WASHINGTON — After spending much of the season as the runaway best team in baseball, the Los Angeles Dodgers have meteored back to Earth in a fiery blaze of losses the past few weeks.
Still, even with the Cleveland Indians winning their 20th straight game Tuesday night, the Dodgers have the best record in baseball. They remain a potent team heading into October, one probably not worth trying to chase down for the top seed in the National League.
While home field advantage throughout the playoffs might seem like a great reward, really consider what that means right now and how practical it might be to achieve. The Washington Nationals are currently 4.5 games back of the Dodgers with 18 games to play. They could certainly catch Los Angeles — especially with the teams playing three games against one another this weekend — but the Nats have bigger issues.
Stephen Strasburg’s been unhittable since coming off the disabled list. But the rest of the playoff rotation may be feeling the wear of mounting innings, thanks to the fact the team has by far the fewest bullpen innings pitched (413.1) in baseball this season. Gio Gonzalez has allowed five earned runs in two of his last three starts. Max Scherzer hasn’t been bad, but he’s allowed eight home runs his last eight starts, with a 3.27 ERA.
As the Nats get healthier, they’ll need to juggle their position players to keep everyone likely to be on the playoff roster sharp, while getting guys rest. That’s more important than narrowing the gap and overtaking LA, especially when one considers the National League playoff picture.
As it stands, the Nationals would be set to host the defending World Champion Cubs to open the National League Division Series. The Cubs are clearly not the team they were last year, and their bats have gone cold again after a scorching August, really their only great month of the season. Their rotation doesn’t feature anyone with an ERA lower than Kyle Hendricks’ 3.35, and hottest pitcher in the second half just pulled his hamstring.
The Cubs’ team numbers are down across the board, from ERA+ (132 to 107) and FIP (3.77 to 4.26) to OPS+ (105 to 99). Only Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant are having great years among their regulars. So while the idea of playing the defending champs may seem like something to avoid, the alternatives look much scarier right now.
The Arizona Diamondbacks would appear to have a clear edge in any Wild Card matchup, with the ability to throw ace Zack Greinke at home. That would slate former Nats prospect Robbie Ray as the likely Game 1 NLDS starter.
The Dbacks have been nearly as good as the Nationals, with a Pythagorean record of 86-58 through Monday, just a game-and-a-half worse than the Nats’ 87-56. They’ve got solid starters up and down the rotation and a lineup that features the possible MVP in Paul Goldschmidt, flanked by power bats Jake Lamb and deadline acquisition J.D. Martinez. Playing in a less rabid baseball market out west, Arizona may be flying under the radar, but the Diamondbacks aren’t a team anyone should want to face come playoff time.
The Rockies don’t have nearly the playoff rotation of the top teams in the National League, but their lineup is fearsome. Nolan Arenado and Charlie Blackmon both have made Top 5 MVP cases, while Mark Reynolds and Trevor Story are each longball threats. Gerardo Parra has covered for Carlos Gonzalez’s season-long slump…one he may finally be pulling out of with a hot start to September (he homered twice more Tuesday night). It wouldn’t be the first time the Rockies have slugged their way through October.
Regardless of how the Division Series shakes out, there’s a decent chance the Nats will have to go through the Dodgers if they’re going to make the World Series, as late-season doldrums are rarely a predictor of a lack of playoff success. While the Cubs finished their final month of 2016 with an 18-11 record, the Kansas City Royals went just 15-17 down the stretch in 2015 before winning the World Series. The year before that, the San Francisco Giants were just 13-12 in the final month of the regular season.
Famously, the 2000 New York Yankees stumbled so badly to the finish, losing 13 of their final 15, that they coughed up home field advantage in the playoffs. All they did from there? Win 11 of 16 postseason games to capture their third straight World Series title.
So, yes, the Dodgers are struggling in September. Don’t count them out until they’re done in October.