photo: Kolten Wong and Jacob Stallings (Jeff Curry/Imagn)
The St. Louis Cardinals have played 45 games to date in 2020 and have just three (or four) series remaining. Immediately ahead is an eight-game, two-city road trip to Pittsburgh and Kansas City to be played over the next seven days.
In the following, I will explain why each win against the Pirates may become even more important that each victory over the Royals.
The Cliffs Notes version of the answer is that it has to do with the tiebreakers for playoff seeding. More on that below.
Next Thursday, the Cardinals return home for a five-game set against the Milwaukee Brewers that could decide the post-season fate for both clubs. If needed for playoff seedings, St. Louis would need to play two rescheduled games with Detroit as the home team on Monday, September 28.
That final doubleheader would get St. Louis to 60 games, eliminating percentages deciding playoff berths due to unequal numbers of games played.
This final point is especially relevant today, Thursday, September 17, as the Cardinals fell percentage points behind Cincinnati for the final playoff berth after splitting their Wednesday twin-bill in Milwaukee.
Even after 60 games, the possibility of a tie in the combined view of the league standings used for seedings is probable. That led me to look up the tiebreaker rules. The relevant section follows.
The first tiebreaker is head-to-head record (if applicable). If that’s also a tie, the next tiebreaker is intradivision record. If that’s still a tie, the next is record in the final 20 division games (plus one until the tie is broken).
Let’s break down the first two (as the third is still too wide open to evaluate).
First tiebreaker – Head-to-head record
Reviewing the Cardinals’ records against teams they might tie in the standings provides a generally positive picture:
Milwaukee 2-3 (plus five games remaining)
So, if the Cardinals tie a division rival, they would edge the Reds or remain deadlocked with the Cubs (and move to the second tiebreaker), with the Brewers outcome to be determined.
This tiebreaker could either be used to decide first and/or second place in the division as well as for one of the two wild cards, the seventh and eighth seeds in the National League.
However, if first or second place in the Central Division is not in the offing for St. Louis, other NL teams are also in competition for those same two wild cards.
Second tiebreaker – Intradivision record
This is still too close to call.
Cubs 21-15 (four games remaining)
Cincinnati 19-18 (three to go)
Milwaukee 16-16 (eight ahead)
St. Louis 15-15 (10 to be played)
Other wild card contenders:
Miami 17-14 (nine remaining)
Philadelphia 20-15 (five to go)
San Francisco 15-17 (eight left)
This tells the story why I asserted above that upcoming wins over Pittsburgh (and Milwaukee) may be more valuable than victories over interleague opponent(s) Kansas City (and Detroit).
Wins against division opponents elevate the Cardinals in both the first and second tiebreakers, opposed to results against American League Central squads, which do not factor into either of these two tiebreakers.
Of course, the Cardinals prefer to win every game and will try equally hard to do so, but this clearly illustrates why some wins down the stretch may be even more important that the others.
This final phase begins Thursday night in Pittsburgh against a team that is only playing for its pride, a situation that could prove to be dangerous to the Cardinals’ playoff hopes.
Despite the Bucs’ MLB-worst 14-34 record, they have won three of five over St. Louis to date in 2020, their best record against any opponent.
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