Wild-card battles, division drama and the streaking Cardinals: What's at stake in MLB season's final week

Cardinals extend franchise-record win streak to 16 games (0:47)

The Cardinals come from behind against the Cubs again to secure a 4-2 victory in the ninth inning. (0:47)

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Believe it or not, there are only seven days left in the MLB regular season. And from division and wild-card races to record chases and awards battles, there is plenty still at stake before the MLB playoffs begin.

Here are 10 big things we're watching as the final week of the season plays out.

1. Who wins the NL West?

I've seen a lot of grumbling of late that the Giants and Dodgers will both win 100-plus games and one of them will be relegated to the wild-card game, while the Braves or Phillies will win the NL East with under 90 wins and advance directly to a best-of-five series. My colleague Brad Doolittle covered this territory a couple of weeks ago when he wrote, "This feature is not only not a bug, but we should all rejoice that it exists."

Indeed, the NL West race has been the most exciting aspect of the 2021 season, two great teams battling down to the wire, a race made even more interesting because the Giants weren't expected to even finish .500. This is old-school, pennant-race baseball at its best, and if you want to complain that the system will punish a 100-win team with a loser-out game, consider a system in which the loser goes home -- as the Giants did in 1993, when they won 103 games and finished a game behind the Braves.

A race like this makes the regular season relevant, rather than just a long slog for seeding purposes, as is the case in the NBA. Is it fair? As Bill James recently wrote, this is a game, not a competition. A competition -- a 100-meter dash, for example -- needs to be fair. A game is, by definition, not always fair. Sometimes you hit the ball harder and get more runners on base and don't win the game. That's baseball. That's what makes all this interesting. Don't like the wild-card game? Win the division.

The standings:

San Francisco 102-54 --
Los Angeles 100-56 2.0

The Giants have held sole possession of first place every day since May 31, except for two. (The Dodgers were tied with them on Sept. 2 and Sept. 4.) The lead hasn't been larger than 2½ games since Aug. 18. The Giants just keep on mashing, hitting .278/.362/.492 in September, the second-best OPS in the majors for the month behind the Blue Jays. The Dodgers have allowed the fewest runs in the majors in September and have a 2.77 ERA for the month.

Both finish up with six home games:

Giants: off Monday, vs. Arizona (3), vs. San Diego (3)
Dodgers: off Monday, vs. San Diego (3), vs. Milwaukee (3)

Probable starting pitchers:

Giants: Logan Webb, Alex Wood, Anthony DeSclafani, Kevin Gausman, Johnny Cueto, Webb
Dodgers: Walker Buehler, Max Scherzer, Tony Gonsolin, Clayton Kershaw, Julio Urias, Buehler

The Giants are somewhat up in the air as they haven't officially announced their upcoming starters. Best guess: They keep their top four starters on at least four days of rest, which lines up Wood to start a potential NL West tiebreaker game next Monday and DeSclafani or Gausman for the potential wild-card game next Wednesday (Oct. 6). Cueto made a rehab start last Thursday and went 1⅔ innings. If not him, it could be Scott Kazmir, who started last week against the Padres and allowed one unearned run over four innings, or a bullpen game. (Dominic Leone has started four games this month.)

The Dodgers would have Scherzer lined up to pitch a tiebreaker game or, if the Giants clinch before then, on plenty of rest for the wild-card matchup. If the Dodgers need both a tiebreaker game (and lose with Scherzer) and then a wild-card game, that lines up Gonsolin or Kershaw for the wild-card game -- although they could bump Urias ahead of Kershaw and have him start Friday and then the wild-card game on regular rest. Got it? A lot of moving parts here that add intrigue if this race comes down to the final day or a tiebreaker. Seems like the right system to me. All 162 -- or 163! -- games might matter.

2. Will the Cardinals ever lose again?

Meanwhile, the Cardinals, while they haven't quite clinched the second wild card, are riding a 16-game winning streak and will be able to set up their best starting pitcher (Adam Wainwright) and rest their bullpen to get ready for the Dodgers or Giants. Fair? Hey, we could go to one league, no divisions, and play a balanced schedule with no interleague games if you want "fair." Then everyone would complain about that.

The Cardinals are now tied for the third-longest win streak of the expansion era (since 1961):

2017 Indians: 22 2002 Athletics: 20 2021 Cardinals: 16

1977 Royals: 16

Those other three teams each won at least 100 games -- 102 for Cleveland, 103 for Oakland, 102 for Kansas City -- while the Cardinals will need to finish 3-3 against the Brewers and Cubs just to get to 90 wins. This is an odd streak, because on the season the Cardinals aren't especially good at scoring runs or especially good at preventing them. Their run differential is just 13th best in the majors.

