Did you feel that calendar flip? Timmy Trumpets brought Edwin Diaz on and played out August. Shohei Ohtani took Gerrit Cole out and ushered in September. The MLB season has officially rounded third. It’s racing for home.
With the season’s final month comes a narrowing and intensifying focus. The biggest storylines and races will all build to Game 162 on Wednesday, Oct. 5. We have nine things you need to know to gear up for the stretch run and fully enjoy the drama of September.
1. How does the new MLB playoff format work again?
You might remember that as part of the collective bargaining agreement that ended the lockout, the team owners and players expanded the postseason. There are now six teams from each league, three division winners and three wild cards. That means a new path to the World Series, and it has serious implications for the stakes of September.
When each league’s field is set, it will go like this:
The Nos. 1 and 2 seeds — the two best division winners — get byes into the Division Series, a huge advantage. The other four teams square off in a new three-game wild-card series, replacing the one-game wild-card showdowns, that will be exclusively hosted at the better seed’s park.
The division winner with the worst record will be the No. 3 seed and host the No. 6 seed, the wild-card team with the worst record. The winner of that series will go on to face the No. 2 seed, regardless of which team comes out on top.
The two best wild cards, seeds No. 4 and No. 5, will play each other. The winner will advance to face the top seed.
From there, things will look familiar. The Division Series will be best of five. The Championship Series and World Series will be best of seven, with the team with the higher seed wielding home-field advantage by hosting Games 1, 2, 6 and 7.
2. The Mets-Braves race is crucial even though both will make the playoffs
That new playoff format sets up what could be the most thrilling and most important race in September, even though neither NL East titan is at risk of missing out on October. Entering the month, the New York Mets and Atlanta Braves are the second- and third-best teams in the National League. But because they can't both win their division, one will be the No. 2 seed and the other will be the No. 4 seed. That means one will get to reset their rotation to face a weaker foe in the NLDS while the other will play a must-win best-of-three series and roll right into a showdown with the Los Angeles Dodgers. It’s hard to imagine bigger gulf in difficulty level.
The Mets have been leading this race all season, and it has turned into a high-flying, side-by-side battle for the past month with Max Scherzer, Jacob deGrom and Francisco Lindor keeping New York a nose ahead. The Braves started slow for the second straight season, but in the 81 games since June 1, they are 57-24. If you didn’t do the quick math, that’s a 114-win pace.
The Mets — who have been galloping at a more steady 100-ish-win pace all season — have the easier September slate, but this could all come to a head in Atlanta from Sept. 30 to Oct. 3. The regular season’s penultimate series will pit the two contenders against each other one last time. The Mets lead the season series 9-7. So if, say, the current three-game margin were to hold steady, the Braves could take over the division or tie it up and clinch the tie-breaking head-to-head edge.
Of note here: The Game 163 tiebreaker is no more. Any draws at the end of the regular season will be decided by a series of in-season records, starting with head-to-head and descending into some truly wonky intra- and inter-divisional breakdowns.
3. The 2022 Dodgers are racking up for the history books
The Dodgers have 90 wins and only 39 losses. With 33 games left, they have an unlikely and feasible shot at the all-time wins record, 116 — held by the 2001 Mariners and 1906 Cubs. At the very least, the Dodgers are a serious threat to post one of the three best records since integration. The only teams to surpass 110 wins since 1947 are the 1954 Cleveland squad (111), the 1998 Yankees (114) and those Mariners. The Dodgers are on pace for 113 entering September.
To match the all-time mark, they would need to go 26-6 — a .789 winning percentage that sounds daunting until you realize they just posted a .786 mark in August and an even better .808 rate in July.
The rest of the schedule is heavy on division rivals. Once they leave New York on Thursday night, the Dodgers have only three more games against teams outside the NL West.
4. Guardians, Twins, White Sox — who’s least worst in the AL Central?
If you’re looking for the closest race, that may well be the AL Central. Entering September, the Cleveland Guardians lead the Minnesota Twins by 1 1/2 games, and the injury-plagued preseason favorite White Sox by 5. None of these teams are particularly good. It’s possible all five AL East teams would be winning this division if they played a schedule loaded up with the Royals and Tigers. Four of them — including the BALTIMORE ORIOLES — could reasonably finish with better records than the eventual champion.
