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Cardinal Playoff Scenarios—They Just Need 1 Win to Clinch a Playoff Spot and Don’t Need Help

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At the time of this writing, there are still two playoff spots up for grabs in the National League. The Los Angeles Dodgers have clinched the #1 seed, the Atlanta Braves have clinched the #2 seed, and the San Diego Padres have clinched the #4 seed. The Chicago Cubs, Cincinnati Reds and Miami Marlins have also clinched playoff berths. In addition to the Cards, the San Francisco Giants, Philadelphia Phillies, Milwaukee Brewers, and New York Mets are all technically still in the race for the final two spots.

I decided to write this piece because I feel there’s a bit of confusion out there on what exactly the Cards must do over the final two games to make the playoffs. There are some reports that the Cardinals can clinch a playoff spot today with a win over the Brewers and a loss by either Cincinnati or the Phillies. My ultimate thesis here is that the Cards will clinch a playoff spot with just one win over the Brewers over the final 2 games, and it doesn’t matter what anyone else does.

IF CARDS GO 2-0

If the Cards win their final two games against the Brewers, they will clinch the #5 seed and travel to San Diego to play the Padres in the Wild Card round, unless the Cubs lose both of their final two games against the White Sox. I’ll get to that exception in a second, but first I’ll explain why the Cards will be the #5 seed in every other case without the need to play the doubleheader against the Tigers.

If the Cardinals go 2-0, the Brewers will be eliminated. Let’s suppose the Cubs win at least once and every other club in the race as well as the Marlins and Reds also win all of their games to close out the schedule. The Cubs would be the #3 seed. The Reds and the Marlins would both have a 32-28 record, which would give them a .533 winning percentage. But the Cardinals at 31-27 would have a .534 winning percentage. In this situation, winning percentage will control, and the Cardinals would not be forced to play the doubleheader because it would not affect who makes the playoffs or who has one of the top 4 seeds (home field advantage). No tiebreakers would be needed, and the Cardinals would win out despite playing fewer games than the Marlins and Reds, and that’s just the way the cookie crumbles. In the exact scenario I described, the Cards would be the #5 seed as the 2nd place team in the NL Central which would knock the Reds down to #7. The Marlins would be the #6 seed as the 2nd place team in the NL East and the Giants would be the #8 seed. There are other scenarios involving the seeding of the other clubs depending on what the other clubs do, but as long as the Cubs don’t lose both of their games, the Cards will be the #5 seed if they go 2-0 to close out the year, regardless of what happens with the other clubs.

If the Cards go 2-0 and the Cubs go 0-2, it gets interesting. In this scenario, the Cards would have to play the doubleheader. The reason is that if the Cubs go 0-2, they would have a 33-27 record. If the Cards go 2-0 and then sweep a doubleheader with Detroit, they would also be 33-27. The first tiebreaker is head-to-head record, which wouldn’t decide it because the Cards split their games against the Cubs 5-5. But the Cards would win the next tiebreaker over the Cubs, which is divisional record. Two victories over the Brewers would give the Cards a 23-17 record in the division. That would beat the Cubs’ 22-18 divisional record, which they can’t improve on because they are closing out the season against the White Sox. This is why the doubleheader would be required to be played—it affects potential home field advantage in the form of the #3 seed. The Cards would get the #3 seed with a doubleheader sweep of the Tigers. The Cubs would be the #5 seed and travel to San Diego to play the Padres. As the #3 seed, the Cards would host the #6 seed, which could only be the Marlins. By definition the #6 seed must be a second-place team in their division. With the Padres in control of the #4 seed and the Cubs in control of the #5 seed, the #6 seed could only be the Marlins. The reason is that even if the Phillies make the playoffs, they can’t possibly finish 2nd in the National League East. Even if the Marlins go 0-2 and the Phillies go 2-0, they would both end up with .500 records, but the Marlins own the head-to-head tiebreaker 7-3 over the Phillies.

If the Cardinals were forced to play the doubleheader in the scenario I describe, one would assume that they wouldn’t have to play the second game if they lost the first game to the Tigers. Because if the Cards lost the first game, the best they could finish 32-28, which would give the Cubs home field advantage as the #3 seed. Neither the Marlins nor Reds could get home field advantage, so playing the 2nd game should be unnecessary.

Here is the interesting twist, however. Suppose the Cards go 2-0 and are forced to play the doubleheader, but either lose the first game against the Tigers or win the first, but lose the 2nd. The Cards could actually make their playoff position worse if the Reds beat the Twins in their final two games. If that happens, the Cards would be at 31-28 with a .525 winning percentage. If the Reds win out, they would be at 32-28, have a .533 winning percentage and be guaranteed either the #5 or #6 seed, depending on what the Marlins did. That would knock the Cards down to the #7 seed, and the club would be forced to travel to Atlanta to play the Braves in the Wild Card Round. Paradoxically, by shooting for the division title, the Cards could actually wind up with a worse seed than if they could have just accepted the #5 seed. Your mileage may vary on whether you’d rather play the Padres or Braves. The playoffs are being handled bracket-style instead of re-seeding after every round like the NFL. Playing the Braves would put us closer to the bracket with the Cubs, and playing the Padres would put us closer to the bracket with the Dodgers.

