10 Degrees: The unbelievably close National League and how 2018 may provide an all-time-great pennant race

MLB columnist
Yahoo Sports

By the time Sunday’s games ended, the Atlanta Braves, Arizona Diamondbacks, Philadelphia Phillies, Colorado Rockies, Milwaukee Brewers, St. Louis Cardinals and Los Angeles Dodgers all stood within 1½ games of each other. Three of them were tied for two wild-card spots, and the two teams that led their divisions did so by ½ game. Six weeks remain in the baseball season, and the National League is a beautiful, sloppy free for all.

When the best team in the league has played at a 93-win pace, parity is almost a guaranteed consequence, and yet this is excessive for Major League Baseball, reminiscent of the 2007 season, in which the Diamondbacks led the league with 90 wins. There is no great NL team. There are plenty of good ones.

And while injuries may waylay one of them and regression another, the five teams that make the playoffs may come down to something entirely out of teams and players’ control: the schedule. When so many teams are so tightly packed, strength of opponent and home games and off-days matter.

Thankfully, Yahoo Sports has looked at each of those elements, plus a few others, to offer the most comprehensive look at the last quarter of the season for teams from both leagues. The schedule could prove awfully important in the American League, too, with the Houston Astros slipping, the Oakland A’s surging, the Seattle Mariners hanging around, the New York Yankees staying afloat, the Cleveland Indians lurking – and everyone staring up at the Boston Red Sox, who are so far ahead of anyone they could have the hardest schedule and still easily finish with the game’s best record.

They don’t, it turns out. That dishonor belongs to the …

1. Arizona Diamondbacks
The Arizona Diamondbacks have the most difficult schedule of any contender down the stretch as Yahoo Sports ranks them from toughest to easiest. (AP)
The Arizona Diamondbacks have the most difficult schedule of any contender down the stretch as Yahoo Sports ranks them from toughest to easiest. (AP)

Record: 69-56, lead NL West by ½ game
Run differential: +81 (8th in MLB)
Opponents’ winning %: .526
Home games: 20 of 37
Off-days: Aug. 20, 23, Sept. 5, 20, 27
Games vs. teams .500 or better: 29 of 37
Key series: vs. Dodgers, Sept. 24-26
Overview: On the bright side, the Diamondbacks do play more games at home, where … they’re worse than they are on the road. That’s pretty much the personification of Arizona’s schedule – the most difficult of any contender as Yahoo Sports ranks them from toughest to easiest. Their out-of-division games come against the Angels, Mariners, Braves, Astros and Cubs – all of whom are .500 or better, 80 percent of whom are playoff-hungry. Particularly daunting is a gauntlet from Sept. 6-26, in which the D-backs have one off-day and play 20 games against teams with a combined .560 winning percentage. If Arizona holds on to the NL West, or even a playoff spot, it will have earned it. And maybe at the expense of the …

2. Atlanta Braves
Like the Diamondbacks, the Braves lead their division by the slimmest of margins. (AP)
Like the Diamondbacks, the Braves lead their division by the slimmest of margins. (AP)

Record: 68-55, lead NL East by ½ game
Run differential: +85 (7th in MLB)
Opponents’ winning %: .520
Home games: 19 of 39
Off-days: Aug. 27, Sept. 13, 24
Games vs. teams .500 or better: 26 of 39
Key series: at Phillies, Sept. 28-30
Overview: Like the Diamondbacks, the Braves lead their division by the slimmest of margins. Unlike the Diamondbacks, they’ve got only three off-days and nearly no soft spots. There’s a series against the Marlins and another against the Mets – and both are on the road. Almost every out-of-division opponent is better than .500. And finishing the season with seven out of 10 against division rival and No. 1 threat Philadelphia makes the end-of-September scheduling terribly prescient and impressive for those without a vested interest – and nail-bitingly tense for those who do. It’s a feeling known by those who have spent the season watching the …

3. Seattle Mariners
Yes, the Mariners’ run differential really is that bad. (AP)
Yes, the Mariners’ run differential really is that bad. (AP)

