The good news this fall concerning the tepid National League wild card race is that we're spared the ordinary silliness about how the extra playoff berth is such a fabulous development for baseball. The bad news is that clubs better off gone and long forgotten continue to limp toward the finish.
The wild card race is reminiscent of a joke Bob Eucker used to tell about a big auto race every year in the elderly stronghold of Sun City, Ariz. The contestants start up their cars, slip them into neutral and whoever runs out of gas first is the winner.
Take the Reds ... please! They just finished up another of their West Coast road trips that used to kill pennant hopes when they competed on a more regular basis. But this race is so weak that not even their 2-8 performance through San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego is going to knock them out.
The Reds opened the trip leading the wild card pack, a game ahead of San Diego. Losing eight out of 10 cost them only 3 1/2 games. Anyone who's counting the Reds out at this point is considering the other contenders with way too much esteem.
One might have expected that some club or other would separate itself from this motley wild card pack in the past 10 days, but only if she hadn't been paying attention all summer. Instead, the race is even more bunched up on Labor Day than it was when the Reds embarked on their West Coast swing.
As the Reds flew to San Francisco, five clubs sat within four games of each other for the wild card lead. When the Reds returned following their hitless disaster, five clubs were bunched within 2 1/2 games. And after the Giants' 5-4 extra inning win on Labor Day, the Reds are now fifth in the wild card standings at 3 1/2 games out.
Just to illustrate this dull stomach pain of a playoff race, here are the records of the 10 wild card contenders in their past 20 games: Florida (14-6), San Francisco (14-6), Philadelphia (13-7), San Diego (11-9), Atlanta (11-9), Houston (10-10), Cincinnati (8-12), Milwaukee (6-14), Colorado (6-14) and Arizona (5-15).
Florida and San Francisco have won 70 percent of their past 20 games to fight their way to .500 for the season. Philadelphia's hot streak has pushed it just two games past .500.
The super laggards among these so-called contenders -- Milwaukee, Colorado and Arizona -- are between 6 and 8 1/2 games out. Each could win a couple series this week to damage a couple other wannabes and re-enter the dogosphere.
The wild card race is supposed to create pulsating excitement throughout the major leagues. If every club contends, then every club's fans should be motivated. But when all the contenders are break-even clubs, everyone is bored.
At its best, the wild card is an entry for really good clubs who would be doomed by a truly dominant club in its division. The most familiar case in point is Houston, which couldn't play with St. Louis for the past couple years but weren't penalized by playing in a division with one great club.
At its worst, the wild card gives us what we have now, break-even clubs pretending and contending at the same time. One doesn't even suspect that most of the wild card contenders would make a playoff impact.
If the wild card comes from the NL Central or NL West divisions, it would play the Mets and probably go away in four games. The only chance for an interesting playoff would come from an NL East wild card club, which would try its hand against a club not much better, like St. Louis or Los Angeles.
Every club in this wild card race is slump-proof. Not because they can't have slumps -- they can't help but to have slumps. Every time you look up, some contender has lost six in a row and remains within four games of the wild card lead. Then that same club wins six in a row and gains a couple games.
In five games the Reds lost on the West Coast, they totaled four runs. And the wild card is still there for the Reds to take because they came to Labor Day with the easiest schedule. Of 25 remaining Reds games, they play 12 against direct wild card contenders and 13 against the NL's two worst clubs, Pittsburgh and Chicago.
If the Reds win seven against the other wild card contenders and win nine of 13 against the Cubs and Pirates, they'll finish the season with 84 wins. In a race that's running at a pace of 83-84 wins and has been since June, they're home, though barely.
Predictions probably are futile under the circumstances, but it's worth a try to at least narrow down the field. Of the 10 clubs still gunning at the wild card, the last three standing will be the Reds, Philadelphia and Florida. And the Reds stand an excellent chance of outlasting the others.
Philadelphia and Florida are the only contenders playing consistently well since the All-Star break, with the Marlins running up a 31-20 performance and the Phillies close behind at 29-21. But those clubs face relatively tough schedules, including 10 games against each other.
The Reds are on easy street. They play the majority of their remaining games against the Cubs and Pirates while the other contenders play each other.
Even after the latest California disaster, it's there for the Reds to take. But that's kind of the problem for the Reds and the race in general -- no one is good enough to take it.
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