With a 7-6 win this afternoon over the Arizona Diamondbacks, the Los Angeles Dodgers mathematically clinched the NL West Division Title. The title is the first for the Dodgers since back-to-back titles in 2008-09. Both of those titles resulted in 4-1 losses to the Phillies in the NLCS. Since then, they’ve been trending toward this division title, finishing 4th in 2010, 3rd in 2011, and 2nd last year to the World Champion Giants. Don Mattingly’s first playoff berth as a manager came a little more quickly than his first as a player, which came in his final season as a Yankee in 1995. The Dodgers were 30-42 on June 21, 9.5 games behind the Diamondbacks. Since, they are 58-23 and have gone from 9.5 games behind to 13.5 games ahead on September 3 and 10.5 games ahead today. Dodger fans have caught the fever; the team leads the NL in attendance.
Other teams, like the Red Sox, Braves, Tigers, and Athletics are also closing in on clinching their respective divisions. The Red Sox magic number* to clinch the AL East is at 1, while the best the chasing Rays can mathematically hope for is a tie. Boston clinched at least a Wild Card berth with their win tonight, but winning the division is very important, given the Wild Card format (just ask last year’s Braves and Rangers). Boston lost 93 games a year ago, but have turned it around to have the best record in baseball and their first playoff berth since 2009. The Braves hold the best record in the NL by one game, and their magic number to clinch the NL East over the Nationals is down to 2 as they head to Wrigley Field to play the Cubs this weekend. They will have the opportunity to clinch their first division title in 8 years on some hallowed grounds of baseball. The Tigers and Athletics both have magic numbers of 5, with the Tigers trying to clinch the AL Central over the Indians and Royals, and the Athletics trying to clinch the AL West over the Rangers, playing as we speak out West.
For all intents and purposes, these division races are realistically over. I know they aren’t mathematically over, but I say this for a couple of reasons. First, every one of the chasing teams in these division races are in the Wild Card race as well, so they aren’t really focused on trying to pull the mega-miracle of winning the division since they’re worried about they’re Wild Card chances. Secondly, these teams would have to go on long losing streaks (more than just a couple here and there), and I don’t see any of these teams having that happen (in fact, most of them have pretty weak schedules the rest of the way).
I’ve mentioned 5 of MLB’s 6 divisions. I’ve probably saved the best for last. The NL Central has been the tightest race all year long, between the Cardinals, the Pirates, and the Reds. Here’s how tight the race is now: The Cardinals hold a 1 game lead over the Pirates, and a 2 game lead over the Reds. Here’s how tight it has been all year: The Cardinals biggest lead is 4 games, and their biggest deficit is 4 games. The Pirates have the same numbers. The Reds biggest lead is 2 games and biggest deficit is 6.5 games.
While only one team can win the NL Central, not all will be lost for the two who don’t. As they stand, the Pirates and Reds hold the two Wild Card spots in the National League. The only real pursuer of them is the Nationals, who sit 5 games behind. The Diamondbacks haven’t yet been mathematically eliminated, but they are 9.5 games back and realistically out of the race. Of course, the Nationals playoff prognosis at this point is pretty grim too. The biggest objective of the NL Wild Card race now is really to see who is the first Wild Card team, and who is the second Wild Card team, since the first Wild Card team will host the NL Wild Card game on October 2. (The same applies to the AL Wild Card game on October 3.)
The Wild Card race in the AL is the best Wild Card race in years; perhaps the best ever. The Rays and Rangers are tied for the two Wild Card spots, but there are 4 teams hot on their heels. The Indians are a half game back, with the Orioles 2 games back, the Royals 3 games back, and the Yankees 3.5 games back. (The Angels are mathematically alive, but their “elimination number,” the opposite of the magic number, is 2). These 6 teams have been back and forth and all around the standings over the last month or so, as this race has really tightened up. It’s a shame only two of these teams can make the playoffs, particularly because the Rays struggled more so much of their history before a turn-around year in 2008, the Orioles also struggled for so long before their run to the playoffs last year, the Indians have only one playoff berth since 2001, and haven’t won a World Series since 1948, and the Royals haven’t had a winning season since 2003 or a playoff berth since their World Series title in 1985. I’m wondering about the possibility of there being a tie of anywhere from 2 to 6 teams for these Wild Card berths and adding tiebreaker games to the already scheduled one-game “series” between the top 2 Wild Card teams.
This is the ultimate time of year for any baseball fan. Every game is so meaningful, as teams try to clinch or keep their hopes alive. And besides, October baseball is just around the corner!
*(Note: The magic number is a stat used by players and fans alike to count down to a team’s mathematical clinching of a division title or playoff berth. It is calculated by adding 1 to the number of games played (162+1=163) and then subtracting the wins of the team trying to clinch and the losses of the team chasing. Any win by the team that is ahead or any loss by the team that is behind will make the magic number go down. When it hits 0, the team chasing is mathematically eliminated.)