MLB Playoff Watch: Dodgers set to clinch division as Mets and Braves battle


By Rowan Kavner
FOX Sports MLB Writer

With a few weeks left to go, the same two questions remain in the National League playoff race: Will the Mets or the Braves win the East, and can the Brewers make a push for a final wild card?

The West has been a foregone conclusion for months; the Dodgers could wrap up the division as early as Tuesday. The Cardinals‘ second-half surge has them comfortably ahead in the Central. There’s still a giant cushion between the Dodgers, Mets, Braves, Cardinals and everyone else in the NL. 

The Braves have been on the Mets’ tail throughout the second half — they entered the break 2.5 games back — and finally jumped into the lead briefly, only to soon fall back into second place. The Braves sit 1.5 games back as of Tuesday. It will be a sprint to the finish in the East, with the second-place finisher almost assured of the top wild card.

That leaves the 78-62 Phillies, 77-64 Padres and 75-66 Brewers all vying for the final two playoff spots.

LOS ANGELES DODGERS

Arrow pointing: Up
Overall record: 97-43, first in NL West
Since trade deadline: 27-10
Past 10 games: 7-3
Playoff odds (via FanGraphs): 100%

It’s tempting to say the arrow is closer to neutral here, only because the Dodgers’ once otherworldly pace is now simply a record-setting one. With 22 games still to play, the Dodgers became the first team to clinch a spot in the postseason on Monday. They could have reason to celebrate again Tuesday, with their magic number to clinch the division at one.

Tony Gonsolin, an NL Cy Young contender, is still experiencing soreness in his forearm and hasn’t pitched this month. Blake Treinen returned from a partial tear in his shoulder capsule, only to be placed back on the injured list due to shoulder tightness. Those are pitchers the Dodgers were and still are hoping will contribute in October. Als, the long ball has started to get to Andrew Heaney, and the past two starts for Dustin May haven’t been as crisp as his first two coming off Tommy John surgery.

But that’s poking holes in a pitching staff led by Julio Urías, Clayton Kershaw and Tyler Anderson, who have combined to go 4-0 with a 2.13 ERA in September. Anderson’s work shouldn’t be ignored in an All-Star season that began with him in long relief.

At the plate, the Dodgers continue to rake. They boast the reigning NL Player of the Week in Freddie Freeman — he went 12-for-22 with three homers last week to take home his third weekly honor of the year — and Justin Turner and Max Muncy continue to heat up at the right time. 

NEW YORK METS

Arrow pointing: Neutral 
Overall record: 89-53, first in NL East
Since trade deadline: 24-15
Past 10 games: 5-5
Playoff odds: 100%

Matchups against the Nationals, Pirates (twice), Marlins and Cubs while trying to lock down the top spot in the East? Sounds great!

Well, not exactly.

The Mets are 5-5 to start that stretch, good enough to hop back into first place in their division but not as emphatically as they might have hoped. The offense has a highly respectable .808 OPS in September, but it has come and gone (they’ve scored three runs or fewer five times this month and seven runs or more four times). The most encouraging sign is Eduardo Escobar, who is suddenly tearing the cover off the baseball. He had a .652 OPS when the month began; that’s up to .724 after he started the month 18-for-39 with five homers.

All eyes will turn to Max Scherzer and his health as he recovers from oblique irritation. In the bullpen, Mychal Givens has had a fine month, but the relievers beyond Edwin Diaz and Adam Ottavino haven’t inspired a ton of confidence. The Mets’ last save chance was Sept. 1 — not what they would’ve anticipated in this highly winnable stretch.

ATLANTA BRAVES

Arrow pointing: Neutral
Overall record: 87-54, second in NL East
Since trade deadline: 24-13
Past 10 games: 7-3
Playoff odds: 100%

The Braves were surging, winning eight straight to hop the Mets for the first time this year. Then they cooled off.

Seattle‘s George Kirby held the offense in check Saturday, the Braves dropped a heartbreaker after rallying for five runs in the ninth Sunday, and the offense again was late to the party Monday. Back to the Sunday game: It was the second blown save of the month for Kenley Jansen and the first time he allowed two homers in a game since Oct. 1, 2018. Jansen has the most saves in the National League this year, but he also has seven blown saves, three of which have come in his past seven appearances. 

