It's hard to believe that there are only six games left in the 2013 season, but here we are. In a lot of ways, these last six games are formality; the Pirates and Reds are both so close to the wild card spots that they can stumble backwards into them at this point, and the Cardinals have enough of a division lead that the wild card is likely the inevitable result for the Pirates and Reds. Still, things are not quite set in stone yet, so I wanted to put together a post with few things to keep in mind for the regular season's final seven days.
I mentioned this last night, but before we get too thick into things I want to point out that the off-day on Thursday lets the pitching shape up really nicely for the Pirates this week. Charlie Morton, Gerrit Cole, and Francisco Liriano are slated to pitch against the Cubs this week. AJ Burnett is scheduled for Friday against the Reds, and then Morton and Cole can go on Saturday and Sunday on a regular four days of rest, should those games be relevant to the playoff race (they almost certainly will be). That will leave Liriano ready on five days of rest for the wild card game on Tuesday. I don't think you can really draw it up any better than that.
So let's start out by assuming that the status quo will hold; the Cardinals win the division and the Pirates and Reds win the wild cards. That's certainly the most likely outcome at this point. In this scenario, the winner of the Pirates/Reds series will almost certainly host the wild card game regardless of the results of the Pirates/Cubs and Reds/Mets series early this week. That's because if the two teams finish the season with the same record, the first tiebreaker to host the game will be head-to-head record and the Pirates and Reds are 8-8 against each other this year. As a result, if the Pirates go into the final series with the Reds with a one game lead over them and lose two of the three games, the teams will end up tied and the Reds will be 10-9 vs. the Pirates, thus earning the nod to host the game. The only way that the series this coming weekend won't definitely determine the tiebreaker host in this scenario is if this week starts out with one team sweeping their opponent (the Pirates play the Cubs, the Reds play the Mets) and the other team losing at least two in their series.
The next thing to mention is that it's not quite an inevitability that the Cardinals will win the division. They're hosting the Nationals in a Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday series this week, and the Nationals are maybe the most dangerous team they could have to play. That's because the Nationals are a good team that seems to finally be playing well, but their elimination number is down to two. In short, only way that the Nats can earn a playoff spot outright at this point is for them to finish the season 6-0, and have either the Pirates or Reds go 0-6. That seems incredibly unlikely. Still, the Nats will likely be gunning hard for the Cardinals this week, especially when you consider last year's NLDS (the Cardinals swiped Game 5 out from underneath the Nats' noses in DC) it doesn't seem impossible that the Nats will take two of three from the Cardinals this week. If that happens and the Pirates sweep the Cubs (or if the Reds sweep the Mets, of course, but hey, this isn't Where Have You Gone, Chris Sabo) suddenly the last weekend is veeeeeery interesting.
There are also Team Entropy options. Should the Pirates finish up tied with the Cardinals or Reds at the top of the NL Central, there would be a one-game playoff on Monday (with the site decided by head-to-head record -- Pirates host the Cardinals, Cardinals host the Reds, Pirates and Reds host determined by the outcome of this weekend's series) in which the winner would go to the NLDS and the loser would play in the NL Wild Card Game on Tuesday. This would be a bit of a terrifying scenario for the Pirates, because it could push Francisco Liriano's start to Monday. That would bring Jeff Locke's spot in the rotation up for the wild card game, should the Pirates lose the hypothetical one-game playoff on Monday on Monday (as I mentioned last night, the off-day on Thursday of this week should let the Pirates finish the season without Locke having to pitch again, since they can go Morton/Cole/Liriano/Burnett/Morton/Cole and have Liriano ready for the wild card game on Tuesday).
A three-way division tie is not technically impossible, though it involves some mental gymastics to get there. If the Pirates sweep the Cubs, the Nationals take two from the Cards, and the Reds take two from the Mets, then over the weekend the Reds take two from the Pirates and the Cubs take two from the Cardinals, everyone would finish with 93-69 records and heartburn. This feels like one heck of a longshot, but let's say that it does somehow happen. In this case, there would be a three-team playoff for the NL Central title with the two losers then playing in the wild card game. Baseball's three team playoffs take an "A-B-C" format, in which which teams A and B play each other in the first game with the winner hosting Team C in the second game for the division title. In the scenario laid out above, the Cardinals would have the first choice because they would have the most common wins (20) among the three teams (note that the Pirates could (I think) end up with the top seed here if you flip their final two series results with the Reds' results in the above- scenario, which would give them 20 common wins and a tiebreaker over the Cardinals -- this is endlessly complicated), while the Pirates would have the second choice and the Reds would go third. Most likely, this scenario would result in the Pirates hosting the Reds at PNC Park on Monday with the winner advancing to host the Cardinals on Tuesday and the loser moving to the Wild Card Game, which would be moved to Wednesday. The winner of that Tuesday game would go to the NLDS, while the loser would join the Monday loser in the Wild Card Game, with the site decided by head-to-head record between whichever two teams end up there.
Let's summarize the important points for this final week. The pitching is set up nicely -- the off-day ensures that Jeff Locke doesn't have to pitch again and that Francisco Liriano will start the wild card game without too much manipulation, unless the Pirates end up mired in division tiebreakers. The Pirates' magic number for a playoff spot is two, and with six games left it seems like that should take care of itself. I'm not going to fret over qualifying for the wild card game unless the magic number remains at two when the last series starts on Friday. The Bucs will almost certainly need to beat the Reds twice to host the wild card game; in addition to that they will need at least one and possibly two wins against the Cubs, depending on what the Reds do against the Mets this week. To earn at least a tie for the division, it seems realistic to think that they would need five wins and some help from the Nationals. It'd be possible with four to tie the Cardinals with four wins (or three, or two), of course, but it seems like wishful thinking to hope that the Cardinals will go any worse than 3-3 this week.
And that's it. Seven days and six games, and then who knows what else beyond it. Take a deep breath. Are you ready?