Anatomy of a minor miracle: How the Dodgers can reach the postseason
Going into Monday night, four teams are on the brink of elimination from contention. The Angels (88-71), Rays (88-71) and White Sox (83-76) no longer have any control of their destinies; not only would a loss end their chances, but even if they win all three of their remaining games, a single victory by Oakland (91-68) over Texas (93-66) over the next three games would eliminate both Anaheim and Tampa Bay. Likewise a single victory by Detroit (86-73) over Kansas City (71-88) would close the books on Chicago.
The Dodgers (84-75) have slightly more hope, but while they have won five in a row, their destiny isn’t entirely in their hands, and they no longer have much margin for error. It would take a combination of them losing to the Giants (93-66) and the Cardinals (86-73) beating the Reds (96-63) in order to knock them out tonight, but any combination of Dodger losses and Cardinal wins totaling two over the next three days would extinguish their chances. If they lose one game, they have to hope that the Cardinals are swept by the Reds, and even if they run the table, they have to hope that St. Louis can do no better than a single win against Cincinnati. Long shots though they may be — the Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds give them a 5.0 percent chance of making the postseason — let’s take a closer look at exactly what has to transpire for their miracle to come true, including a fair bit of wishful thinking while squinting at small sample sizes.
The Giants have been on easy street since clinching the NL West flag with a win over the Padres on September 22 — the first team to claim a division title this year. They’re 4-3 since then against the Diamondbacks and Padres, and they’ve had the Dodgers’ number this year, winning nine out of their 15 head-to-head matchups thus far. The last time they were in Dodger Stadium, from August 20-22, they came in half a game out of first place but swept three from the boys in blue, capturing the division lead for good; in fact, their 27-11 record since then is the best in baseball.
Even with their winning streak, the Dodgers’ record in September was just 14-12, and their remade lineup averaged just 3.5 runs per game for the month. On paper, they don’t appear to have the pitching matchups going in their favor until the season’s final game, but a closer look gives them a few glimmers of hope. On Monday night, Aaron Harang squares off against Matt Cain. Though he hasn’t allowed more than three runs in any start since July 30, Harang hasn’t lasted six innings in a start since Aug. 18. During that latter span, he has just a 16/16 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 30 2/3 innings, and the Dodgers have won just one of those six starts, though lousy offensive support — 11 total runs in those five starts, with no more than three in any of them — is partly to blame. Harang hasn’t faced the Giants this year, which may help his cause; he yielded a 2.16 ERA in four starts against them last year. Meanwhile, Los Angeles has actually won two of Cain’s three starts against them this year, despite the Giants’ ace lasting at least seven innings all three times and compiling a 2.53 ERA, a 12/2 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and not surrendering a home run. It has been more a matter of L.A. outlasting Cain, as it scored two 10th inning runs off Sergio Romo to beat the Giants on July 27, and one off Jeremy Affeldt to beat them on Sept. 8.
Tuesday’s game is a battle of southpaws, pitting Chris Capuano against Barry Zito. Like Harang, Capuano has been wobbly as of late, lasting six innings or more just once in his last five turns and yielding five home runs in 26 2/3 innings in that span. His best effort in September did come against the Giants opposite Cain on September 8; he delivered seven innings and allowed two runs despite three walks and just three strikeouts. On the other hand, he was rocked for six runs in five innings by the Giants on August 22, his only other time facing them this season. Zito, the butt of so many jokes due to his $126 million contract and his increasing irrelevance in San Francisco, has delivered a 4.19 ERA as the team’s fifth starter, and comes in on something of a roll, having allowed just six runs in 24 2/3 innings over his past four starts, a streak began with 6 1/3 scoreless innings against the Dodgers on Sept. 9. In all, he’s faced the Dodgers four times this year, allowing seven runs in 24 2/3 innings despite an unimpressive 15/11 strikeout-to-walk ratio; the two teams have split those four decisions.