The Braves are also going to need Ronald Acuña Jr. and Matt Olson to get going as they make a late push for the top spot in the East. Olson has four hits in his past 45 at-bats.

On the bright side, reliever Raisel Iglesias continues putting up zeroes regularly. He has allowed one run since being acquired, while the top of the rotation looks incredibly formidable with Max Fried and Spencer Strider, who allowed a career-high nine hits Monday but still struck out nine. Strider has 120 strikeouts in his past 78 innings. 

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ST. LOUIS CARDINALS

Arrow pointing: Up
Overall record: 83-58, first in NL Central
Since trade deadline: 28-10
Past 10 games: 7-3
Playoff odds: 99.8%

It’s rather remarkable just how significantly the Cardinals have blown this thing open in the Central, considering that they trailed the Brewers at the break. They’re eight games up after Monday’s slate of action and sprinting toward their first first-place finish in three years. They’ve also had — and will continue to enjoy — one of the easiest second-half schedules among NL contenders. Still, it’s one thing to get an easy matchup and another to take advantage of it. Since losing two of three to the Rockies on Aug. 9-11, the Cards haven’t dropped a series.

The bats of Nolan Arenado (6-for-34) and Lars Nootbaar (2-for-28) have started to cool down this month, but Tommy Edman and Corey Dickerson have helped make up for that. Jordan Montgomery and Jose Quintana still look terrific in their new uniforms. The bigger concern right now is the bullpen, which has stumbled to an NL-worst 6.61 ERA this month. 

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES

Arrow pointing: Slightly up
Overall record: 78-62, third in NL East
Since trade deadline: 23-14
Past 10 games: 6-4
Playoff odds: 91.8%

Matchups against the Marlins and Nationals have helped the Phillies right the ship since getting swept in San Francisco. They’ll need to take advantage of another upcoming series in Miami before a treacherous stretch featuring two series against the Braves sandwiched around a two-game set against the Blue Jays

The only team with a higher OPS this month than the Phillies (.825) is the Dodgers (.844), which is especially noteworthy considering that Bryce Harper started September in a 5-for-29 rut and Nick Castellanos is out due to an oblique strain. The absence of Zack Wheeler has been felt, as the starters not named Aaron Nola have struggled this month (5.83 ERA). On the bright side, the bullpen just saw the return of Seranthony Dominguez, which should provide some relief. 

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SAN DIEGO PADRES

Arrow pointing: Down
Overall record: 77-64, second in NL West
Since trade deadline: 17-18
Past 10 games: 5-5
Playoff odds: 82.2%

This was supposed to be the time the Padres made their run. It’s hard to believe that instead, they’ve had a losing record since adding Juan Soto, Josh Bell and Brandon Drury to their lineup. Of course, the Fernando Tatis Jr. suspension still hangs like a dark cloud over what this Padres season could have been. Still, there was certainly more to be expected from the group in place.

The Padres’ pitching staff is 4-5 with an NL-worst 6.41 ERA in September. Their offense holds a .202 batting average this month, the worst mark in baseball. Soto is 3-for-28 with no extra-base hits. Drury has been out most of September due to a concussion. Bell is slashing .205/.322/.307 since joining the Padres. The club’s 14 homers in September raise their OPS slightly, but it is not at all what general manager A.J. Preller had to have envisioned just a month ago.

And yet, even after dropping five of their past eight games to the first-place Dodgers and the Diamondbacks, the Padres still hold a wild-card spot. Josh Hader is starting to look a little more like himself. There are signs of life, but for this group, time is running low to get into gear. 

MILWAUKEE BREWERS

Arrow pointing: Neutral
Overall record: 75-66, second in NL Central
Since trade deadline: 18-20
Past 10 games: 6-4
Playoff odds: 26.1%

The Brewers find themselves largely in the same spot they’ve been the past few weeks: sitting just outside the playoff picture, two games back of a wild card. 

The next 10 days will go a long way toward determining their fate, with series ahead against three first-place teams in the Cardinals, Yankees and Mets. If the Brewers can get through that around .500, they finish the season against the Reds, Cardinals, Marlins and D-backs and could make a late September run for a playoff spot, despite their second-half struggles.

Rowan Kavner covers the Dodgers and NL West for FOX Sports. He previously was the Dodgers’ editor of digital and print publications. Follow him on Twitter at @RowanKavner.


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