This should be a great race. The Braves saw Martin Prado return last week and swung the trade for Derrek Lee. The Phillies’ injured starters — Chase Utley, Shane Victorino and Ryan Howard — are injured no longer. We’re nearing September and we’re anticipating one of those down-to-the-final-weekend chases that emblazoned 1991 and 1993 in our memory, but …
It won’t happen.
After that 3-6 road trip that allowed the Phillies to creep close, the Braves have gone 13-6. As of this morning, the Braves led the Phils by 2 1/2 games — exactly the spread on Aug. 1, the day that road trip ended. Both clubs are tearing it up and both have geared up and we’re all getting geeked up, but two little words offer a reason to calm down. The words: “Wild card.”
The Phillies top the wild card standings by two games over St. Louis and San Francisco. Ergo, the Braves sit atop the final National League playoff spot on a 4 1/2-game cushion. Even if the Braves can’t hold off the Phillies — the belief here is that they can and will — they still have a fallback position.
The Cardinals are 9-8 in August; the Giants are 9-11. St. Louis is closer to the Reds, who lead the NL Central by 3 1/2 games, than to the Braves. San Francisco is six games behind the Padres in the West and has lost four of its past five series.
Of the Giants’ 37 remaining games, 22 are against teams above .500. Of the Cardinals’ 41 remaining games, 25 are against teams under .500. (This includes a postponed game against Florida, the makeup date for which hasn’t been set.) If either is apt to mount a late challenge, it’s going to be St. Louis, and the Cardinals seem a more pressing concern for the Reds than the Braves or Phillies.
For all the time we’ve spent casting our glance toward Philly, the cold truth is that both the Braves and the Phils are apt to play beyond the 162nd game. Charlie Manuel, the Phillies’ homespun manager, told reporters last week, “We don’t care about the wild card.” But it’s better to get into the playoffs, duh, than to sit at home. And we know from history that being the wild card is no impediment to postseason success.
From 2002 through 2007, every World Series included at least one wild-card qualifier, and three of those teams — the 2002 Angels, the 2003 Marlins and the 2004 Red Sox — won it all. And if the playoffs began today, the second-place Phils would probably be favored to emerge from the National League bracket. If you’re Philadelphia, which has won the NL East three seasons running and has reached the World Series the past two Octobers, all you want is to qualify.
Yes, it’s different now. In 1991, the Braves and Dodgers spent every day from Aug. 22 on within two games of each other. In 1993 the Braves went from 9 1/2 behind the Giants on Aug. 9 to four ahead on Sept. 17 to tied after 161 games. Then Tom Glavine beat Colorado on the season’s final Sunday and David Justice hit a home run — that parlay would strike again in Game 6 of the 1995 World Series — and the Braves watched as the Giants, who finished with the best record in franchise history, lost to the Dodgers and took their 103 wins and went home.
That’s considered the Last Great Pennant Chase, for good reason. The wild card arrived in 1994, which was the strike year, and was implemented in 1995. The bulk of breathless baseball finishes since have involved the wild card, not a division title. An exception, sort of, came last year, when the Tigers blew a three-game lead with four to play and lost the AL Central to Minnesota in a one-game playoff. But even with the extra game, the Twins wound up with 87 victories.
The Braves already have 73. If they split their final 38 games, they’ll have 92 wins, and 92 wins has been enough to claim the National League wild card every season since 2002. Put simply, they’ll have to collapse not to make the playoffs. And they’re not going to collapse. Their pitching won’t allow it.
This team is going to make the playoffs. So is Charlie Manuel’s team. And they’ll see each other in mid-October, a World Series berth on the line.