While much hoopla understandably surrounds the commencement of hostilities between the Mets and Nationals, the ultimate stakes in this impending battle will likely be far less monumental than the buildup would suggest. This is, in the end, less about a first place finish than it is about a single game. Or the lack thereof.
Yes, it’s ultimately about avoiding that one game – that wildcard playoff.
Wait, you say. How can you just hand both teams a playoff spot in mid-May? The Mets have lost four straight, and too much can happen, even with a vaunted defending league champion like the Mets and a talented team like the Nats which has seemingly rebooted under Dusty Baker.
Just how much this Washington squad has improved – or recovered – we will find out beginning on Tuesday, when the two NL East titans meet for the first of 19 times. They will play more than 15% of their remaining schedule against each other.
But any objective assessment of the 2016 National League will reveal the baseball version of income inequality – a bifurcated league in which the gulf between the rich and poor is greater than any time in recent memory (though arguably somewhat less than anticipated). Most people acknowledge that the Mets, Cubs, Giants, Nationals and Dodgers are the haves, a top tier far removed from the many have-nots in the bottom tier – the Braves, Phillies, Brewers, Reds, Rockies and Padres (the Phils’ surprising start notwithstanding). That leaves only the Cardinals, Pirates, Marlins and Diamondbacks in the middle tier.
Remembering that five teams in each league now qualify for the post-season, do you really believe the Mets and Nats won’t both be playing in October?
Well, It’s certainly possible. Steven Matz could be shut down. Matt Harvey could continue his current descent into mediocrity. Jacob deGrom’s diminished velocity could catch up with him. Zack Wheeler might not help much. The bullpen could regress somewhat to the expected mean. And the offense could continue its over reliance on the long ball and woeful situational hitting. But it would be beyond difficult to conclude that this team is not one of the five best in the league.
And once October rolls around, we all know it’s a new season. Hell, just 18 months ago, two wildcard teams that failed to win 90 games made the World Series.
Disaster could befall the Nationals as well – remember how injuries to the heart of their lineup helped derail them last season – but they sure as heck look like one of the five best, perhaps one of the two or three best, in the senior circuit. Max Scherzer is Scherzer, Bryce Harper is Harper, Daniel Murphy has continued his rebirth as an impact bat that commenced last October, Strasburg’s new seven year deal is a lift, and the upgrade to Dusty from poor ol’ Matt Williams has got to be worth a fair amount in its own right.
These teams now begin a season series that promises to be highly competitive and beyond entertaining. But other than a possible home field advantage in the NLDS and NLCS, the only penalty for coming up short in the divisional race will be…one game. And while any single baseball game is a roll of the dice, would fans of either team be terribly uncomfortable with Syndergaard or Scherzer on the mound for that one game?
Yes, winning the divisional crown is a badge of honor – rightfully so, as it is hard earned over the course of a 162 game marathon. But you won’t find Nationals fans strutting their division titles in ‘12 and ‘14, because they were followed by playoff collapses. And you won’t find Giants fans lamenting their second place finish in 2014 – same with fans of the Cardinals in ‘11, the Red Sox in ‘04, the Marlins in ‘03 or ‘97 or the Angels in ‘02. In fact, a wildcard team made the World Series in six straight seasons starting in 2002 – before there was a second wildcard – and a dozen 2nd place teams have qualified for the October Classic since the inception of the wildcard in 1994.
Hopefully, this reality will help us not just survive, but relax a bit more than we might ordinarily amidst the inevitable roller-coaster of emotions, as the beasts of the NL East prepare for what Ron Darling has termed the real start of the season.