There are just two weeks to go in the 2021 MLB regular season and we are pumped.
There’s a thrilling National League West race raging between baseball’s two best teams, the San Francisco Giants and the Los Angeles Dodgers. The wild-card races are crowded in both leagues, with three American League East teams — the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees and Toronto Blue Jays — front and center. And then there are the players looking to put the finishing touches on — or make a late push for — each of the postseason awards, from MVP to Cy Young and Rookie of the Year.
So what has us most excited about these final 14 days? Which teams have the most at stake? Which end-of-season storylines aren’t getting as much attention as they deserve? In short: How will it all shake out as September turns into October?
We asked ESPN MLB experts Bradford Doolittle, Alden Gonzalez, Jesse Rogers and David Schoenfield to answer those questions and more as we get set for some of the biggest baseball games of the year so far. Next stop: the playoffs!
What are you most excited about in the final two weeks of the regular season?
Doolittle: There are some fun races for playoff slots and seeds, but I’m actually more amped for the stretch run on the AL hitting leaderboards than anything. Can Salvador Perez become the first primary catcher and Kansas City Royal to hit 50 homers? Can Vladimir Guerrero Jr. catch Perez and Jose Abreu in the RBI column and win the Triple Crown? Can Shohei Ohtani become the first true two-way player to lead a league in homers since Babe Ruth? I find these are the things I keep checking in on as each night’s games play out.
Gonzalez: The AL wild-card race. This was basically a three-way tie between the Yankees, Red Sox and Blue Jays when Friday began, and a couple of critical head-to-head matches remain. The Red Sox face the Yankees this weekend and the Blue Jays play the Yankees next week, but every game these teams play moving forward will feature high stakes. Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Aaron Judge, Xander Bogaerts, Chris Sale, Gerrit Cole, Robbie Ray and so many other stars that make up these supremely talented rosters will be playing in pressure-packed moments down the stretch, and nothing is more fun than that. The AL East is a juggernaut, and it’s only fitting that three of its teams will advance into the postseason. The question is: Which one will not?
Rogers: The NL wild-card race. If the St. Louis Cardinals beat out both the San Diego Padres and Cincinnati Reds, that will be quite something. And it should cost Jayce Tingler his job. The Cardinals had as many injuries to their starting staff as the Padres did but held the line while getting healthy. The way to do that, with a less talented roster due to injuries, is to beat the bad teams. Entering the weekend, the Padres were just 40-39 against minus-.500 teams. The Cardinals were 50-31. Those numbers have nothing to do with the difference between the two divisions the teams reside in.
Schoenfield: The Phillies’ four-game winning streak ended Sunday and the Braves’ four-game losing streak did, too, but Atlanta’s five-game lead has suddenly shrunk to a two-game lead. That’s exciting, but my preference remains the NL West race, where the Giants and Dodgers keep playing at an unbelievably high level. They’re done playing one another, so this is a classic scoreboard-watching race. Yes, the loser still gets the wild card, but both teams want to avoid that play-in game. Everybody has an opinion on whether they like or hate the wild card, but this is a reminder of why finishing in first is so important and why a great division race is still the best baseball has to offer.
Which team has the most at stake?
Doolittle: The Yankees. It’s a combination of factors: title drought, payroll, aggressiveness at the trade deadline, preseason expectation and the glare of New York itself. Even though it would be a wild-card berth, playing on into the postseason would stave off a lot of grief for that organization. Given that missing out on a wild-card slot likely means a fourth-place finish in this year’s AL East, the calls for sweeping change would be blaring if that happens.
Gonzalez: The Yankees, a team with the second-highest payroll in the sport and consistently the highest expectations. They doubled down in July, parting with prospects to acquire Anthony Rizzo in his final months before free agency. Missing out on the postseason wouldn’t just be a disappointment; it would trigger serious questions about the makeup of this roster and how it needs to evolve in order to seriously contend again. And there are no easy answers there.