Perhaps of note, all of those other streaks took place, at least in part, in September, and none of the teams reached the World Series:

-- 2017 Indians: Streak went from Aug. 24 to Sept. 14, finished 10-4 after the streak, lost ALDS to the Yankees in five games.

-- 2002 Athletics: Streak went from Aug. 13 to Sept. 4, went 15-8 after the streak, lost ALDS to the Twins in five games.

-- 1977 Royals: Streak went from Aug. 31 to Sept. 15, went 11-6 after the streak, lost ALCS to the Yankees in five games (when it was best-of-five).

The point is that finishing with this kind of momentum doesn't really predict what will happen in the postseason. The Cardinals' season may still come down to beating Scherzer in one game and that's no small task given that he's 7-0 with a 1.43 ERA since joining the Dodgers. Still, it would be quite the story if the Cardinals enter the playoffs on a 22-game winning streak.

3. Who wins the NL East?

The standings:

Atlanta 83-72 --
Philadelphia 81-75 2.5

The Braves have to be wondering why they're not running away with the division, sitting on a plus-121 run differential compared with the Phillies at minus-5. They've needed to win seven of eight just to build a little cushion from a half-game lead to 2½. The Phillies just completed a soft part of the schedule, going 9-4 against the Cubs, Mets, Orioles and Pirates, although Sunday's 6-0 loss to the Pirates stings.

Remaining schedules: Braves: off Monday, vs. Philadelphia (3), vs. Mets (3), vs. Colorado (if necessary)
Phillies: off Monday, at Atlanta (3), at Miami (3)

The Phillies have a chance thanks to this week's big showdown in Atlanta. They pretty much have to sweep given that the Mets have basically folded up the tent and thrown the marshmallows to the bears, so you almost have to assume the Braves sweep or go 2-1 against the Mets. The probable pitching matchups for the Phillies-Braves series:

Tuesday: Zack Wheeler vs. Charlie Morton
Wednesday: Aaron Nola vs. Max Fried
Thursday: Kyle Gibson vs. Ian Anderson

Not scheduled: The red-hot Ranger Suarez, who has a 1.45 ERA in 99 innings for the Phillies and just came off a shutout on Saturday over the Pirates. Conceivably, the Phillies could start him Thursday over Gibson on four days of rest.

Note on that Oct. 4 game for the Braves: That's a potential makeup from a rainout earlier this month. You know the Rockies would love nothing more than to fly to Atlanta the day after the scheduled end of the regular season for a game that means nothing to them. That would push a potential tiebreaker game if needed for the NL East title to next Tuesday, which lines up Nola for the Phillies and Anderson for the Braves (since Fried would start against the Rockies).

The guy to watch in this series: Bryce Harper. Will the Braves even give him anything to hit? He's hitting .346/.495/.756 in September with 8 home runs, 8 doubles, 19 RBIs and 24 walks. The Braves may challenge the rest of the Phillies' lineup to beat them.

4. Who wins the AL wild cards?

The standings:

New York 89-67 -- Boston 88-68 1.0 Toronto 87-69 2.0 Seattle 86-70 3.0

Oakland 85-71 4.0

The remaining schedules:

Red Sox: off Monday, at Baltimore (3), at Washington (3) Yankees: off Monday, at Toronto (3), vs. Tampa Bay (3) Blue Jays: off Monday, vs. Yankees (3), vs. Baltimore (3) Mariners: vs. Oakland (3), off Thursday, vs. Angels (3)

Athletics: at Seattle (3), off Thursday, at Houston (3)

Obviously, the Red Sox have the easiest six games here while the Blue Jays also control their own destiny since they get a head-to-head showdown with the Yankees. No doubt, potential tiebreakers could come into play here. If two teams tie for the two spots, there is no tiebreaker game, with seeding based on head-to-head record. But if three teams tie for two spots (or one spot) or two teams tie for the final spot, then tiebreaker games are necessary. In the three-for-two-spots scenario, teams are given A, B and C designations, with A playing B (winner moves on) and the loser traveling to club C for the second spot. In the three-for-one tiebreaker, club C travels to the winner of A versus B for the second wild card. Since you need two days to play that out, the AL wild-game would move back from Tuesday, Oct. 5, to Wednesday, Oct. 6.

