Just because one thinks a pennant chase has been wrapped up does not mean it actually has. The 1978 Yankees were 14 games out in mid-July and ended up winning the World Series. Wild comebacks are not common, but they do happen. Every division chase has a little life left in it.
But how much? As we head into the second half of the season, it’s time for a little ranking business. There are eight playoff races right now: The six divisions and the chases for the three Wild Card spots. How exciting is each one? Here are the eight pennant chases of the second half, ranked.
1. National League East
A quick note before we get going: Because there are now three teams that will make it out of each Wild Card chase, I have to give each race a little bit of a demerit: Any chase where you can still make the playoffs by finishing third has to take a bit of a penalty. If your division race isn’t already essentially settled --and three clearly aren’t -- then you get priority here. And first place has to go to the NL East
First off, there’s a lot on the line: The difference between winning this division (most likely a No. 2 seed and a bye) and finishing second (a Wild Card spot and a series you might not even be hosting) is dramatic. And even though the Phillies are showing some pluck, this is a classic two-team race between two longtime rivals: The Mets, having a gloriously fun season despite not having even one start from Jacob deGrom yet, and the Braves, the defending World Series champs who currently have a better winning percentage (.598) than they did last year (.547). The last weekend of the year features three games between these teams in Truist Park. It is going to be intense.
2. American League Central
No team has distinguished itself much in the AL Central -- the first-place team would be 15 games out in the AL East -- but it has something no other division race has: Three teams. The Twins are in first place right now but were awfully wobbly heading into the break, opening up the window further for both the surprising Guardians and the even more surprising (in a disappointing way) White Sox. Keep an eye on the White Sox in particular. They had a lot go wrong in the first half and they’re still only three games out, which has to feel like an absolute gift. The Twins finish the year with three games on the South Side of Chicago, which could be a balm for the Guardians … who finish with six games at home against Kansas City (yes, you read that right). This one could be tight like this all the way to the end.
3. National League Central
It’s tough to get too excited about this two-team race, if just because neither Milwaukee nor St. Louis had a first half that either fanbase is excited about. The Brewers have had all sorts of injury issues with their pitching staff, and their offense is relentlessly one dimensional. The Cardinals have run out of starting pitching again and have an inconsistent offense that’s capable of scoring 10 runs one night and then getting shut out the next two. Almost every time either team has run into a legitimate contender, they’ve gotten drilled. But they both get plenty of games against the Pirates, Cubs and the Reds, which will also give each of them a chance to stay in the Wild Card chase. (The Cardinals actually have more than two-thirds of their second-half games against teams with losing records.) Neither team seems to want to win this division, but one of them, I promise, will.
4. American League Wild Card
OK, time for the Wild Cards. The American League leaps out as the more compelling of the two, largely because of the number of teams involved. If you include the Orioles -- and you absolutely should, they’re just a game under .500 after all -- there are seven teams in the race, all fascinating in their own ways. You’ve got the three AL East teams that many predicted would be the three entrants in the offseason: The Rays (who look a little wobblier than usual but are still second in this race), the Blue Jays (who took over the top spot with the help of a six-game win streak, and yet they haven't really gotten it together yet) and the Red Sox (who we all thought were toast in the season’s first fortnight but turned it around before losing Chris Sale again and suffering an ugly sweep against the Blue Jays at home this weekend). You’ve got whichever two teams don’t win the AL Central. You’ve got (maybe) the Orioles. Even Texas is hanging around. But the real blast here of course is Seattle, holding onto the third spot, a team that reeled off a 14-game winning streak into the break, that has the most exciting rookie in baseball in Julio Rodríguez, and a postseason drought that extends to Albert Pujols’ rookie year. With all the storylines here, the more teams the better.
5. National League Wild Card
Technically speaking, the Marlins and the Rockies are still in this race. (Miami’s 5 out of the third spot, and the Rockies are 7 1/2.) But this is ostensibly a five-team race … with two spots, really, already feeling filled. Whoever doesn’t win the NL East bloodfeud between Atlanta and the Mets gets one spot. The Padres are in the second spot and still haven’t gotten a game from Fernando Tatis Jr.; if he can return in time, the Padres look like heavy favorites for the second spot. The third spot is the scrum. You’ve got whoever doesn’t win the NL Central. You’ve got the Phillies, who have weathered Bryce Harper’s absence and are looking to end baseball’s second-longest postseason drought after the Mariners. And you’ve got the Giants, simply a little team that won 107 games last year. There are two teams here who will fall short and end up feeling like this season was a total disaster.
6. American League West
All right, now for the other three. It seemed like the Mariners were gaining some ground with their 14-game win streak, until the Astros swept them in this weekend's series and finished it with a comfortable 13-game division lead. All told: It sure looks like the Astros are already locked into the No. 2 seed before July is even two-thirds over.
7. National League West
There was a stretch there when the Padres were keeping pace with the Dodgers, but that period is over. We’ve been paying so much attention to the Yankees’ incredible start that it has almost slipped by that the Dodgers are on pace to win 108 games … which would be the most in their franchise’s history.
8. American League East
Let’s say the Yankees -- currently on pace for 113 wins -- went .500 the rest of the way. It’s tough to imagine how that could happen (maybe there’s a new rule that they have to swing their bats upside down or something), but for the sake of this exercise, let’s pretend. That’s 35-35, which would give them 99 wins. 99 wins! The Yankees could go .500 the rest of the way and still win 99 games. Well, the Rays would have to go 49-21 the rest of the way to pass them. That’s a .700 winning percentage, which is even higher than the Yankees have right now. This is all to say: This race is long, long over.