9 factors that will decide the Wild Card races

Detroit Tigers

The Dodgers, Rays and A’s are virtual locks to make the postseason. The Braves, Cubs and Padres probably are as well. Here’s where it gets fun: Another 17 teams are within 2 1/2 games of the remaining 10 playoff berths.
To sum up: 23 teams in contention for 16 playoff

The Dodgers, Rays and A’s are virtual locks to make the postseason. The Braves, Cubs and Padres probably are as well. Here’s where it gets fun: Another 17 teams are within 2 1/2 games of the remaining 10 playoff berths.

To sum up: 23 teams in contention for 16 playoff berths with 19 days to go in the season. Or, to put it another way: Playoff pressure has already set in for a bunch of teams, and that’s why the 2020 season has played out more excitingly than almost anyone could have predicted.

Who could have imagined we’d enter the home stretch with the Orioles, Tigers and Mariners pushing the Yankees and Twins for the seventh and eighth American League berths? Or that the Marlins and Giants would be in the middle of the NL race?

Let’s check out nine factors that will decide the Wild Card berths:

1. Will the Astros get Justin Verlander and Lance McCullers Jr. back?
This may be the difference between the Astros playing deep into October and them missing the postseason. Verlander made one start before being sidelined by an elbow injury. While details have been scarce, there’s little reason to think he’s close to returning. McCullers is also an unknown. He says his elbow issue is in a different area from the one two years-removed from Tommy John surgery. Without Verlander and McCullers, the Astros aren’t getting enough innings from their rotation, which puts even more stress on a bullpen made up of a bunch of kids.

2. Can Aaron Boone do anything to stop the Yankees’ slide?
It’s not fair to put the blame entirely on the manager’s shoulders. He’s not the reason Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton are on the injured list. Nor is he the reason Luis Severino will not throw a pitch this season. He’s certainly not the reason the bullpen ERA is over six in the past three weeks or that Gary Sánchez, Brett Gardner and Aaron Hicks aren’t hitting. On the other hand, it’s his responsibility to figure out a way to lighten the mood, change the tone or simply shake things up.

3. Can anything stop the Blue Jays?
The Blue Jays have won 17 of 24 games since Aug. 17. In that time, only the White Sox and Rays have been better among AL clubs. Hyun Jin Ryu has been the ace the Blue Jays envisioned him being, and Taijuan Walker has been a great Trade Deadline addition. Some of the kids are struggling (or injured, in the case of Bo Bichette), but Lourdes Gurriel Jr. is picking up the slack. Toronto has eight more games against the Yankees and a four-game series in Philadelphia to further improve its position.

4. Can the kids push the Marlins over the line?
Never mind that Miami has used 58 players, including 35 pitchers. The Marlins have ridden 97-mph fastballs and tons of youthful energy to the threshold of a remarkable season. Take a bow, Don Mattingly. With offense still scarce, the rotation will have to carry the Marlins down the stretch, which means rookies Sixto Sánchez and Trevor Rogers — neither of whom had ever pitched above Double-A — must continue to perform at a high level.

5. How do the Mariners survive a brutal finishing stretch with a decimated bullpen?
Don’t look now, but as of the end of Tuesday night’s slate they’ve won 11 of 15 to get within two games of the Astros in the AL West. They also finish with 10 games against the Padres, A’s and Astros. More problematic is having seven relievers on the injured list and trading three others to the Padres at the Trade Deadline. Their current 10-man bullpen has seven rookies and a waiver claim or two. Overall, the Seattle bullpen’s 6.32 ERA is the third-highest in the Majors.

6. Will the Cardinals run out of gas?
As Matt Carpenter said recently, “If we make the playoffs, I think it would be an amazing story of perseverance, grit and nothing short of a miracle.” The 2020 Cardinals have an erratic offense and a pitching staff that’ll be stretched to the max by playing 23 games over the final 18 days after early-season postponements due to COVID-19. But they also have Paul Goldschmidt, Adam Wainwright and a bunch of young guys who have a chance to do something amazing.

7. Can the Orioles replace Anthony Santander’s production?
He wasn’t just the O’s best offensive player in 2020. He was the guy who represented everything this team has achieved. Now he’s probably lost for the season with an oblique injury, and it’s up to DJ Stewart and hotshot prospect Ryan Mountcastle to pick up the slack. Manager Brandon Hyde has convinced this club it can finish the deal.

8. Will the Tigers be able to hold leads with a bullpen-by-committee setup?
Bryan Garcia picked up his first career save on Sunday. He has also pitched in the fifth, sixth and seventh innings this month. Kyle Funkhouser has been called upon in the sixth, seventh and eighth. Two former closers, Joe Jiménez and Gregory Soto, are in setup roles. This is the current reality for the Tigers as they attempt to snag their first postseason berth in six years. They’ve got impressive young talent dotted up and down the roster, but the late innings have become a tightrope.

9. Will Bryce Harper find his MVP form?
He has had a tough few weeks, which came after one of the best opening stretches of his career. Aaron Nola, Zack Wheeler, Rhys Hoskins and newly acquired Brandon Workman have gotten the Phillies on the threshold of their first playoff appearance in nine years. If Harper gets hot, this is potentially a monstrous October team.

Richard Justice has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2011. Follow him on Twitter at @RichardJustice.

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