The 11 factors that will sway the NL West race

MLB columnist
Yahoo Sports

Somebody will hit a home run. Somebody will throw a slider when somebody else is expecting a fastball. The baseball will stay in the air just long enough, or not quite long enough, and in a couple weeks the National League West will have its champion.

That team will then be that much closer to hoping whoever comes out of the American League will be wholly exhausted and therefore unable to raise its arms. Such will be October.

Meantime, 11 factors that will sway the NL West:

The final outs

What you don’t want to be uncertain of in the final 10 percent of the season is the final 10 percent of the baseball game. That’s the place where eye twitches come from.

A short time after parachuting from Archie Bradley (14 batters faced, .615 batting average against, 27.00 ERA in September) in the critical set-up role, the Arizona Diamondbacks did the same with the guy he was setting up for – Brad Boxberger, who suddenly was hitting a lot of bats himself.

Arizona Diamondbacks relief pitcher Brad Boxberger is trying to find his role in September. (AP)
Arizona Diamondbacks relief pitcher Brad Boxberger is trying to find his role in September. (AP)

So, manager Torey Lovullo will navigate that very difficult schedule against some of the top offenses in the game without a set closer, without a set set-up man, in an era when the game leans harder than ever on bullpens, himself included. Until further notice Bradley and Boxberger will serve other roles, presumably as matchups allow in softer spots, and Lovullo will turn later and more often to the likes of lefties Andrew Chafin, Jake Diekman and T.J. McFarland and righties Yoshihisa Hirano and Brad Ziegler. Desperate times, and all.

The final outs, farther West

Kenley Jansen is expected to require a procedure to correct his irregular heartbeat in the offseason, the same surgery he needed six years ago. Meantime, he skipped last weekend’s series in Colorado, continuing a season that has been more than capable for him but also has had its fractured moments. He started poorly. He allowed seven runs, including four home runs, over four late-August appearances. Batters are hitting .361 against him over the past month. He also has walked only nine batters since early May. When the next-best ninth-inning option is Kenta Maeda, and when Kenta Maeda is at best reluctant to be that option, then you might still be better off than the Diamondbacks, but maybe not as well off as the Rockies.

Who’s next?

The schedule is the schedule, an indicator not necessarily of wins and/or losses but where the bus needs to go, because just as the Diamondbacks are 6-1 against the Miami Marlins, the Dodgers are 1-6 against the Cincinnati Reds. But, if you absolutely have to decide how this is going to go before it actually goes, well, here you go:

Arizona: at Colorado (1), at Houston (3), vs. Chicago Cubs (3), vs. Colorado (3), vs. Dodgers (3), at San Diego (3).

Comment: Based on factors such as winning percentage and scariness, this is brutal. The Diamondbacks have won six of seven games in San Diego. It may not matter by then.

Colorado: vs. Arizona (1), at San Francisco (3), at Dodgers (3), at Arizona (3), vs. Philadelphia (4), vs. Washington (3).

Comment: Well, that’s an interesting final week. This is what happens when divisions are odd-numbered. And it sort of depends on what’s going on with the Phillies and Nats by then, who they’re pitching by then, and who’s about had it with this demon of a season.

Los Angeles: at St. Louis (4), vs. Colorado (3), vs. San Diego (3), at Arizona (3), at San Francisco (3).

Comment: Oh, well then, this could be fun for the Giants. If the pitching rotation stands, Madison Bumgarner would miss the series, though there’s plenty of time for adjustments. Clayton Kershaw is on schedule for the final Sunday, though the better scenario for the Dodgers would be to start him two or three days after that. The Dodgers have been better on the road than at home, so perhaps the road-heavy finish will not be a factor.

No, you pitch

Colorado Rockies starting pitcher Kyle Freeland will pitch three times at Coors Field during the final weeks of the season. (AP)
Colorado Rockies starting pitcher Kyle Freeland will pitch three times at Coors Field during the final weeks of the season. (AP)

Kyle Freeland will not be the National League’s Cy Young Award winner. The second-year lefty does however deserve degree-of-difficulty love, some LoDo love, as the pitcher who tamed Coors Field. His ERA in 13 home starts this season is 2.21, and in 168 1/3 career innings is 2.99. Pitchers generally do not win there. They survive there. Or they don’t, which is far, far more often. And, if they’re lucky, they get on the plane and then on with the rest of their lives. The Rockies have nine home games remaining. Freeland is on schedule to pitch three of them.

Is this real life?

The Rockies have been doing this for a while. They’ve been to a World Series. They played a wild-card game last fall. They field — and have fielded — some very good ballplayers. They have not ever won the NL West. They have finished second a few times. A quarter century since their inception, the Rockies could do this. The challenge, the weight of it, is not insignificant. The Dodgers are deeper. And they do this all the time.

