Drama in National League as Baseball Winds Down

This weekend is the end of baseball's regular season, but the playoff lineup is far from decided. While the American League is largely settled, the National League results are still up in the air. Robert Siegel speaks with our regular commentator Stefan Fatsis of The Wall Street Journal.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

It's the final weekend of baseball's regular season and the playoff picture is set in the American League. The National League - that's another story. Seven National League teams begin play tonight with post-season dreams including the Chicago Cubs who are trying to win a World Series for the first time in 99 years.

And joining us now, as he does on most Friday's, is sports writer Stefan Fatsis of The Wall Street Journal.

Welcome, Stefan.

Mr. STEFAN FATSIS (Sports Writer, The Wall Street Journal): Hey, Robert.

SIEGEL: Not a single playoff spot has been decided in the National League. How is that possible?

Mr. FATSIS: The main reason is just a huge collapse by one team and a huge surge by another team or two other teams really. The New York Mets led the Philadelphia Phillies by seven games with 17 games left in the season, after their 10th loss since then, and the Philly's 11th win since then, the teams are now tied for first place. And according to some numbers crunching by BaseballProspectus.com, if the Mets blow it, it will rank as the second worst collapse in baseball history. The other big surge in addition to the Phillies is out west, where the Colorado Rockies have won 11 straight games to get back into the playoff picture.

SIEGEL: Okay, sort out the weekend for us.

Mr. FATSIS: All right. Not a single playoff spot decided in the National League. Either the Cubs or the Milwaukee Brewers will win the central division, and I'm putting win in air quotes because neither team seems particularly capable of winning baseball games right now. The Cubs just lost three in row to the Florida Marlins.

SIEGEL: You're saying one of them will probably lose the division to the other one, is what'll happen.

Mr. FATSIS: Yeah. That's more like it. And the other three spots are going to include some combination of the other five teams. Until last night, all five could have finished with the same record and fans of chaos, they will have to settle now for the possibility of a four-way tie for the last three playoff spots, I think I have that right, which will require three one-game playoffs on Monday and then Tuesday.

SIEGEL: Speaking of historic collapses. On May 29th the Red Sox, the Boston Red Sox, led the New York Yankees by fourteen and a half games, and the Yankees have almost completely erased that lead. But since one team is going to be the division champion and the other one is going to be the wild card team, all they're playing about is home field advantage. Is that a sufficient incentive to win your division or disincentive to be second?

Mr. FATSIS: No, it's really not. I mean, the wild card has absolutely boosted interest in baseball down the stretch as we can see in the National League. More teams - maybe more mediocre teams remain in the hut longer. It's also good for business. You've got more playoff games, more fans, more opportunities to sell advertisements and then go to the ballpark.

But you've absolutely diminished the value of winning the division, which used to be paramount in baseball. You remember back that race in the early 1990s, Atlanta and San Francisco each won 103 games, one of them didn't make the playoffs. So, I think something has to change.

SIEGEL: Well, what might change?

Mr. FATSIS: We have to find a way to make it more of a disincentive to be the wild card team, because right now, there's such parity in baseball, being the wild card is no disadvantage. Wild card teams have won 26 playoff series and lost 20 under this system.

So, what do you do? There's little chance, I think, that baseball's going to expand from 30 teams to 32 teams or you could create four divisions in each league and you have four outright division winners. So, the best thing - and hold your noses here - would be to expand the playoffs a little bit. And I think Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci has an interesting suggestion here: Add a second wild card team, have a one game playoff for the last playoff spot that would force teams like the Yankees and the Red Sox to compete at their fullest this weekend instead of coasting to get into the playoffs.

SIEGEL: Thank you, Stefan.

Mr. FATSIS: Thanks, Robert.

SIEGEL: Stefan Fatsis of the Wall Street Journal where he writes about sports and the business of sports.

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