Now that the Nationals have become the new champions of the National League East, they have a chance to finish with the best record in the league.
They are tied with Cincinnati for that position, and if they finish with the best record, they’ll have home-field advantage if they make it to the National League Championship Series. If they tie, the Nationals have the tiebreaker by virtue of winning the season series.
And the best record means they’ll start the Division Series on Sunday, and not Saturday, allowing 21-game winner Gio Gonzalez to pitch with his normal rest.
But other than that, having the best record doesn’t mean much. It certainly doesn’t guarantee an easy ride through the postseason. History shows the October teams are too even for that.
Since the NL and American League become three-division leagues in 1995, only three teams with the best record have won the World Series: the 1998 and 2009 Yankees, and the 2007 Red Sox.
Four teams - the ‘95 Indians, ‘99 Braves, ‘03 Yankees and ‘04 Cardinals - have made it to the World Series and lost.
The biggest loser was the 2001 Mariners, who finished with 116 wins and were beaten by the Yankees in the ALCS. The Yankees lost to Arizona in the World Series.
The Mariners’ lineup included Ichiro Suzuki, Edgar Martinez and Bret Boone. Freddy Garcia, Aaron Sele and Jamie Moyer led the rotation and the closer, Kazuhiro Sasaki, had 45 saves.
“The best record doesn’t help you win games in the postseason,” Twins manager Ron Gardenhire says. “Teams are even in October. It’s a matter of which team gets hot and executes the best.”
If the postseason comes to down to the best bullpen, as it usually does, then there are interesting story lines in the NL:
Statistically, the Reds and Braves have the NL’s two best bullpens. The Braves bullpen has more rest than it did last season when tired arms cost them a chance to go to the postseason. The Reds have fortified their setup roles, and lefty Aroldis Chapman is lights-out as a closer. The Giants won the 2010 World Series with closer Brian Wilson, but if the Giants return to the World Series, they will do it using a bullpen-by-committee with Sergio Romo, Jeremy Affeldt and Javier Lopez. So far, it has worked with the committee saving 17 of the last 19. The Nationals bullpen can keep pace with the emergence of Drew Storen as the closer.
The Cardinals, who can clinch a wild card spot tonight with a win in St. Louis and a Dodgers loss on the West Coast, are getting hot at the right time, much like last season when they came out of nowhere to make the postseason and win the World Series. The Cardinals are 11-3 since Sept. 16, and tonight, Chris Carpenter, their ace pitcher who missed the first five months with injury, gets a chance to pitch the clincher. Talk about an inspirational story.
There’s going to be plenty of debate about whether the one-game wild card play-in game is a good thing. But maybe Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen has the right idea: Shorten the season to 157 games and make that wild card round a best-of-three. The only negative is the division champions don’t want that much time off between the end of the season and the start of the postseason.
In some ways, the Nationals are similar to the 2007 Phillies, who went into the postseason and got beat by the Rockies. The Phillies said that losing in the postseason was a valuable experience that paid dividends later.
There was irony in the Pirates’ 2-1 win against the Braves on Monday night, eliminating the Braves from the division hunt. Jeff Locke, one of the pitchers the Braves traded to get Nate McLouth a couple of years ago, threw his best game as a big leaguer in beating the Braves. Now the Braves will prepare to play either the Cardinals or Dodgers in Atlanta on Friday in the wild card game. The Braves’ biggest concern heading into the postseason is the offense, which has scored two or fewer runs in 12 of their last 25 games.
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