What yesterday means for today

The Dodgers have been among the worst teams in baseball at batting average with runners in scoring position. (AP)
The Dodgers have been among the worst teams in baseball at batting average with runners in scoring position. (AP)

Nothing, really. Except sometimes it seems like the statistics – the good ones, the bad ones – begin to lead the result, rather than the reverse. So, the Dodgers have been among the worst teams in baseball at batting average with runners in scoring position (.242, 25th overall) and runners in scoring position with two out (.194, 30th overall). Like, down there with the Texas Rangers and Baltimore Orioles and Miami Marlins. Like, historically lousy. Really bad at it, so far: Austin Barnes (.100), Enrique Hernandez (.193), Cody Bellinger, (.227), Joc Pederson (.231), Chris Taylor (.231), and Yasiel Puig (.232). They call this “clutchiness,” or the lack thereof. They also call it a really good way to finish second or third.

Speaking of clutchiness …

One-run games. This always seems a bit random. The Marlins have won more one-run games than they’ve lost. The Astros have lost more than they’ve won. Our tendency is to ascribe one-run outcomes to bullpens, which would be fine, except do you know who operates the worst bullpen – statistically – in baseball? The Marlins. You know who has the best? The Astros. Take that for all it’s worth and know the Diamondbacks are 18-27 in one-run games, while the Rockies are 24-14 and Dodgers are 21-21.

Everybody pile on what’s his name

The Rockies, Dodgers and Diamondbacks have plenty of productive players who, by themselves, could turn an offense and therefore win the division. Our favorites:

The Rockies’ Nolan Arenado follows the flight of his sacrifice fly to drive in a run against Padres starting pitcher Joey Lucchesi on Aug. 23, 2018, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
The Rockies’ Nolan Arenado follows the flight of his sacrifice fly to drive in a run against Padres starting pitcher Joey Lucchesi on Aug. 23, 2018, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Nolan Arenado, Rockies. You could argue Trevor Story here or even Charlie Blackmon, who, in the past month, has begun to turn a rather mediocre season into something more presentable. Or Carlos Gonzalez. (We could go on.) (DJ LeMahieu.) Arenado, who recently slogged through an oh-for-15 and five-for-41 spot, has the history, the credentials, the get-after-it, the charisma, to be the difference. He gets hot, everything changes. And, like most, he rakes at Coors.

Manny Machado, Dodgers. Machado over Justin Turner, Cody Bellinger, Matt Kemp and Max Muncy because he has so much to gain from it. As in, one more reminder to the owners and GM’s seeking one last reason to make him rich. Richer. He has been good with the Dodgers. Good, as in fine. Not game-changing, though. The worst statistical month of his career has been September, which, OK, one of them had to be. But, also, in limited postseason experience (seven games), he’s a .174 hitter. He could clean that up, too, with a dynamic second half of September.

Paul Goldschmidt, Diamondbacks. He’s their best player, has been for years and has killed it since that clunky start. As in monthly OPSes since of 1.199 in June, .950 in July, 1.108 in August and 1.206 in September. The dude is a horse and no matter how many top-five MVPs he gathers it seems he will forever be underrated. (It’d be cool, too, if A.J. Pollock and Steven Souza picked it up just a little.)

Put it out into the universe and it’ll come true

Dodgers manager Dave Roberts has said many times – not said, exactly, more like guaranteed – the Dodgers will win the West. It’s his optimistic nature. It’s how he expects his team to carry itself. And it’s worked before. The Dodgers have won a bunch of these, the last two with him on the top step.

Torey Lovullo?

“Haha,” he chuckled. “It’s definitely not my style to say that the way Dave has. … I’m sure he’s got a good reason for it. Maybe knowing he’s said that in the past and it worked. No, it’s definitely not my style and not something I’d do publicly.”

This will have nothing to do with who wins the division. It’s just fun.

Weird stuff happens, so be careful of that

So, get this. Rockies pitchers have a 7.68 ERA in the first inning. Well, they did. It was 7.68 and then Antonio Senzatela allowed a first-inning home run to David Peralta on Tuesday night, which made it worse, and the Rockies lost. Also, Kyle Freeland has a 3.10 ERA in the first inning, which means it’s pretty bad after him. You can’t win a game in the first inning, but you could go a long way toward losing one.

Wait, who?

Matt Holliday, Rockies. He’s 38. He apparently was retired, whether by design or not. Then he showed up in Colorado a few weeks ago, immediately resumed a clubhouse leadership role from a decade before, and is batting .355 and playing a fair amount of left field. In a long, distinguished career, September is his most productive month, many of those after playing the previous five months. But still.

Yoshihisa Hirano, Diamondbacks. He’s 34. After 11 seasons pitching for Orix in Japan, Hirano has made 69 appearances for the Diamondbacks, posted a 2.15 ERA and dominated both righties and lefties. He recorded his first career U.S. save Tuesday night in Colorado, but blew a save the next night. Such is the life.

Dodgers starting pitcher Julio Urias is back with the team after missing more than a year due to a shoulder injury. (AP)
Dodgers starting pitcher Julio Urias is back with the team after missing more than a year due to a shoulder injury. (AP)

Julio Urias, Dodgers. He’s 22. That sounds young. It is. But Urias made his debut in 2016 at 19, pitched to a 3.39 ERA in 18 games that season, then made five starts in 2017 before needing shoulder surgery. He hasn’t pitched in the big leagues since that May and now, after eight minor-league appearances, finds himself in the Dodgers bullpen for the next two-plus weeks.

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