Wild card race in NL shaping up to be a down-to-the-wire affair

Last week at this time, the Nationals were looking forward to a series in Atlanta and weighing the possibilities of becoming a legitimate contender in the National League East.

It didn't happen.

The Braves won three of four games, leaving the Nationals virtually no chance to win the division. And now they are left with making a one-game wild card playoff game, something Nationals manager Davey Martinez said isn't the ideal situation.

"Anything can happen,'' he said about a wild card game.

And anything can happen in the three-week race to get to be a wild card.

Assuming the Nationals hold on to the first wild card position, the three teams with the best chance to play them are the Chicago Cubs, Arizona Diamondbacks and Milwaukee Brewers.

The Cubs have problems.

Kris Bryant is battling an injury to his right knee. Closer Craig Kimbrel has elbow issues and a 4.11 ERA and their bullpen is shaky overall.

Their two 35-year-old lefties - Cole Hamels and Jon Lester - have ERAs of 7.12 and 5.72 respectively in the second half of the season.

And the Cubs are running out of shortstops. Javier Baez (29 home runs) has a fractured thumb is out for September but could return for October.

His replacement, Addison Russell, has also been sidelined. That means that prospect Nico Hoerner, drafted in 2018 and the first player in that draft to make the majors, played shortstop Monday night in San Diego.

The good news is that outfielder Nick Castellanos, acquired from Detroit before the July 31 deadline, has 14 home runs and a 1.080 OPS as a Cub.

If the Cubs, taking aim at their fifth consecutive postseason appearance, make the wild card game, chances are they would start either Yu Darvish or Jose Quintana.

Darvish has a 2.69 ERA with 74 strikeouts and four walks in 10 second-half starts. Quintana is 7-1 with a 3.67 ERA.

The Cubs play the Cardinals in two series on the final weekends of the season.

The Brewers beat the Cubs five out of seven games to become relevant in the wild card race, and considering Milwaukee's schedule, the Brewers might have an advantage.

The Brewers, who were in the National League Championship Series last season, have only one series against a winning team, St. Louis. The rest of their series are against Miami, San Diego, Pittsburgh and Colorado.

Their offense is powerful with Christian Yelich, the defending NL MVP and a candidate to win again this year, having a 1.039 OPS in the second half.

He's carrying the Brewers, just as he did a year ago.

There is also Ryan Braun (.937 OPS in the second half) and Eric Thames (eight home runs) in the lineup, but rookie second baseman Keston Hiura, hitting .327 with a .400 on-base percentage in the second half, is on the shelf with a hamstring injury.

If the Brewers are in the wild card game, chances are they will pitch Jordan Lyles, who has a 2.51 ERA for the Brewers after pitching the first half of the season with Pittsburgh.

Former Nationals lefty Gio Gonzalez is in the Brewers rotation, but he's had issues with walks, 25 in this last 41 1/3 innings.

The Diamondbacks are the surprise contender considering this was going to be a rebuilding season in Arizona.

They didn't re-sign starter Patrick Corbin or outfielder A.J. Pollock. And the Diamondbacks traded their yearly NL MVP candidate, first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, to the Cardinals before the season and their best starter, Zack Greinke, to the Astros in July.

But Arizona has won 14 of its last 20 games and its rotation has pitched to a 2.88 ERA since Aug. 25. Archie Bradley has been lights-out in the bullpen.

The offense is led by versatile Ketel Marte, who is hitting .360 with a .437 on-base percentage and 12 home runs since the All-Star break.

Could that mean Marte would be in the running for NL MVP along with Yelich, the Dodgers' Cody Bellinger and the Nationals' Anthony Rendon?

The answer would be yes on that.

Arizona infielder Eduardo Escobar has 15 home runs since the break and the Diamondbacks have three former Orioles on their roster: Adam Jones, Christian Walker and Caleb Joseph.

Joseph is a September call-up after a strong showing in the minors, Jones is hitting .278 with a .333 on-base percentage and two home runs since the All-Star break, and Walker, a first baseman, has eight home runs and a .365 on-base percentage.

The Diamondbacks are also a patient team at the plate (4.72 pitches per plate appearances) with efficiency stealing bases (86 percent success).

The Diamondbacks ace pitcher is lefty Robbie Ray, who has 70 strikeouts in his last 56 innings. There is also Alex Young, 25, a lefty with a 3.38 ERA in 10 starts, and Zac Gallen, 24, who has a 2.24 ERA in six starts since moving to Arizona after a trade from Miami.

Ray would start for Arizona in a wild card game, assuming the Diamondbacks don't need him to get into that game.

The Mets and Phillies are on the bubble.

The Nationals' schedule does them no favors with series against the Twins, Cardinals, Braves and Indians.

The Mets, with Jacob de Grom and Noah Syndergaard, have the rotation to make a run, but their bullpen is thin. Philadelphia has to hope that its lineup can score enough runs to overcome inconsistent pitching.

Yet the Phillies still have a five-game series in Washington the final week of the season.

Could a wild card berth come down to Nationals lefty Sean Doolittle pitching to Phillies lefty Bryce Harper?

Now that would be wild.

Game 143 lineups: Nats at Twins
Daunting September stretch continues in Minnesota

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