If the Dodgers can remain alive until Wednesday, ace Clayton Kershaw will take the mound, something the defending NL Cy Young winner has done just three times after September 4 due to a tear in his right hip labrum. When he has pitched, he’s been more or less the guy in the catalog, yielding three runs (two earned) in four September starts while striking out 29 in 27 innings. The only real shortcoming in those starts has been his 13 walks, five of which came over five innings against the Reds on Sept. 23, his first start in 12 days. Kershaw has faced the Giants four times this season, allowing six runs in 31 innings, with a 32/4 strikeout-to-walk ratio. His opponent for that matchup would be Ryan Vogelsong, who has been rocked for a 6.38 ERA over an 11-start span since the beginning of August. Vogelsong has made three starts against the Dodgers, but none since July 29, shortly after Hanley Ramirez was acquired via trade, but before Shane Victorino or Adrian Gonzalez showed up. In those three starts, Vogelsong held the Dodgers to three runs (two earned) in 20 1/3 innings, but he struck out just nine while walking seven. Despite his receiving a grand total of four runs of support, the Giants won two of those three games.
While all of that is going on, the Cardinals will be hosting the Reds, who are tied with the Nationals for the league’s best record and thus the right to face the wild-card winner in the Division Series. As such, Cincinnati has to balance its desire for home field advantage with the need not to tip its hand too much against a potential opponent whom it may face again later this week; one might expect Reds starters to get quicker hooks than usual. The two teams have split their season series thus far, 6-6 .
Monday night’s game pairs lefty Jaime Garcia for the Cardinals against righty Bronson Arroyo of the Reds, a matchup that favors the Reds given Cincinnati’s righty-heavy lineup. The former, who missed two and a half months with labrum and rotator cuff tears, has pitched well since returning, delivering a 3.33 ERA, five quality starts out of eight and a 41/10 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 48 2/3 innings. One of those non-quality starts came against the Reds on Aug. 25, when he yielded four runs in six innings. He has faced the Reds three times this season, and while he has yielded a seemingly innocuous 4.08 ERA against them, he’s been hit at a .352/.397/.465 clip. Arroyo has faced the Cardinals just once this year, holding them to three runs in eight innings way back on April 19.
Tuesday night’s game features Chris Carpenter against Mat Latos, a matchup that appears to favor the Cardinals. Carpenter, who started Game 7 of last year’s World Series, missed most of this season due to complications from what was eventually diagnosed as thoracic outlet syndrome. In two starts since returning from surgery, he has yielded four runs in 11 innings, albeit against the Astros and Cubs, the league’s doormats. Latos has been torched for a 9.77 ERA in three starts totaling 15 2/3 innings against St. Louis this year, the first of which came during an ugly 14-start stretch in which he was lit for a 5.20 ERA. Over his last 18 starts, he’s found a groove, delivering a 2.45 ERA — big shifts in BABIP (.307 to .245) and home run rate (1.81 to 0.65), neither fully sustainable, belie that — but even then, he was hit for seven runs in five innings in his most recent turn against the Cards on Aug. 24.
Wednesday’s game, should there still be something on the line, would pair Adam Wainwright against Homer Bailey. Wainwright, in his first year back from Tommy John surgery, has improved steadily as the season has gone on. Through his first 12 turns, he yielded a 4.75 ERA, while through his last 20, he has trimmed that to 3.38; the big difference has been a drop in his home run rate, from 1.0 to 0.5 over that span. None of his three starts against the Reds have been quality starts; he has yielded 10 runs in 17 innings, though his most recent turn, a 5 2/3-inning, two-run effort on Aug. 26, was his best. Bailey, fresh off a no-hitter last Friday against the Pirates, has finally delivered on the promise that made him a blue-chip prospect, with a 3.75 ERA across a career-high 204 innings. He’s been roughed up by St. Louis in two of his three starts, allowing 11 runs (10 earned) in 19 2/3 innings, most recently as Wainwright’s opposite number on Aug. 26.
In all, the odds still strongly favor St. Louis emerging with the second wild-card slot, but each game carries the chance that the Dodgers can keep hope alive. Still, it would take a sweep of San Francisco combined with a Cincinnati sweep of St. Louis in order for the Dodgers to make it in without having to win a play-in game. Should one be required — again, either via the Dodgers going 3-0 while the Cardinals go 1-2, or the Dodgers going 2-1 while the Cardinals go 0-3 — the tiebreaker would take place on Thursday in Los Angeles by dint of the Dodgers’ 6-5 record against the Cardinals. That matchup would feature either Joe Blanton (4.99 ERA in 10 starts since being acquired) or possibly Josh Beckett on three days’ rest (2.97 ERA in seven starts since being acquired) against Kyle Lohse (2.86 ERA). That’s a matchup that would likely favor St. Louis, but it’s the best the Dodgers can muster. A one-in-20 shot will have to suffice.