Playoff race: Can the St. Louis Cardinals get the two seed?

Apr 25, 2022; St. Louis, Missouri, USA; New York Mets catcher Tomas Nido (3) flips his bat after striking out against the St. Louis Cardinals during the seventh inning at Busch Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 25, 2022; St. Louis, Missouri, USA; New York Mets catcher Tomas Nido (3) flips his bat after striking out against the St. Louis Cardinals during the seventh inning at Busch Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports /

The new playoff format in MLB has provided some late-season intrigue: can the St. Louis Cardinals catch the NL East leaders and secure a first-round bye in the playoffs?

As the St. Louis Cardinals take hold of the NL Central, it’s fair to wonder if they should be aiming higher. With the new playoff format in baseball this season, the top two division winners by record will receive a first-round bye directly into the divisional series round.

Bypassing the wild card game could prove to be the difference in a long playoff run. While the Los Angeles Dodgers have been in pole position for the one seed in the National League since spring training, the second bye has recently fallen into reach. Locked in a fierce battle for the NL East, the New York Mets and Atlanta Braves have seen their lead over the Cardinals grow smaller in recent weeks.

CURRENT STANDINGS (as of September 16):

Mets: 90-55 (one game lead over Atlanta)

Braves: 88-55

Cardinals: 84-60 (five and a half games behind New York)

Is it possible for St. Louis to win the two seed and avoid the wild card round? Let’s dive into the remaining schedules to see how the final standings might shake out.

Cardinals: 18 games remaining (three off days + a doubleheader)

vs Reds (four games)

@ Padres (three games)

@ Dodgers (three games)

@ Brewers (two games)

vs Pirates (three games)

@ Pirates (three games)

The Cardinals have to capitalize against the Reds and Pirates. Pittsburgh is playing better as of late, and both teams have young prospects who will relish the opportunity to play spoiler.  But for St. Louis, going at least 7-3 in those ten games against two of the worst teams in baseball will be massive.

The west coast road trip and two-game set in Milwaukee provide a real challenge. There’s no doubt in my mind that the Cardinals will be ready to battle in each of those eight games. A playoff atmosphere will bring out the best in each team. It wouldn’t be pretty, but a 4-4 record on the road the next few weeks is a reasonable goal.

That conservative estimate brings the Cardinals to 11-7 over their final 18 games. Almost definitely enough to clinch the division, is it enough to steal a first round bye from the NL East?

Mets: 17 games remaining (three off days)

vs Pirates (three games)

@ Brewers (three games)

@ Athletics (three games)

vs Marlins (two games)

@ Braves (three games)

vs Nationals (three games)

The Mets share two common opponents with the Cardinals. The Pirates, who took one of three from the Mets at the beginning of September, and the Brewers, who are fighting for their playoff lives. The Nationals, Marlins, and Athletics are all eliminated from the playoffs, but Washington and Miami are division rivals who might enjoy one last chance to be a thorn in the side of the division leaders.

If the Cardinals go 11-7, the Mets would have to finish 5-12 for there to be a tie. Even then, the Mets hold the tiebreaker over the Cardinals, leading the division series 5-2.

Braves: 19 games remaining (one off day)

vs Phillies (three games)

vs Nationals (three games)

@ Phillies (four games)

@ Nationals (three games)

vs Mets (three games)

@ Marlins (three games)

The Braves have the most games left to be played and the fewest off-days remaining. Plus, each of their remaining opponents are in the division. The Braves could lose seven against the Phillies and drop into a wild card, they could sweep the Mets and take firm control of the division, or they could play .500 baseball and nothing will really change.

Clearly, Atlanta is the team that could cause some chaos in the race for a first-round bye. Unfortunately for the St. Louis Cardinals, the Braves lead the season series 4-3, which gives Atlanta the tiebreaker.

I was very conservative in my predicted record, and the result was the Cardinals locked in as the three seed. Even in the best-case scenario, the Cardinals win a lot of baseball games down the stretch and put some pressure on the Mets and Braves– maybe something unlikely happens. As we know quite well, no lead is safe during a playoff run.

This time of year, however, all you can control is your own dugout. The NL East race is exciting and worth keeping an eye on, but the sole focus in St. Louis should be winning the division and preparing for October.

Next. 3 playoff predictions for the St. Louis Cardinals. dark