A few weeks ago, it seemed as though the last week of the baseball season was going to be a long, unbearable slog to the beginning of the postseason. The wild cards in both leagues seemed all but settled, and the only division that looked truly competitive was the AL East, but the loser of that race was going to get into the playoffs as the wild-card team anyway. Most observers would worry it would turn into a repeat of 2010, when the Yankees and Rays both played as though the division crown were a hot potato.
That seems like a long time ago, doesn't it? In the interim, the wild-card races in both leagues have gotten competitive. The American League race has gotten the most attention, both because we saw several head-to-head games between the Red Sox and the Rays last week, and because the Red Sox are in the midst of a historically bad month of September. Things have been so bad in Boston that it's actually hard to remember they're currently holding a 2.5-game lead in the race after Tampa Bay's loss to Toronto on Friday night.
The National League race has been equally intriguing, as the Cardinals, once left for dead in the wake of the red-hot Brewers, clawed their way back into the conversation, entering play on Friday just two games behind the Braves. Atlanta once seemed as much of a lock for the NL wild card as the Red Sox/Yankees did in the junior circuit. To make things even more intriguing, the Cardinals were at home to face the woeful Cubs while the Braves were in Washington, staring down Stephen Strasburg. And wouldn't you know it, the Braves drove Strasburg from the game after four innings and beat Washington 7-4. Meanwhile, the Cardinals lost to the Cubs 5-1 after Chris Carpenter had to leave after just 93 pitches after he was pinch-hit for to lead off the bottom of the seventh as Tony La Russa tried to conjure up some offense.
The loss was especially frustrating for St. Louis, because they seemed to be controlling the game until the fateful eighth inning. Carpenter allowed just one run on five hits and two walks while striking out five in seven innings. After Carpenter was removed for that pinch-hitter in the bottom of the seventh, Jon Jay singled, but was thrown out stealing before Nick Punto singled as well. Albert Pujols popped out to end the inning, and that was basically it. They went 0-for-8 with runners in scoring positions and left 10 men on base. Kyle McClellan would give up a one-out, three-run home run to Alfonso Soriano, and the Cardinals found themselves in a steep hole, both in the game and in the standings.
The Braves now find themselves with a choke hold on the wild card, with their magic number down to three with just five games to go. However, if there's any reason for hope left for St. Louis, it's in the schedule. After finishing their home season with the Cubs this weekend, the Cardinals will finish the regular season in Houston, facing the worst team in the majors. In contrast, once the Braves are done in Washington they will go home to play a three-game set with the Phillies, owners of the majors' best record.
A comeback at this point remains a tall order for Tony La Russa's team, which now pretty much has to win all five of their remaining games, and even then will need Atlanta to go no better than 2-3 to finish the 2011 season -- and that’s just in order for the Cardinals to get a one-game playoff. Friday night was an important night for both teams, and the Braves rose to the challenge on the road, while the Cardinals simply couldn't get the job done against the Cubs. The National League wild-card race isn't officially over yet, but the Cardinals just need far too much to go their way at this point. It's probably safe to go back to wondering if the Red Sox will ever win again.
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