Anyway, someone will get a playoff spot and play host to either one of those superior AL East teams or the Seattle Mariners.
After the Twins led for the early part of the season, the Guardians’ superior pitching and contact-oriented offense has lifted them into the driver’s seat during a 22-16 second half. Assuming the White Sox continue to fade, the Guardians and Twins will duke it out on the field. They have eight head-to-head matchups remaining, including a five-game series from Sept. 16-19 that involves a Saturday doubleheader.
5. Can the flailing Yankees hold on to the AL East?
I guess the best thing you can say about the Yankees’ August is that it ended better than it started. A month that started with total panic ended with more of a jittering sense of anxiety. The Yankees, once on pace to run with the Dodgers, won six of their last 10 to finish the month 10-18. It could have, and should have, been better. They dropped four of six to the pitiful Oakland A’s and discombobulated Los Angeles Angels.
Their AL East lead, once 15 1/2 games, is down to 6 over the Tampa Bay Rays, the current best of the rest in the division. I still feel very confident — as do the projection systems — that the Yankees will remain on top and claim the AL’s second bye, but they will be tested. They have six games against those Rays between now and Sept. 11.
6. Which of the Phillies, Padres and Brewers will claim NL wild-card spots?
Speaking of hanging on. There are three teams vying for the two lower wild-card spots in the NL, and all of them are under some strain. The Philadelphia Phillies lost Zack Wheeler, at least temporarily, right when they finally got back Bryce Harper. The San Diego Padres endured some well-documented distractions in August, plus serious struggles by two of their marquee trade acquisitions (the Joshes Hader and Bell). The Milwaukee Brewers have been a mediocre team since June, a stretch that has seen them tumble out of first in the NL Central and all the way out of the playoff picture as it currently stands.
But it is a situation that could change fast, even though none of the trio play each other. They are all bunched within three games as the month begins.
PECOTA gives the Padres a 78% chance of making the playoffs, the Phillies a 76% shot and the Brewers 48%. In particular, grab a stress ball for the trade deadline darling Padres. Their schedule includes nine more games against the Dodgers, plus series against the red hot Cardinals and rising Mariners. Trading for Juan Soto and missing the postseason would be a disaster by anyone’s definition.
7. Aaron Judge, Albert Pujols bring back the home run chase
It’s no summer of 1998, but there are two different stars pursuing home run history worthy of live TV cut-ins.
Meanwhile, rejuvenated Cardinals legend Albert Pujols is making a surprise run at 700 homers. If nothing else, he needs only two homers to tie, and three to pass, Alex Rodriguez on the all-time leaderboard.
8. Paul Goldschmidt makes a run at the Triple Crown
When we’re not flipping channels to watch for homer milestones, we might be on the lookout for Paul Goldschmidt at-bats. The Cardinals first baseman is running away with the NL MVP award, and suddenly looks as though he might make a run at the NL’s first Triple Crown since Joe Medwick in 1937. The Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera, of course, broke MLB’s long Triple Crown drought in 2012.
Heading into September, Goldschmidt leads the NL (and everyone else) in batting average, is tied with Pete Alonso for the league lead in RBIs and stands three behind the Phillies’ Kyle Schwarber for the home run title.
9. Adley Rutschman vs. Julio Rodriguez, Orioles vs. the odds
Finally, there’s the multi-dimensional AL Rookie of the Year battle. If you’d told someone back in April that Julio Rodriguez and Adley Rutschman were dueling for the honors, that would have sounded totally feasible, likely even.
If you told them that Rutschman’s Orioles were trying to chase down the Mariners for a playoff spot, and that Rodriguez had minted himself a gold-plated, one-name-only kind of stardom — alongside, well, a mint — that would have sounded like science fiction.
That’s reality. If you translate the most recent odds at BetMGM, they give Rutschman — who debuted in late May — about an 18% chance of catching Rodriguez for the Rookie of the Year nod. Meanwhile, PECOTA still gives the Orioles a 30% chance of sneaking up and stealing a playoff bid from either the Rays, Mariners or Blue Jays.
Watch for the award. Watch for the wild-card implications. But just watch these two, and get used to it. Adley and Julio are just getting started.