Welcome to The Opener, where every weekday morning you’ll receive an up-to-date and current column to kick off the day from one of the MLB writers at SI.com.
With less than two weeks left in the regular season, here’s what we know about the NL playoff image: The Giants, Dodgers and Brewers have punched their tickets, while the fight for the remaining two spots remains unresolved. . Fighting for those offers are the following clubs, who have at least a glimmer of hope for it: the Braves, Cardinals, Phillies, Reds and Padres (serve one for the Mets).
Last week, I identified an X factor for the five AL teams in similar positions, targeting players who do not top the list and who would play important roles down the stretch. I’ll do the same for the National League teams listed above, starting with the two teams that would be in the playoffs if the season ended today.
Atlanta Braves: RF Jorge Soler
80-70, 1st place at NL East
Just two years ago, Soler led the American League with 48 home runs and played 162 games for the Royals. After an offseason in 2020, the 29-year-old hit rock bottom in the first half of 2021. In 94 games with Kansas City, Soler hit .192 / .288 / .370 with 13 home runs and 37 RBIs. Seeking depth in the outfield after Ronald Acuña Jr. tore his ACL, the Braves traded for Soler, Eddie Rosario and Adam Duvall at the deadline to help bolster the cause, and as much as Atlanta surely believed. in each player, it is difficult to imagine. the team expected it to be is good when you get to truist park.
While Rosario has hit for the cycle and has an OPS of more than 1,000 since joining the Braves and Duvall has increased his power somewhat since returning to Atlanta, Soler has completely changed and rediscovered his 2019 form. In 46 games with the Braves, Soler is hitting .269 / .355 / .514 with 11 home runs. He has become more selective at the plate, reducing his strikeout-to-walk ratio from 2.6 with Kansas City to 1.6 with Atlanta. The Braves are 29-17 since Soler made his debut on July 31, averaging 5.2 runs per game. Soler was recently moved to the top spot, further maximizing his impact on the lineup. If he can keep up with a hot bat, the Braves should be able to fend off the Phillies for the NL East crown and capture their fourth straight division title.
St. Louis Cardinals: RP TJ McFarland
82-69, 4.5 games ahead for second place as a wild card
Do you need an X factor if you never lose? The Cardinals edged the Brewers, 10-2, on Wednesday night for their 11th straight victory. On September 10, the date of the team’s most recent loss, St. Louis had a 5.0% playoff probability, by FanGraphs. That figure now stands at more than 94%, transforming the team’s season from a massive disappointment to a World Series dark horse in less than two weeks.
It takes the entire roster to pull off a streak this hot, but relief pitcher TJ McFarland is a true marker of margin difference. The 32-year-old signed a minor league contract with Washington this offseason and never made it to the majors, posting a 5.25 ERA at Triple-A before being released. After signing with the Cardinals and impressing in a brief season in the minor leagues, the southpaw made his debut for St. Louis on July 16 and, after some tough appearances, has become one of the most trusted high-leverage arms in the world. team. McFarland relies on an elite turnaround to generate ground balls at a rate of 64.6%, the fifth-highest among relief pitchers with at least 30 innings pitched. In 25 games since early August, McFarland has a 1.78 ERA and has not allowed a home run. If the Cardinals are to continue their seemingly impenetrable run into the postseason, McFarland will be counted on to land some key outs.
Philadelphia Phillies: RP Ian Kennedy
78-74, 3.0 games behind in NL East; 4.5 games behind second wild card place
As always with the Phillies, it all comes down to the bullpen. Although they ended up with a 4-3 win over the Orioles on Wednesday, the game featured the team’s 33rd unsuccessful save of the season, one less than the all-time record of 34 set by the 2004 Rockies. Kennedy was signed. on the trade deadline to stabilize things at the end of the games, and while he made his 25th save of the season against Baltimore, he needed 32 pitches to do so and walked two batters in what was hardly a stress-free outing. .
It was emblematic of Kennedy’s tenure in Philadelphia. In 20 games since coming from Texas, the 36-year-old has a 4.71 ERA and a 9-of-12 in save chances. Long ball has been his undoing, with seven home runs allowed in 21 innings after allowing just five in 32.1 innings for the Rangers. Philadelphia has been burned in the last few innings no matter who manager Joe Girardi gave the ball to, so it’s no surprise that he stays with Kennedy despite the right-hander’s struggles. The Phillies travel to division-leading Atlanta for three games through the end of September, and Kennedy will have to deliver when he is handed a lead in the ninth inning if Philadelphia is to overtake the Braves in first place.
Cincinnati Reds: 3B Eugenio Suárez
78-74, 4.5 games behind second wild card spot
Few hitters have had a more miserable 2021 season than Suarez. The former All-Star who hit 49 home runs in 2019 is hitting .182 / .271 / .394 in 135 games this year, striking out more than 30% of the time. His .182 batting average is the third-lowest for a player with at least 500 plate appearances since 2000, behind only Chris Davis (.168 in 2018) and Dan Uggla (.179 in 2013); not the best company for a boy. It depends on making the postseason.
But it’s Suarez’s form of late that can give Cincinnati fans hope for a great finish. In 15 games since early September, the 30-year-old is hitting .343 / .455 / .771 with four home runs, seven walks and just 12 strikeouts in 44 plate appearances. It’s a small sample size, sure, but it’s your most productive time of the season when your team has needed it the most. He’ll need to keep up that pace if the Reds can beat the red-hot Cardinals.
San Diego Padres: 2B Adam Frazier
76-75, 6.0 games behind second wild card spot
They were not pretty at the point where we can put the nail in the coffin of the Padres’ 2021 season, but it’s looming. San Diego lost its fifth straight game Wednesday and has lost 26 of its last 36 to plummet toward irrelevance. The Padres are closer to the Rockies in fourth place than they are to the second wild-card spot, and it would be a miracle for them to get back in the race in the short time they have left.
Doing so does not fall on the shoulders of one man, but infielder Adam Frazier is a key piece that has not been completely fulfilled in the second half. Since arriving in a trade from Pittsburgh, the All-Star has hit .221 / .283 / .260 with just three extra-base hits in his first 31 games with the Padres, eventually losing his status as an everyday player. Since then, he has regained a regular spot in the lineup and has hit .353 in 15 games since Sept. 4. One player’s hot streak won’t get San Diego over the hump, but the Padres desperately need Frazier, and many others. to mount one last push before closing the book on what has been one of the season’s biggest disappointments.
More MLB coverage:
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.