Maybe baseball is even harder to predict than they say. After five months of play in the books, both the New York Mets and San Francisco Giants — once favorites in their respective divisions — were preparing for a wild card dogfight in the season’s final weeks. In fact, if the season ended at the time of writing, the Mets would be watching the postseason from the comfort of their own homes.
The St. Louis Cardinals are right there with these two clubs. Though the Redbirds did not have the same great expectations entering this season, Mike Matheny’s club has squandered a number of chances to take control of the playoff race before Labor Day. That didn’t happen, and now these three teams will compete for two wild cards down the stretch. With a few more twists and turns, the Pittsburgh Pirates could join the party, too. Here are five players who will make a big impact on the NL wild card race.
1. Brandon Moss, St. Louis Cardinals
As Moss goes against the Cubs, so go the Cardinals. The slugging outfielder/first baseman has RBIs in four of St. Louis’s seven wins against Chicago this season, and the Redbirds will need more of the same as they face the Cubs six more times in the final weeks. After a blistering August (8 HR, 21 RBI), Moss kicked off September 0-for-10 with five strikeouts. He’ll need to turn it around for the Cardinals to hold onto that second wild card.
Besides the six against Chicago, four games against San Francisco and the season’s final series against Pittsburgh also loom large for St. Louis. The streaky Moss could tip the scales for his club with a hot month at the plate.
2. Hunter Pence, San Francisco Giants
Hunter Pence has always been an igniter for the Giants, but he’s had an injury-plagued season in 2016. After missing June and July, Pence has been among the club’s least productive players in August and September. San Francisco needs him to regain his stroke and spark the offense down the stretch. Even though there are still six games left against the Dodgers, it looks like LA has weathered the storm in the absence of Clayton Kershaw. The Giants’ best shot at the postseason is the NL wild card, and the team needs to end its penchant for one-run losses now.
3. Andrew McCutchen, Pittsburgh Pirates
While there is no question that Andrew McCutchen is not the same player he’s been for the past five years, the Pirates’ most dynamic player has caught fire in the stretch run and leads the team in offense since the start of August. Pittsburgh will need every ounce of the old Cutch to make up the ground it has lost during an ugly eight-game losing streak that continued through September 6.
After a three-game set with St. Louis wraps up on September 7, the Pirates have 15 straight games against the dregs of the National League, with the first 12 against Cincinnati (eight) and Philadelphia (four). If Pittsburgh is to get back in this race, this would be the stretch where it happens, and McCutchen needs to lead the charge.
4. Wilmer Flores, New York Mets
Back in April, if you told Mets fans their playoffs chances would hinge on Wilmer Flores’s September performance out of the cleanup spot, they would have laughed in your face. But that’s the state of things in Flushing, where injuries have left the lineup in tatters and the trade for Jay Bruce has not paid the expected dividends. Yoenis Cespedes has been the one driving force for this club on offense, and the Mets will need the 25-year-old Flores to continue the best season of his career down the stretch to wrestle a NL wild card from San Francisco or St. Louis.
5. Jeff Samardzija, San Francisco Giants
With Johnny Cueto and Madison Bumgarner at the top of the rotation, the Giants have to like their chances in a NL wild card game and division series. But they’ll have to get there first, and Jeff Samardzija can make the rotation look like a lethal weapon or top-heavy object — sometimes in the same week.
If the Shark continues his August run (2.89 ERA, .210 opponent’s average), you have to like San Francisco’s chances holding off the Mets and Cardinals. Otherwise, it could be a long, even-year winter of what-ifs for the Giants and their fans.
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