Record: 71-54, trail second AL wild card by 3½ games and AL West by 4½ games
Run differential: -42 (19th in MLB)
Opponents’ winning %: .511
Home games: 18 of 37
Off-days: Aug. 23, 27, Sept. 6, 10, 20
Games vs. teams .500 or better: 23 of 37
Key series: at A’s, Aug. 30-Sept. 2
Overview: Yes, the Mariners’ run differential really is that bad. And somehow they’re still well within striking distance of not just the wild card but the division title with two teams ahead of them. The schedule doesn’t do a whole lot to help the Mariners’ cause. They’ve got two three-city road trips – the second of which is especially vicious, with a Dallas-to-Seattle flight on Sept. 23 and what could be a pivotal game against the A’s on Sept. 24. The key series is as early as it is because if Oakland runs roughshod through the Mariners, it would make a comeback that much more difficult. Then again, all any of these teams need to do is rip off an eight-game winning streak like the recent one by the …

4. St. Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals don’t even play the division- and league-leading Chicago Cubs until the last series of the season (AP)
The Cardinals don’t even play the division- and league-leading Chicago Cubs until the last series of the season (AP)

Record: 68-57, trail second wild card by ½ game and NL Central by 4 games
Run differential: +56 (11th in MLB)
Opponents’ winning %: .512
Home games: 19 of 37
Off-days: Aug. 23, 27, Sept. 6, 20, 27
Games vs. teams .500 or better: 25 of 37
Key series: vs. Brewers, Sept. 24-26
Overview: Here the Cardinals were, afterthoughts, and here the Cardinals are, suddenly at the forefront of so many teams’ minds. They have the archetypal NL schedule: nothing particularly great, nothing particularly awful. They don’t even play the division- and league-leading Chicago Cubs until the last series of the season, which will cap what could be one whale of a week for St. Louis: three at home against Milwaukee, three at Wrigley Field. The Cardinals have put together quite the run under interim manager Mike Shildt, going 21-11, a record bested in that timespan only by Cleveland, Boston and the …

5. Oakland A’s
The off-days in September are plentiful for Oakland. (AP)
The off-days in September are plentiful for Oakland. (AP)

Record: 74-50, lead second AL wild card by 3½ games
Run differential: +67 (9th in MLB)
Opponents’ winning %: .502
Home games: 19 of 38
Off-days: Sept. 6, 10, 17, 27
Games vs. teams .500 or better: 19 of 38
Key series: at Mariners, Sept. 24-26
Overview: Starting Aug. 27, the A’s have about as brutal a 10-game stretch as one can: three at Houston, four vs. Seattle, three vs. the Yankees. After that, it’s a lot of eh. That’s pretty much the A’s schedule, actually, and this is the point at which they start softening some. The off-days in September are plentiful. The home-road split is even. The opponents’ record is almost neutral. Take out that Houston-Seattle-New York stretch, and it’s cake. But that’s more than a quarter of the games remaining for Oakland, and the schedule is incontrovertible. It says, for example, that a .552 winning percentage is the best for a team that will face the …

6. Colorado Rockies
It’s true: 0 of 38 games for the Rockies will come against the teams with the seven best records in baseball. (AP)
It’s true: 0 of 38 games for the Rockies will come against the teams with the seven best records in baseball. (AP)

Record: 68-56, in three-way tie for NL wild card spots
Run differential: -12 (17th in MLB)
Opponents’ winning %: .501
Home games: 22 of 38
Off-days: Aug. 20, 29, Sept. 6, 20
Games vs. teams .500 or better: 22 of 38
Key series: at Dodgers, Sept. 17-19
Overview: It’s true: 0 of 38 games for the Rockies will come against the teams with the seven best records in baseball. It’s also true that they have the most home games. So all of this looks good until one recognizes the Rockies, who have in past years faded down the stretch, whose pitchers struggle to make it through full seasons, have exactly two off-days in September. Also potentially rough: finishing the season against the Phillies and Nationals – the latter of whom, by the way, did not make this cut for potential playoff teams. They’re 125 games deep into the season and under .500. Don’t @ me. Save that for talk about the …

7. Houston Astros
The Astros have the utter privilege of finishing their season with four games in Baltimore. (AP)
The Astros have the utter privilege of finishing their season with four games in Baltimore. (AP)

