Wasn’t it just two weeks ago when we were in awe of the San Diego Padres’ guts and aggressiveness, wondering if their blockbuster trade could finally lead to the first World Series title in franchise history?
Weren’t we already anointing the New York Yankees one of the greatest teams in baseball history at the All-Star break, believing they could win more games than any team in their glorious history?
Wasn’t New York City already making plans for a Subway Series, preparing for that 2000 sequel?
How about the folks at the MLB offices on Park Avenue, fantasizing about a TV ratings bonanza with a New York-Los Angeles World Series matchup?
It has been exactly one month since the All-Star break, and suddenly, the Yankees can’t win a game.
The Dodgers, who are on one of the most torrid streaks in franchise history, can’t stay healthy or close out one-run games.
The Padres are doing little but resurrecting memories of their collapse a year ago when they lost 34 out of their last 46 games and missed the playoffs.
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We may see history this October, but perhaps not the one anyone envisioned, with the Atlanta Braves and Houston Astros on a potential collision course to become the first teams to meet in consecutive World Series since the Yankees and Dodgers in 1977-78.
Oh, what a difference a month can make.
For the first time all season the Yankees and Dodgers appear vulnerable heading into the postseason.
There’s no reason to panic. They each are going to win their divisions. But you try telling that to their fanbases who know it’s World Series or bust.
The Dodgers, 80-35, have gone 35-7 since June 29, outscoring their opponents by 250 runs and building a surreal 17-game lead in the NL West, but they’ll be heading into the postseason with no clue who’ll be leading their playoff rotation or who’ll be their closer.
Ace Walker Buehler is out for the season with elbow surgery scheduled next week. Three-time Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw has been sidelined the last two weeks with a bad back and isn’t expected to return before mid-September. Dustin May is making his 2022 debut on Saturday. Closer Craig Kimbrel hasn’t been able to protect a one-run lead all season. And they obtained no pitching help at the trade deadline.
They need Julio Urias (6-0, 0.95 ERA) to continue his second-half dominance, Tony Gonsolin (14-1, 2.24 ERA) and Tyler Anderson (13-2, 2.81 ERA) to continue their magic, and hope it’s good enough.
If they happen to face the New York Mets in the postseason, how would you like their chances matching up against Max Scherzer and Jacob deGrom?
The Yankees, who were cruising all season, lost their mojo somewhere at a baggage claim en route to greatness.
They are just 8-17 since the All-Star break, the worst record of any contender in baseball, with 11 losses in their last 13 games and losers of five consecutive series. Their offense has gone AWOL, scoring nine runs and hitting .154 in their last seven games, their worst stretch in franchise history. They simply haven’t been the same since Giancarlo Stanton, who won the All-Star MVP award, injured his Achilles tendon on July 24.
The Yankees, with a nine-game lead in the AL East, shouldn’t need to worry about winning the division, but suddenly, they’ve got a whole lot more problems than just the Astros.
“As far as the lead and the pressing,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone told reporters Tuesday night, “welcome to major league baseball and playing in the pennant race. There’s pressure with it.”
The exposed flaws with the two biggest boys on the block could create chaos on the expanded postseason freeway this year with no clear-cut favorite.
The Mets looked like they might become the team to beat until losing starting pitchers Carlos Carrasco and Taijuan Walker on consecutive nights in Atlanta, losing both games by a combined score of 18-1, with their NL East lead suddenly down to 3 ½ games.
The Padres, after acquiring All-Star outfielder Juan Soto and first baseman Josh Bell from the Washington Nationals, infielder Brandon Drury from Cincinnati and All-Star closer Josh Hader from Milwaukee, looked like they could be the scariest team in the postseason.
Now, let’s see if they can even get there. They have lost eight of their last 12 games. Fernando Tatis Jr. tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs and can’t come to the rescue. And Bell is hitless in his last 23 at-bats after the Padres dumped first basemen Eric Hosmer and Luke Voit to make room for him.