Rogers: The Padres. Jayce Tingler and his players have been too focused on reeling off a big win streak instead of taking it one game at a time. Perhaps they got down on themselves once the division became out of reach. They should really be down if they’re sitting at home while the Dodgers play the Reds or Cardinals in the wild-card game. The latter team was ready to pack in the season when it traded for starters Jon Lester and J.A. Happ, but time was on the Cardinals’ side and they have taken advantage. Heads should roll in San Diego if the Padres don’t make it. You can’t say the same about Cincinnati or St. Louis. The Yankees have to be 1a in this discussion.
Schoenfield: Another vote for the Yankees. There are kids who just finished their Little League careers who have never seen the Yankees in a World Series. Given the preseason expectations and the recent run of crushing playoff disappointments — the Game 5 American League Division Series loss to the Rays in 2020 with Gerrit Cole on the mound, the Jose Altuve home run in the 2019 American League Championship Series, the 4-0 shutout loss in Game 7 of the 2017 ALCS — a World Series-less season, let alone one without a playoff appearance, could lead to Brian Cashman rejiggering the roster, the manager, and the coaching staff.
Which storyline isn’t getting as much attention as it should?
Doolittle: I wouldn’t say that this hasn’t gotten any attention, but however much it’s garnered, it’s not enough: What Max Scherzer has done for the Dodgers is beyond unreal. With his seven shutout innings at Cincinnati on Sept. 18, Max Scherzer owns a 0.78 ERA over nine starts with the Dodgers. That is the best nine-start stretch of his big-league career, besting a run he had in 2019 for the Nationals that ended on July 6 of that season. Scherzer was a first-ballot Hall of Famer before the trade — an assertion that I don’t think many would dispute. Despite that fact, he dropped into a high-stakes division race and launched the most dominant stretch of pitching in his career. He’s been so good that it’s almost frightening to watch him work. He is just that dominant.
Gonzalez: Bryce Harper and Fernando Tatis Jr. are seemingly hashing it out for the NL MVP, but Juan Soto has been amazing for a flailing Nationals team. He has an absurd .525 on-base percentage since the All-Star break and owns a .990 OPS for the season, trailing only Harper and Guerrero. He’s doing this in his age-22 season, after batting .351/.490/.695 through the shortened 2020 season. Those Ted Williams comps don’t seem so farfetched.
Rogers: Houston’s dominance. As great as the Rays are, and as hot as the Blue Jays have been, it’s the Astros who have the best run differential in the American League. They’ve been in first place seemingly forever and every time Oakland or even Seattle has made a run, the Astros have done the same. Here’s the scariest stat for playoff opponents: Entering the weekend, Houston was 43-31 against plus-.500 teams. That’s a better win percentage than the Rays, Giants and Dodgers have.
Schoenfield: The Brewers have been so far out in front of the NL Central for so long that, perhaps aside from Corbin Burnes, they haven’t received much attention as they deserve. No, their run differential isn’t as impressive as that of the Giants/Dodgers/Astros/Rays/Blue Jays, but this is a team built for October, with the terrific trio of Burnes, Brandon Woodruff and Freddy Peralta, possibly the most dominant closer in the game in Josh Hader plus the ability to mix and match Eric Lauer, Adrian Houser and a deep bullpen. They need to get Willy Adames back and healthy for the postseason, but this team can win the first World Series in franchise history behind its pitching-and-defense formula.
Will any races be decided on the final day? Will there be any ties?
Doolittle: Both seem like strong possibilities, if only because of the cluster of teams competing for wild-card spots in both leagues, not to mention the neck-and-neck division title race between the Giants and Dodgers plus the suddenly hot race in the NL East with the Phillies and Braves. In the AL, you’ve got a five-team cluster for two spots in the wild-card race — all five are within four games of each other in the loss column. In the NL, you’ve got four teams within four games of each other competing for one spot. The Cardinals showed this weekend how quickly a team can create some separation, but even in the last two weeks, the outlook in all of these races could transmogrify over the course of a few days.
Gonzalez: I think the Giants and Dodgers are destined to go until the final day, possibly even beyond that. There have been more than 20 instances since the start of August when the Dodgers have won and have not been able to gain any ground on the Giants. It’s only fitting that these two longtime rivals settle it in Game 163.
