by simulating the remainder of the schedule a million times and are updated each morning, give the Cubs a 77.5 percent chance of winning the division, leaving the Brewers -- who have only made the postseason twice in franchise history, most recently in 1982 when they won the AL pennant -- with the remaining 22.5 percent. BP's odds also give the Phillies a mere 36.5 percent chance of making the playoffs, with that percentage split almost evenly between winning the NL East and taking the Wild Card, with a less than one percent lean toward the latter.

Over in the AL, the Yankees, who open a four-game series at home tonight against Roy Halladay and the Blue Jays' team that just swept Boston, then hit the road to play the Devil Rays and Orioles, have a mere 17.7 percent chance of overtaking the Red Sox, who open a three-game set in Tampa tonight, have Monday off, then finish with six at home against the A's and Twins. That 17.7 percent is nearly identical to the Phillies odds of overtaking the Mets. Then again, this is baseball. Stranger things have happened.

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