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Diamondbacks crunch-time Q&A: Setting table for final week of contentious playoff race

Jesse Friedman Avatar
September 25, 2023
Diamondbacks pitcher Luis Frías and catcher Gabriel Moreno greet after a soggy Diamondbacks win at Yankee Stadium.

With now only one week of games remaining in the 2023 season, the Diamondbacks are well-positioned to make their first playoff appearance since 2017.

With a 7-1 win over the New York Yankees on a soggy Sunday afternoon in the Bronx, the Diamondbacks improved to 82-73 and maintained their position as the second NL Wild Card team.

With anywhere from five to seven games remaining for each team, here is where the NL Wild Card race stands:

Philadelphia Phillies8769.558+5.0
Arizona Diamondbacks8273.529+0.5
Chicago Cubs8274.526
Miami Marlins8175.5191.0
Cincinnati Reds8077.5102.5
NL Wild Card standings as of start of play on Sep. 25

While the Diamondbacks are in an enviable position, a lot can change in a week, particularly with two teams as close as the Cubs and Marlins.

What the Diamondbacks have going for them is a lack of time. It is difficult t0 make up multiple games in a seven-day span, particularly when none of the teams play each other. Even if, say, the Cincinnati Reds were to win all of their remaining games, they would still be dependent on at least two of the Diamondbacks, Cubs and Marlins fading down the stretch. While not impossible, it is far from likely.

Technically, neither the San Francisco Giants nor San Diego Padres, both with records of 77-79, have been mathematically eliminated. But their FanGraphs playoff odds of 0.0% tell you all you need really need to know.

As the final week of the Diamondbacks’ contentious playoff race gets under way, here are answers to several crucial questions.

Who are the Diamondbacks and other NL wild card contenders playing this week?

Here is a look at each NL Wild Card contender’s schedule the rest of the way:

  • Diamondbacks: 1 @ NYY, 3 @ CWS, 3 vs. HOU
  • Cubs: 3 @ ATL, 3 @ MIL
  • Marlins: 3 @ NYM, 3 @ PIT
  • Reds: 2 @ CLE, 3 @ STL

Of the four teams, the Cubs have the most difficult schedule on paper.

We should, however, that neither the Atlanta Braves nor Milwaukee Brewers have much to play for at this point. The Braves have a relatively safe 3 1/2-game lead over the Los Angeles Dodgers for the top seed in the National League, and the Brewers are one win or one Cubs loss away from clinching the NL Central.

As for the Marlins and Reds, all of their remaining games are on the road, but all are also against below-.500 teams. The Reds have a steep uphill climb to the postseason no matter how well they play, but the Marlins’ relatively easy slate against the New York Mets and Pittsburgh Pirates puts them in decent position to make up ground on the D-backs and Cubs this week.

Provided that the weather cooperates, the Diamondbacks will finish their series with the Yankees on Monday and then head to Chicago to face a last-place White Sox team for three games. Their season concludes with a three-game set at home against the defending champion Houston Astros. More on that one in a bit.

What tiebreaker scenarios could the Diamondbacks encounter?

With both the Marlins and Cubs within 1 1/2 games of the Diamondbacks, there is a decent chance that MLB’s tiebreaker rules will come into play. (Note that Game 163 was abolished when MLB shifted to a new 12-team playoff format last year, and all ties heading into the postseason are now determined by math.)

The first tiebreaker is head-to-head record. The Diamondbacks lost their season series with both the Marlins and Reds, so both of those teams have the tiebreaker advantage over Arizona. The D-backs, on the other hand, own the tiebreaker with the Cubs.

A tie between the Reds and Marlins would be more complicated since those teams each won three games apiece in their season series. That brings us to the second tiebreaker, which is intradivision record.

Since the Reds are 20-29 against NL Central opponents (with three games left to play) and the Marlins are 25-24 against NL East opponents (also with three games left to play), the Marlins are already guaranteed to finish the year with the better intradivision record. Thus, Miami would take a tiebreaker with the Reds, should that prove meaningful.

Here is a complete look of how any two-team tiebreakers involving the D-backs, Cubs, Marlins or Reds would play out:

Two-team tiebreaker winners among NL Wild Card competitors

It is worth noting that the Marlins win all of their possible two-team tiebreakers and the Cubs lose all of them.

In the event of a three-team tie, the process is a bit more complicated. (Because of course it is.)

If Team 1 has a better head-t0-head record than both Team 2 and Team 3, Team 1 gets the top spot. (If needed, the two-team tiebreaker process outlined above would determine whether Team 2 or Team 3 gets seeded higher.)

If Teams 1 and 2 have identical records against each other and winning records against Team 3, then Teams 1 and 2 revert to the two-team tiebreaker rules outlined above and Team 3 gets the last slot of the three.

If neither of the above three-team scenarios hold true, then a three-team tiebreaker is determined by overall win percentage against the other two teams.

Practically, here is a look at all possible three-team tiebreaker scenarios involving the Diamondbacks:

  • A tie involving the Diamondbacks, Cubs and Marlins would result in the following order: 1) Marlins, 2) Diamondbacks, 3) Cubs.
  • A tie involving the Diamondbacks, Cubs and Reds would result in the following order: 1) Reds, 2) Diamondbacks, 3) Cubs.
  • A tie involving the Diamondbacks, Marlins and Reds would result in the following order: 1) Marlins, 2) Reds, 3) Diamondbacks.

With the Reds as far behind in the standings as they are, the most important scenario to be aware of is that top one, in which the Diamondbacks, Cubs and Marlins all finish with identical records, presumably behind the Philadelphia Phillies. If that were to occur, the Marlins would get the second wild card spot, the D-backs the third spot and the Cubs would miss the postseason.

What pitching matchups should be expected this week for the Diamondbacks?

Monday’s series finale between the Yankees and Diamondbacks is slated to feature Merrill Kelly against Clarke Schmidt. Here is a look at what could be coming in the final two series of the year.

White Sox series

The White Sox have Jose Ureña (0-6, 7.27 ERA) listed as their probable starter for Tuesday and Touki Toussaint (4-7, 5.10 ERA) listed as their probable starter for Thursday. Wednesday is still listed as TBD.

Rookie right-hander Jesse Scholtens previously occupied the rotation spot between Ureña and Toussaint, but he is no longer an option after landing on the 15-day injured list on Sunday. A bullpen game seems like a possibility for Chicago.

The Diamondbacks have Zach Davies listed as their probable starter for Tuesday and Brandon Pfaadt, who last pitched on Friday, listed for Wednesday. Thursday is still TBD; neither Gallen nor Kelly would be on full rest, so the D-backs could opt for a bullpen game of their own.

Officially, here is how those pitching matchups look right now:

  • Zach Davies (2-5, 6.81 ERA) vs. Jose Ureña (0-6, 7.27 ERA)
  • Brandon Pfaadt (2-9, 6.08 ERA) vs. TBD
  • TBD vs. Touki Toussaint (4-7, 5.10 ERA)

Astros series

While no starters for the Astros series are known for certain, Gallen lines up to start Game 1 on Friday, likely to be followed by Kelly in Game 2, provided that New York weather allows him to pitch on Monday against the Yankees. Davies would then line up to pitch in the season finale on Sunday.

If the Astros were to keep their current rotation in line, J.P. France would start on Friday, Hunter Brown on Saturday and Justin Verlander in the series finale.

With all that in mind, here is a look at a potential slate of matchups for the weekend:

  • J.P. France (11-6, 3.83 ERA) vs. Zac Gallen (17-8, 3.49 ERA)
  • Hunter Brown (11-13, 5.12 ERA) vs. Merrill Kelly (12-7, 3.37 ERA)
  • Justin Verlander (11-8, 3.44 ERA) vs. Zach Davies (2-5, 6.81 ERA)

It should be noted that the Astros have an off-day on Thursday, which would enable them to skip the rookie Brown and move Verlander to Saturday and Christian Javier to Sunday. Either way, it appears that the Diamondbacks will miss All-Star starter Framber Valdez, who is listed as the Astros’ probable for Wednesday’s game against the Seattle Mariners.

Ultimately, a great deal of what happens this weekend will depend on how the Diamondbacks and Astros perform over the next several days.

If the Diamondbacks are able to lock down a wild card spot prior to the series, they could skip Gallen and Kelly to preserve them for the playoffs. (If they stay in line as is, neither would be available to start Game 1 of a potential Wild Card Series.)

The Astros could do the same if they find themselves in the driver’s seat for an AL Wild Card spot. And that leads to our final question.

What could be on the line for the Astros when they play the Diamondbacks?

On Sep. 10, the Astros led the Mariners by 2 1/2 games and the Texas Rangers by three games in the AL West. With nine of their next 12 games coming against the Oakland A’s and Kansas City Royals — baseball’s two worst teams — they seemed poised to coast to their sixth AL West title in the past seven years.

In reality, that is not at all what has happened. The Astros went just 2-7 in those games against the A’s and Royals, and they also lost a series to the Baltimore Orioles.

Now, with six games left on their schedule, they are 2 1/2 games behind the Rangers in the AL West and just half a game up on the Mariners for the third and final AL Wild Card spot. They also are only two games behind the Toronto Blue Jays, who currently occupy the second AL Wild Card spot.

All that is to say: With the Mariners close behind and both the Rangers and Blue Jays not too far ahead, it is difficult to envision a scenario in which the Astros do not have anything to play for when they face the Diamondbacks.

While improbable, it is perhaps more likely that the Diamondbacks would be in that position. If Arizona finds a way to notch a series win over the Yankees on Monday and sweep the White Sox, they could theoretically gain enough ground on the Marlins and Cubs to be able to rest players against Houston.

Unfortunately for the Diamondbacks, it seems likely that this weekend’s series will means just as much to them as it does the defending World Series champions. Not exactly how you’d draw it up.

Follow Jesse Friedman on X (formerly known as Twitter)

Top photo: John Jones/USA TODAY Sports

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