Rogers: The AL wild card might be decided the day after the final day. So yes, it will come down to that final Sunday — at least.
Schoenfield: Yes, with four races in play — three teams (and maybe the A’s) for two AL wild cards, the second wild card, plus the NL East and NL West — I think there is a 50/50 chance we get some sort of tiebreaker on Monday. If you really want chaos, we get the Braves, Phillies, Cardinals, Reds and Padres all finishing with the same record, creating a five-way tie for the NL East and the second wild card (and maybe an NL West tiebreaker to boot!). Come on, baseball gods, we need this.
Which team is going to win the NL West?
Doolittle: While I remain steadfast that the Dodgers are better than the Giants, and everyone else for that matter, the simple fact remains that San Francisco has the current edge and has shown zero inclination of regressing to preseason expectations. There are no remaining head-to-head meetings between them, so at this point, the math very slightly favors the Giants. Who am I to argue with math? But… with the lead down to one game, if I think the Dodgers are the better team, then I kind of have to pick them.
Gonzalez: I still say the Dodgers, even though the Giants have led for so long and actually won the season series (just barely). The Dodgers are rolling with a rotation of Max Scherzer, Walker Buehler, Clayton Kershaw and Julio Urias for these final two weeks; a lineup featuring Mookie Betts, Trea Turner, Max Muncy, Corey Seager, Justin Turner and Will Smith; and a bullpen with Kenley Jansen, Blake Treinen, Joe Kelly and Corey Knebel. From a pure talent perspective, they are impossible to match. And I’ll roll with talent.
Rogers: It’ll be the Dodgers. San Francisco held out as long as they could but L.A. is a machine right now. Championship hangovers usually end during the second half and the Dodgers are no different.
Schoenfield: We keep waiting for the Giants to at least bend, but their second-best month was August (19-9) and their best month has been September (13-5 so far). Those six remaining games against the Padres suddenly don’t look so tough with the Padres self-destructing — and in public, as we saw Saturday night with Manny Machado yelling at Tatis. The Giants hold off the Dodgers, 106 wins to 105.
Who are your wild-card picks and why?
Doolittle: The Dodgers … and three other teams. Want more? Ugh. Fine. In the NL, I still think the Padres are the most talented of the five teams angling for the second wild-card slot, even with their improv rotation. But the Cardinals are the only one of those teams playing winning baseball in September and they just gut-punched the Padres all weekend. Right now, I am taking them. In the AL, geesh, it’s like eating soup with a fork. Every time you think the race is starting to clarify, someone gets hot and someone else goes into the tank. The Yankees are wavering after getting pounded in two home games against Cleveland over the weekend, but they have series left against both Toronto and Boston to make up the gap. I’m going with the Yankees and Blue Jays.
Gonzalez: I’ll pick the Yankees and Blue Jays in the AL, and I have the Reds winning the second wild-card spot in the NL. The Padres’ remaining schedule is just too difficult, and their rotation is banged up at the wrong time. If the Reds continue to get what they got from Luis Castillo on Friday, they’re a dangerous team.
Rogers: St. Louis will prevail in the NL. Its final 13 games will come against a Brewers team that’s clinched and a Cubs team that is bad. Counting on wins against teams with less to play for is always dangerous, as the Reds proved by barely winning 1 of 3 against the Pirates recently, but the Cardinals are the Cardinals. They usually prevail when it’s close. Somehow, someway, the Yankees will squeak in with the Blue Jays. And somehow, someway, the Red Sox won’t.
Schoenfield: The Yankees finish with a six-game road trip to Boston and Toronto and then three at home against the Rays. They have no games left against the Orioles. The Red Sox finish with six games against the Orioles and Nationals. The Blue Jays have a four-game series against the Twins and finish with three games at home against the Orioles. I’ll go with Boston and Toronto. In the NL, I’m eliminating the Padres. If the Braves, Phillies, Cardinals and Reds all end up tied, the formula is simple: The Braves play the Phillies for the NL East title while the Cardinals and Reds play to stay in the race. The loser of Braves/Phillies plays the winner of Cardinals/Reds for the wild card. There is no current formula if the Padres are also in that mix. My head hurts.