The Padres still control their own fate, but they have the hardest remaining schedule among National League contenders, including nine remaining games against the powerful Dodgers.
The Cardinals, who flirted with Washington in the Soto sweepstakes, picked up starters Jordan Montgomery and Jose Quintana in unheralded trades, and have watched them flourish in their five starts (3-0, 1.61 ERA, 18 hits, 28 innings). They should hold onto the NL Central lead with corner All-Star infielders Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado having MVP seasons, and Adam Wainwright and Albert Pujols finding the fountain of youth.
It also helps that they have the easiest remaining schedule in the National League, with only 13 remaining games against teams with winning records.
The NL East runner-up, Atlanta or the Mets, should lock up the first wild-card seed, leaving the Padres, Philadelphia Phillies, Milwaukee Brewers and San Francisco Giants battling for the last two spots.
The American League playoff race is much more open, with 10 teams fighting for six spots.
The Astros and Yankees are locks for their division titles, leaving eight teams vying for the final four spots.
Baseball’s most intriguing division race is the AL Central with three teams – Cleveland, Minnesota and Chicago – all within one game of one another.
While the White Sox have been the most underachieving team in baseball, despite their five-game winning streak, the Guardians have been the biggest surprise outside of Baltimore. Minnesota, the only team in the division that even bothered to try to improve at the trade deadline, is just 6-7 since picking up starter Tyler Mahle, All-Star closer Jorge Lopez, pitcher Michael Fulmer and catcher Sandy Leon.
The Twins control their fate with 17 games against the Guardians and White Sox in September, with only eight other games against winning teams the rest of the way.
The Orioles are baseball’s biggest surprise by simply still hanging around in the playoff race. They have been baseball’s laughingstock since 2018 – losing at least 108 games in the last three full seasons – but now have everyone’s attention, sitting just one-half game out of a wild-card berth.
They continue to win even after waving the white flag at the trade deadline. They dumped outfielder Trey Mancini and Lopez, and still have gone 10-4. You wonder when the glass slipper will break, but no one imagined the Cinderella story would last this long.
The Boston Red Sox were supposed to be dead and buried, preparing for an ugly winter in which Xander Bogaerts could depart as a free agent and Rafael Devers may be out of the door in a year. They remain in last place, one game under .500, but refuse to go away, pulling within four games of a wild-card berth.
The Toronto Blue Jays, who won nine of their first 10 games after firing manager Charlie Montoyo, but since have played rather uninspiring baseball. They came out of the All-Star break sweeping the Red Sox by a combined score of 40-10, but have now lost 11 of their last 18 games.
The Tampa Bay Rays are up to their usual tricks, getting the most bang for their buck once again. Just when you think this is the season their payroll constraints catch up to them, they continue to wreck havoc, and are holding onto the second wild-card berth.
The biggest sleeper, and perhaps most dangerous threat to knock off the Astros and Yankees, are the Seattle Mariners. The Mariners, who landed the grand prize of the pitching market in Luis Castillo of Cincinnati, have become a force. Castillo has come as advertised, yielding a 2.18 ERA in his three starts, permitting just 14 hits in 20 ⅔ innings.
The Mariners are an American League-best 30-14 since their June 26 brawl against the Los Angeles Angels. They have a 12-3-1 series record during the span, their best 16-series stretch since 2001.
Anyone volunteering for a first-round matchup against Seattle with Castillo and defending Cy Young winner Robbie Ray waiting for you?
In the meantime, sit down, grab your remote control, and get ready for a dizzying final six weeks, with everything we thought we knew a month ago, now turning completely upside down.
Maybe, just to keep our sanity, we should heed the advice of Twins manager Rocco Baldelli.
“I will put stock into what the standings look like,” Baldelli recently told reporters, “on the last day of the season.”
Follow Nightengale on Twitter: @Nightengale
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: MLB standings: Playoff races chaotic as Yankees, Padres struggle