Got it? But ... we can dream on the five-way tie. It's still in play, although unlikely with Seattle and Oakland playing each other. Still, this could happen:

Red Sox go 2-4 against the Orioles and Nationals

Yankees go 1-2 vs. Blue Jays and 0-3 vs. Rays

Blue Jays go 2-1 vs. Yankees and 1-2 vs. Orioles

Mariners go 1-2 vs. A's and 3-0 vs. Angels

A's go 2-1 vs. Mariners and 3-0 vs. Astros

And if that happens? We just cancel the postseason and declare the Orioles the champions. (We don't know what MLB would do. There is no five-way scenario on the books.)

5. One last chance to watch Juan Soto

We mentioned Harper's September numbers above. He has the second-highest OPS for the month, behind Soto, who has quietly hit his way into the Baseball-Reference lead in WAR among NL position players. His September line is something straight out of Barry Bonds World: .439/.598/.768, 7 home runs, 21 RBIs and an incredible 7-to-33 strikeout-to-walk ratio. There are 17 qualifying batters who haven't walked 33 times all season. To do that in this age of strikeouts is absurd. How can a hitter be so much better in this area than everyone else?

Soto hasn't gotten all that much attention this season. He started off slow and the Nationals are terrible, with his surge largely coming after the team was out of the race. He missed a couple weeks in April with a triceps strain, and perhaps that was still lingering in May when he struggled (.253, two home runs). Since June 1, however: .342/.499/.617, 25 home runs, 109 walks, 63 strikeouts.

He's 22.

6. Awards on the line

Soto probably finishes third -- at best -- for NL MVP, however, a race that still feels like a coin flip between Harper and Fernando Tatis Jr. Harper may have moved into the estimated lead given his hot September -- and if the Phillies win the division, his odds go up even more.

For AL MVP, the narrative had Vladimir Guerrero Jr. perhaps closing in on Shohei Ohtani -- like Harper, his chances improve if the Blue Jays make the postseason -- but Ohtani's last two starts may have thankfully sealed the deal: 8 IP, 2 R, 10 SO against the A's and then 7 IP, 1 R, 10 SO against the Mariners. We'll see if the Angels give him one final start, but right now he's 9-2 with a 3.18 ERA and 156 strikeouts in 130 1/3 innings. Oh ... and .258/.371/.595, 45 home runs, 99 runs and 98 RBIs. We may never see something like this again.

Robbie Ray (13-6, 2.98 ERA, 188 IP, 244 SO) has probably moved ahead of Gerrit Cole (16-8, 3.08, 175 1/3 IP, 237 SO) for AL Cy Young, although it's close. In a sign of the times, only 15 American League pitchers are even qualified for the ERA title, and not a single AL starter is going to reach 200 innings.

Buehler has had a couple recent bad outings, so the NL Cy Young race is a three-way debate between Max Scherzer (15-4, 2.28 ERA, 174 IP, 232 SO), Corbin Burnes (11-4. 2.29 ERA, 165 IP, 230 SO) and Zack Wheeler (14-9, 2.79 ERA, 206 1/3 IP, 240 SO). They all have arguments in their favor. Burnes dominates the peripherals with a great strikeout-to-walk ratio and low home run rate. Wheeler has a significant edge in innings and WAR and plays in a bandbox (but also got to face three bad offensive teams in his own division on a regular basis). Buehler, Brandon Woodruff and Gausman have also had noteworthy seasons.

7. Shane Baz

The Rays clinched the AL East, tied the franchise record with 97 wins and could get to 100. Despite all that success, their starting pitcher is actually ... a bit of a concern? They're 15th in the majors in starters' ERA and 18th since the beginning of August at 4.63. That's why you should keep an eye on Baz, who made his second career start on Sunday and allowed three hits with nine K's over 5⅔ scoreless innings in a win over the Marlins. He beat the Blue Jays in his first start, allowing two hits in five innings (although both were home runs).

The Rays haven't finalized their postseason plans, but Baz has to be under consideration for the rotation. He throws hard, he has great stuff, he dominated the minors, he pitched in the Olympics this summer and the league hasn't seen him yet. In fact, he could join fellow rookies Shane McClanahan and Luis Patino in the postseason rotation, along with Drew Rasmussen, a second-year pitcher with just nine career starts. Baz should get one more start this week, but the prediction here is he follows McClanahan and Rasmussen in the division series rotation.

8. Will Salvador Perez lead the majors in home runs?

Perez is tied with Guerrero at 46 home runs, with Ohtani one behind. Perez has already broken Johnny Bench's record of 45 home runs for most ever by a player whose primary position is catcher. Bench is also the only catcher to lead the majors in home runs, with those 45 in 1970 and with 40 in 1972. