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X-Factors for the National League Playoff Race

Sports Illustrated
Sports Illustrated
 2021-09-23

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How these players perform over the home stretch could determine which contending teams secure the final two National League playoff spots.

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Welcome to The Opener, where every weekday morning you’ll get a fresh, topical column to start your day from one of SI.com’s MLB writers.

With fewer than two weeks remaining in the regular season, here’s what we know about the National League playoff picture: the Giants, Dodgers and Brewers have all punched their tickets, while the fight for the remaining two spots remains unsettled. Duking it out for those bids are the following clubs, who all have at least a faint glimmer of hope at pulling it off: the Braves, Cardinals, Phillies, Reds and Padres (pour one out for the Mets).

Last week, I identified an X-factor for the five American League teams in similar positions, focusing on non-headlining players that would play significant roles down the stretch. I’ll do the same for the NL squads mentioned above, beginning with the two teams that would be in the playoffs if the season ended today.

Atlanta Braves: RF Jorge Soler

80-70, first place in NL East

It was just two years ago that Soler led the American League with 48 home runs and played 162 games for the Royals. After a down 2020 season, the bottom fell out for the 29-year-old in the first half of 2021. In 94 games with Kansas City, Soler hit .192/.288/.370 with 13 home runs and 37 RBIs. In need of outfield depth after the Ronald Acuña Jr. tore his ACL, the Braves traded for Soler, Eddie Rosario and Adam Duvall at the deadline to help bolster the cause, and as much as Atlanta surely believed in each player, it’s hard to imagine the team expected either to be this good upon arriving to Truist Park.

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While Rosario has hit for the cycle and boasts an OPS over 1.000 since joining the Braves and Duvall has upped his power a bit since returning to Atlanta, Soler has completely flipped a switch and rediscovered his 2019 form. In 46 games with the Braves, Soler is hitting .269/.355/.514 with 11 home runs. He’s become more selective at the plate, lowering his strikeout-to-walk ratio from 2.6 with Kansas City to 1.6 with Atlanta. The Braves are 29–17 since Soler debuted on July 31, averaging 5.2 runs per game. Soler’s recently been moved up to the lead-off spot, further maximizing his impact on the lineup. If he can continue swinging a hot bat, the Braves should be able to fend off the Phillies for the NL East crown and capture their fourth straight division title.

St. Louis Cardinals: RP T.J. McFarland

82-69, 4.5 games ahead for second wild-card spot

Do you need an X-factor if you never lose? The Cardinals cruised past the Brewers, 10-2, on Wednesday night to pick up their 11th consecutive win. On Sept. 10—the date of the team’s most recent loss—St. Louis had playoff odds of 5.0%, per FanGraphs . That figure now sits at over 94%, transforming the team’s season from immense disappointment to World Series dark horse in less than two weeks.

It takes the whole roster to pull off a streak this hot, but relief pitcher T.J. McFarland is a true on-the-margins difference maker. The 32-year-old signed a minor league deal with Washington this offseason and never made it to the big leagues, posting a 5.25 ERA in Triple-A before being released. After signing with the Cardinals and impressing in a brief minor-league stint, the left-hander debuted with St. Louis on July 16, and after a few rough appearances has emerged as one of the team’s most dependable high-leverage arms. McFarland relies upon an elite changeup to generate ground balls at a 64.6% clip—fifth-highest among relief pitchers with at least 30 innings pitched. In 25 games since the start of August, McFarland has a 1.78 ERA and has not allowed a home run. If the Cardinals are to continue on their seemingly impervious run into the postseason, McFarland will be counted on to nail down some key outs.

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Philadelphia Phillies: RP Ian Kennedy

78-74, 3.0 games behind in NL East; 4.5 games behind second wild-card spot

As is always the case with the Phillies, it all comes down to the bullpen. Though they ended up scraping out a 4-3 win over the Orioles on Wednesday, the game featured the team’s 33rd blown save of the season—one shy of the all-time record of 34 set by the 2004 Rockies. Kennedy was brought in at the trade deadline to stabilize things at the end of games, and though he notched his 25th save of the season against Baltimore, he needed 32 pitches to do so and walked two batters in what was hardly a stress-free outing.

It was emblematic of Kennedy’s tenure in Philadelphia. In 20 games since coming over from Texas, the 36-year-old has a 4.71 ERA and is 9-for-12 in save opportunities. The long ball has been his undoing, with seven home runs allowed in 21 innings after giving up just five in 32.1 innings with the Rangers. Philadelphia has been burned in the late innings no matter who manager Joe Girardi has handed the ball to, so it’s not a surprise he’s sticking with Kennedy despite the right-hander’s struggles. The Phillies travel to division-leading Atlanta for three games to end September, and Kennedy will need to deliver when handed a ninth-inning lead if Philadelphia is to surpass the Braves for first place.

Cincinnati Reds: 3B Eugenio Suárez

78-74, 4.5 games behind second wild-card spot

Few hitters have had a more miserable 2021 season than Suárez. The former All-Star who hit 49 home runs in 2019 is batting .182/.271/.394 in 135 games this year, striking out over 30% of the time. His .182 batting average is the third-lowest for a player with at least 500 plate appearances since 2000, trailing only Chris Davis (.168 in 2018) and Dan Uggla (.179 in 2013)—not the best company for a guy you’re depending on to make the postseason.

But it’s Suárez’s form of late that can give Cincinnati fans hope for a big finish. In 15 games since the start of September, the 30-year-old is batting .343/.455/.771 with four home runs, seven walks and just 12 strikeouts in 44 plate appearances. That’s a small sample size, sure, but it’s his most productive stretch of the season when his team has needed it the most. He’ll need to maintain that pace if the Reds are able to run down the white-hot Cardinals.

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San Diego Padres: 2B Adam Frazier

76-75, 6.0 games behind second wild-card spot

We’re not quite at the point where we can put the nail in the coffin on the Padres’ 2021 season, but it’s coming up in a hurry. San Diego dropped its fifth straight game on Wednesday and has lost 26 of its last 36 to nosedive into irrelevance. The Padres are closer to the fourth-place Rockies than they are to the second wild-card spot, and it would take a miracle for them to get back into the race in the little time they have left.

Doing so does not fall on one man’s shoulders, but infielder Adam Frazier is a key piece that hasn’t quite delivered in the second half. Since coming over in a trade from Pittsburgh, the All-Star hit .221/.283/.260 with just three extra-base hits in his first 31 games with the Padres, eventually losing his status as an everyday player. He’s since regained a regular spot in the lineup, and has batted .353 in 15 games since Sept. 4. One player’s hot streak won’t carry San Diego over the hump, but the Padres desperately need Frazier—and a host of others—to mount one last push before closing the book on what’s been among the season’s biggest disappointments.

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