Our usual pennant-race habits haven't quite caught up to the second Wild Card.
At least, mine haven't. I've been treating the Cardinals and their competitors like I used to treat the teams competing for the old one, which the Atlanta Braves have just about flop-proofed at 85-63--that is, teams who are just a little eliminated for a division race and teams who have been steamrolled by a 100-game-winner and teams who are often better than the wrong division champion. NL Wild Card teams over the last 10 years usually won right around 90 games; they were stout teams, endlessly competent teams who just happened to be in-division with a team that flirted with 95 or 100.
Usually, then, it's a little novel to be a struggling, borderline-dysfunctional team competing for a spot in the postseason. One team at most--the 2006 Cardinals, for instance--backs in, usually as a result of a strikingly weak division and some well-placed hot streaks and rehab assignments.
Usually it wasn't the Wild Card team, because they had the rest of the National League to compete with. But if the Wild Card team was usually a 90-game winner, and the runner-up a few wins behind, the depth for this kind of competition usually ran out pretty fast. In 2011 the Cardinals won 90, the Braves won 89, the Giants won 86, and then the Dodgers won 82.
This year the Cardinals are on pace to win 85, and they're the team to beat. Every year will be different, but I think we need to consider the possibility, in the two-Wild-Card era, that nobody rolls to the second Wild Card--that nobody leads it wire-to-wire, or finds another gear in June and blows all its second-runner-up competitors away. I think, in a way, everybody backs into the second Wild Card spot.
The dynamics of an 85-win race are easy enough to see in recent history. In the 2006 NL Central race the Cardinals won at the last minute by going 12-17 in the home stretch, narrowly maintaining their division lead over the Astros (16-12) and the Reds (13-15.) Jeff Weaver proved to be a difference-maker, and Walt Jocketty's attempt to conjure another Larry Walker turned into Preston Wilson. Last year's 90-win Cardinals were heavily reliant on Albert Pujols at first base; last year's 85-win Cardinals would have been making do with Mark Hamilton.
Race might actually be a misnomer for teams in the 85-win range. 90-win teams race to the finish; 85-win teams scramble to the finish, like three-legged racers or scavenger hunters, falling over on occasion and yelling obscenities and losing, ultimately, on a technicality, or because somebody's third leg was a ringer.
These St. Louis Cardinals are starting Pete Kozma; they're hoping to ride a 37-year-old with 0 IP and one rib fewer than he started with to a strong finish; they're hemmorhaging value from gimpy veterans and their Cy Young contender is a 33-year-old third-starter whose contract was, for two years out of four, a running joke.
All of that's true. But the Los Angeles Dodgers are running a seemingly broken Matt Kemp into the ground, and could, until recently, have upgraded to Mark Hamilton at first base. They've given 150 plate appearances to Tony Gwynn, Jr., Bobby Abreu, Adam Kennedy, Juan Uribe, and somebody called Elian Herrera.
The Philadelphia Phillies are hemmorhaging value from even more gimpy veterans, and briefly replaced Ryan Howard with Hector Luna, and have invested two third of a season into Ty Wigginton. They've already had a fire sale. The Brewers have had problems all year with run differential translating into wins (weird) and the Pirates are 3-11 this month, and have looked every bit of it.
None of these teams is very good, and none of them, even with a last-minute charge into the postseason, will inspire sportswriter paeans to their sheer consistency and force of will. All of them have been left for dead multiple times, have been booed by their fanbase, have been accused, probably, of not caring enough about The Little Things.
I'm not saying this race isn't exciting, or that the Cardinals should be this whelming, or that the only way to enjoy the rest of the season is to imagine the Wild Card competitors as a bunch of Keystone Cops trying with all their might to fit into the same door at the same time. I'm not even saying the second Wild Card is a bad idea.
I'm just saying that the door is wider open than it used to be, and somebody, this year, is probably going to walk through it on accident.