IF CARDS GO 1-1

If the Cards win just one more game against the Brewers, they will still make the playoffs no matter what. The seeding might be different, depending on what happens, but the Cards don’t need any help from other clubs to get in, and will not have to play the doubleheader if they win just one more game. Here’s why.

If the Cards go 1-1 to close out the season, that would mean the Brewers would also close out the season 1-1. Let’s suppose that every other club still in the race finishes 2-0 to close out the year. If that happens, here is how it would shake out among the teams who have not clinched yet:

Cards (30-28, .5172)

Giants (31-29, .5167)

Phillies (30-30, .500)

Brewers (29-31, .483)

Mets (29-31, .483)

Just from that, the Cards and Giants would have the final two spots. “But wait,” the Phillies might say. “The Cardinals should be forced to play the doubleheader against the Tigers, because if they lose both of those games, then they will finish 30-30 and tied with us.” Fortunately for the Cardinals and unfortunately for the Phillies, that wouldn’t change a thing. If both the Cards and Phillies end up at 30-30, the Cardinals would still win out over the Phillies. The Phillies have a 21-19 divisional record they can’t improve on because they’re closing out the season against the Rays. If the Cards win just 1 game against the Brewers, their divisional record will be 22-18. Thus, the Cards would hold the tiebreaker over the Phillies and it won’t matter what any other club does or what happened with the doubleheader. Forcing the Cards to play the doubleheader could affect the seeding between the Cardinals, Giants, Reds and Marlins depending on several different scenarios. But it wouldn’t change the fact that the Cards would make the playoffs or anything else about home field advantage. The only other relevant scenario would be if the Giants finished 1-1, which would put the Cards (if they were forced to play the doubleheader and lost both games), Giants and Phillies all at 30-30. The Cards would still make the playoffs in that scenario due to beating both the Giants and Phillies in the divisional tiebreaker. The Phillies would knock the Giants out for the final spot, but that would be true regardless of what the Cards did.

So if the Cards go 1-1, they’re in. They will be the #5 seed and travel to San Diego to play the Padres in the Wild Card Series if both the Reds and Marlins lose at least once over the final two games. They will be the #6 seed and travel to Chicago to play the Cubs in the Wild Card Series if the Marlins win both of their final games against the Yankees and the Reds lose at least once to the Twins. And they will be the #7 seed and travel to Atlanta to play the Braves in the Wild Card Series if the Reds win both of their final games. There is no scenario in which the Cards would be the #8 seed if they win at least one game.

IF CARDS GO 0-2

I haven’t gone through every single permutation of this by hand with respect to all the seeding, but I think I’ve got the most important part figured out, and it’s bad. If the Cards go 0-2, they’d be at 29-29 with a .500 winning percentage. Of all the clubs that are still in the race for the final two spots, only the Giants could beat that outright, and that would be if they went 2-0 and finished at 31-29 (.5167). And the Cards own the tiebreaker over every other club still in the race. But that would not be the end of the discussion and automatically give the Cards the #8 seed, because if the Cards went 0-2, that would put the Brewers at 2-0 with a 30-30 record. And If the Cards played both games of the doubleheader against the Tigers and lost both, it would put them at a 29-31 record, behind the Brewers.

We will not be required to play the doubleheader automatically, because the Giants and Phillies could lose enough over the final 2 days that the Cards and Brewers could both get in regardless of the doubleheader results. But any scenario that would allow 2 of the remaining clubs to beat a 29-31 record would force the Cards to play the doubleheader. The Brewers would be one such club automatically by virtue of their 30-30 record. If the Giants win at least once over the final two days, or if the Phillies win both of their games against the Rays, they would be the required 2nd club to force it.

In these scenarios, not only would the Cards be forced to play the doubleheader, but they could play their way right out of the playoffs by losing both games to the Tigers, which could put them behind the Giants, Phillies and Brewers. If the Giants go 2-0 over the final 2 games, the Cards could get knocked out if they don’t sweep the doubleheader with the Tigers. The Cards going 0-2 against the Brewers would give the Brewers the head-to-head tiebreaker 6-4. That means the Cards would have to finish with a better record than the Brewers. And if the Giants go 0-2, and the Cards only manage a split against the Tigers, the Giants would grab the #7 seed and the Brewers would get the #8 seed despite an identical record 30-30 record with the Cards. Even if the Cards do get in at 0-2, the club could end up as the #8 seed and go directly to LA to play the Dodgers.

CONCLUSION

Not taking care of business against the Royals made things difficult, but it won’t necessarily come back to haunt us unless we can’t win one of the final two games. Winning the 2nd game of the doubleheader last night was critical. Taking 4 out of 5 from the Pirates was equally pivotal because of the division tiebreakers. But once again, everything comes full circle with Adam Wainwright. The Cards need their hero tonight.

Let me know what you think in the comments. Do you secretly hope the Cubs win one so the doubleheader is an unlikely option? Would you rather play the Padres, Cubs or Braves in the Wild Card Round. And drop a note if you think I missed something. If we actually lose tonight, I’ll have an updated article with all the permutations and seeding if, in the unfortunate circumstance the Cards wind up 0-2.