We're now in the final week of the 2020 MLB regular season, and even though time is running out the standings remain wonderfully muddled, especially in the National League. Thanks in part to the expanded 16-team postseason, we've got multiple playoff spots still up for grabs, and bear in mind there are no tiebreaker games for 2020. So to set the scene for the possible madness to come, let's run down the five most important series left on the ever-dwindling regular season schedule.
These five series will go a long way toward determining the final playoff field.
Going into Monday's slate, the Reds, Brewers, and Giants are all .500 and in essence tied for the eighth and final playoff spot in the NL. That "in essence" qualifier is quite important. As just mentioned, the compressed 2020 baseball calendar allows for no tiebreaker games, so ties for seeding, division titles, and even final playoff spots will be determined by the following method:
- Head-to-head record (if applicable).
- Intradivision record.
- Record in final 20 division games (plus one until the tie is broken).
Now let's take a look at how these tiebreakers currently stand, in table format for easy digestion:
4-3 vs. MIL
3-4 vs. CIN
Since teams play regional schedules in 2020 -- 40 games against division rivals and 20 more against the corresponding division in the other league (e.g., NL East vs. AL East) -- the Giants don't have any head-to-head games against the Reds or Brewers. So to break such cross-division ties, you go to intradivisional record. The Giants come up short in that regard (although, as we'll soon see, they have a chance to change that).
As for the Reds, they also hold the edge over the Brewers thanks to their winning four of seven head-to-head games against Milwaukee. That's why the Reds right now are in possession of the last playoff spot in the NL -- they win tiebreakers against the Brewers and Giants. The three-game set in Cincy between the Brewers and Reds, however, could obviously change all of that. In particular, if the Brewers can take two of three against the Reds, then the script would flip. Depending upon how the Giants fare in their four-game home series against the Rockies, Milwaukee would have a one game lead over the Reds, even the season series against the Cincy, and push the tiebreaker between the two teams all the way to the "last 20 games +1" level (the Reds would still hold that tiebreaker for the moment). Should the Reds take two of three, then the Brewers would be in a bad spot going into the final series of the season -- a five-gamer in St. Louis.
2. Brewers at Cardinals, five games, Sept. 24-27
Speaking of which, yes, the Brewers and Cardinals have five head-to-heads yet to play, and they'll knock those out to end the regular season. The series includes a Friday doubleheader. The Cardinals are effectively one game clear of the three-team fray contending for the No. 8 seed, so at this writing St. Louis' playoff spot is hardly locked in. Likely, though, this series will matter more to the Brewers. If either the Brewers and Reds sweep the aforementioned series in Cincy, then perhaps the St. Louis series becomes less meaningful. Things as they are, however, the Cardinals figure to be angling to secure a berth, and the Brewers will either be doing that or fighting for their playoff lives. Of note: The Brewers are in the mix despite never having been over .500 at any point in 2020. They're also trying to make the playoffs in three straight seasons for the first time in franchise history.
3. Padres at Giants, four games, Sept. 25-27
As noted, the Giants -- locked in a mortal struggle with the Reds and Brewers -- play a four-game home set against the Rockies. After that, it's four against the second-best team in the NL, including a Friday doubleheader. The X-factor in this one is whether the Padres still have anything to play for at that point. Going into Monday, the Dodgers' magic number for the NL West title is three, and they may indeed have it wrapped up by the time the Padres head to San Fran. As well, there's almost zero chance the Padres fall below the No. 4 seed in the NL. One thing that may boost the Giants' hopes in this one is if the Padres are resting some regulars and taking it easy on their starting pitchers in advance of the playoffs. The Padres' status bears monitoring with regard to this series. First, though, the Giants must take care of the Rockies, who themselves are still alive for that last spot.
The Cinderella Marlins are right now the No. 5 seed in the NL, and they still have a shot at the NL East title. They trail the Braves by three games in the division with, as you see above, four head-to-head games still to play. A sweep obviously puts the Marlins in front, and taking three of four puts them one game out with three to play. Thus far in 2020, the Marlins are 3-3 against the Braves, although they've been outscored 41-31 in those games.
Realistically, the Marlins are likely playing to retain a Wild Card spot. After they wrap up in Atlanta, the Marlins head to the Bronx for three games to end the regular season. That's a tough stretch, assuming the Yankees have anything to play for at that point. Right now, the Marlins are a game up on the Phillies for second place in the NL East (recall that second-place finishers get a guaranteed playoff spot this year). Miami is basically 1 1/2 games ahead of the .500 trio vying for the No. 8 seed. Tying it all together, as of Monday morning the SportsLine Projection Model (@SportsLine on Twitter) gives the Marlins an 86.6 percent chance of making good on their unlikely playoff push. That figure will be tested, however, by two of the best teams in baseball to finish the regular season.
5. Phillies at Rays, three games, Sept. 25-27
The Phillies in Joe Girardi's first season are the No. 7 seed in the NL at the moment, but a mere half-game separates them from the Reds, Brewers, and Giants. Philly finishes up on the road, first with four against the Nationals and then three against the Rays. The Rays have a magic number of four to clinch the AL East, so it's possible they'll be in "just stay healthy" mode for this series. Of course, given the Tampa Bay roster depth and patchwork approach to excellence, would you even notice?
The good news for Philly is that they should get a combined total of four more starts from Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler the rest of the way. Those tandem aces have combined for a 2.78 ERA in 2020. The remaining Philly starters, meantime, have an ERA of 5.56. Given those numbers and the superfund site that is the Phillies' bullpen, they need to take advantage of those four Wheeler-Nola trips to the bump.
Bonus: Cardinals at Tigers doubleheader, Sept. 28 (maybe)
Right now the Cardinals, who were forced to shut down for roughly two weeks because of a COVID-19 outbreak within the club, are scheduled to play 58 games. That's because a doubleheader against the Tigers in Detroit that was canceled during that outbreak isn't presently on the docket. If, however, seeding or playoff spots depend upon the outcome of that doubleheader, then it will be made up on that Monday between the end of the regular season and the start of the postseason Wild Card round. Increasingly, it's looking like the Cardinals will need to play that doubleheader given how tightly bunched the back end of the NL playoff field is. If they do have to make a side trip to Detroit next Monday, then it'll be the Cardinals' 12th doubleheader of the season.