Record: 75-49, lead AL West by 1 game
Run differential: +200 (2nd in MLB)
Opponents’ winning %: .504
Home games: 19 of 38
Off-days: Aug. 23, Sept. 6, 13, 20
Games vs. teams .500 or better: 25 of 38
Key series: vs. A’s, Aug. 27-29
Overview: On Aug. 7, the Astros led their division by 5½ games. By the 18th of the month, it was tied. All of this is to say: Division advantages in baseball evaporate quickly, and one may take that for granted. That said, the Astros do have the division back in their possession for the moment and benefit from an easier schedule than their brethren. They do have 10 games against the helter-skelter Angels – who could relish the idea of playing spoiler – and have the utter privilege of finishing their season with four games in Baltimore against one of the worst teams MLB ever has seen in 100-plus years. Even then, the Astros are still finishing behind the …

8. Boston Red Sox
The Red Sox will finish the regular season hosting the Yankees. (AP)
The Red Sox will finish the regular season hosting the Yankees. (AP)

Record: 88-37, lead AL East by 9½ games
Run differential: +216 (1st in MLB)
Opponents’ winning %: .504
Home games: 21 of 37
Off-days: Aug. 27, Sept. 6, 10, 17, 27
Games vs. teams .500 or better: 22 of 37
Key series: at Yankees, Sept. 18-20
Overview: Ample days off to allow manager Alex Cora to rest his team for the playoffs? Check. Series against the Marlins, White Sox, Blue Jays, Mets and Orioles to show the game’s talent gap? Indeed. If it seems Boston should be lower on this list, well, it faces the Indians seven times and the Yankees six – including the final three of the season at Fenway Park. Why isn’t that the key series? Well, if the Red Sox haven’t buried the Yankees once and for all a month from now, they could do so then. It must be a nice problem, having just one team within striking distance as opposed to seven, like the …

9. Chicago Cubs
How about this over the next nine games for the Cubs: Tigers, Reds, Mets. (AP)
How about this over the next nine games for the Cubs: Tigers, Reds, Mets. (AP)

Record: 71-52, lead NL Central by 3½ games
Run differential: +89 (6th in MLB)
Opponents’ winning %: .491
Home games: 20 of 39
Off-days: Aug. 20, Sept. 13, 20
Games vs. teams .500 or better: 20 of 39
Key series: vs. Brewers, Sept. 10-12
Overview: Let’s start with this: The Cubs have the fewest off-days of any remaining team. At one point, they’ll play 23 games in 23 days. And during that stretch without a day off, they’ll take a Chicago-to-Atlanta-to-Philadelphia-to-Milwaukee-to-Washington-to-Chicago trip. So why aren’t they higher? Simple: Their opponents aren’t all that good. How about this over their next nine games: Tigers, Reds, Mets. Or no opponent with better than a .553 winning percentage. The Cubs, quite simply, are better than everyone they’re playing, and that lack of quality should buoy them as they’re chased from the top to the bottom of the contenders, a spot currently held by the …

10. Los Angeles Dodgers
The Dodgers play 13 of their next 15 games at home. (AP)
The Dodgers play 13 of their next 15 games at home. (AP)

Record: 67-58, trail second NL wild card by 1½ games and NL West by 2 games
Run differential: +113 (5th in MLB)
Opponents’ winning %: .494
Home games: 19 of 37
Off-days: Aug. 23, 27, Sept. 6, 20, 27
Games vs. teams .500 or better: 20 of 37
Key series: at Diamondbacks, Sept. 24-26
Overview: Somehow the team with the best run differential in the league has the eighth-best record in it. The good news for the Dodgers is they play 13 of their next 15 games at home. And that their out-of-division opponents include the Reds, Mets and Rangers. And that they’ve got six games against the Padres. It’s not an ideal situation, certainly, but the scheduling gods were on the Dodgers’ side, with only two NL teams more fortunate than they are, one of which is the …

11. Philadelphia Phillies
Finishing the season with 17 games in 17 days will be no easy task for the Phillies. (AP)
Finishing the season with 17 games in 17 days will be no easy task for the Phillies. (AP)

Record: 68-55, in three-way tie for NL wild card spots
Run differential: +8 (15th in MLB)
Opponents’ winning %: .490
Home games: 18 of 38
Off-days: Aug. 20, 30, Sept. 6, 13
Games vs. teams .500 or better: 14 of 38
Key series: vs. Braves, Sept. 28-30
Overview: Finishing the season with 17 games in 17 days is no easy task, and yet the beginning of that stretch for the Phillies will conclude a 15-game run during which they’ll play the Mets and Marlins a dozen times. That’s pretty much the only reason they’re this low. Out-of-division games against the Cubs and Rockies aren’t altogether pleasant, and a 10-game at Braves-at Rockies-vs. Braves stretch to end the season is trial by fire. They can only hope the Mets and Marlins elevate them enough to keep that fire stoked. That’s not the sort of problem one would foresee with the …

12. New York Yankees
The Yankees’ next 13 games constitute perhaps the single softest two weeks of any schedule in baseball this season. (AP)
The Yankees’ next 13 games constitute perhaps the single softest two weeks of any schedule in baseball this season. (AP)

Record:78-46, lead first AL wild card by 7½ games
Run differential: +148 (3rd in MLB)
Opponents’ winning %: .478
Home games: 16 of 38
Off-days: Aug. 20, 23, Sept. 6, 13, 17
Games vs. teams .500 or better: 16 of 38
Key series: at Red Sox, Sept. 28-30
Overview: The Yankees’ next 13 games constitute perhaps the single softest two weeks of any schedule in baseball this season. First is two games at Miami, then four at Baltimore, followed by three at home against the White Sox and four vs. Detroit. That’s 13 games against teams with a .365 winning percentage. If the Yankees harbor any hope of catching Boston, that run will happen before September dawns. Because their September is sneakily difficult. It’s the kind of difficulty 13 games of .365 ball more than negates, but at Oakland and Seattle, plus two series against Boston? Bad travel and quality opponents are their comeuppance for these next two weeks. Despite having a lower opponent winning percentage, the Yankees still don’t have it as easy as the …

13. Milwaukee Brewers
The Brewers have the most days off of any contender with six. (AP)
The Brewers have the most days off of any contender with six. (AP)

Record: 69-57, in three-way tie for NL wild card spots
Run differential: +22 (13th in MLB)
Opponents’ winning %: .494
Home games: 21 of 36
Off-days: Aug. 23, 27, Sept. 6, 13, 20, 27
Games vs. teams .500 or better: 18 of 36
Key series: at Cubs, Sept. 10-12
Overview: The Brewers have the most days off of any contender with six. And the highest percentage of home games remaining. No road trip lasts longer than six games. The best team they face is the Cubs – and they want to face Chicago those six times, so they can commandeer the NL Central. End the season with three at home against the Tigers, and the Brewers are living the good life. Not as good, mind you, as that of the …

14. Cleveland Indians
For the second consecutive season, the Indians have far and away the easiest down-the-stretch schedule. (AP)
For the second consecutive season, the Indians have far and away the easiest down-the-stretch schedule. (AP)

Record: 71-52, lead AL Central by 12 games
Run differential: +138 (4th in MLB)
Opponents’ winning %: .454
Home games: 18 of 39
Off-days: Aug. 27, Sept. 13, 17
Games vs. teams .500 or better: 13 of 39
Key series: vs. Red Sox, Sept. 21-23
Overview: For the second consecutive season, the Indians have far and away the easiest down-the-stretch schedule. It’s almost laughable. Even though Cleveland has only three off-days and plays fewer than half of its 39 games at home, the Indians benefit from 10 games against the Royals and six against the White Sox, two of the three worst teams in baseball. Cleveland plays Boston seven times? No big deal. They also have series against the Twins, Blue Jays and Tigers. The Indians’ division lead is more than comfortable, their September opponents play .433 ball altogether and they get to play the sort of schedule the …

15. Arizona Diamondbacks and every other NL contender wishes it had. Instead, the Diamondbacks are fighting for the postseason, part of this group that will vote three off the island between now and the end of September.

Perhaps this will be the closest things get. Teams will fade. Others will rise. What looks like an incredible race may be nothing of the sort. That’s how races work. It’s what makes today as amazing as it is, with all these teams sharing one another’s personal space and it getting just a little uncomfortable.

Their discomfort, of course, makes for one hell of a pennant race, so if it’s not too terribly selfish, a humble request for the teams locked in the kind of race even better than the one among all the could-be-100-win teams in the AL: Keep it up, boys. You’re doing just fine.

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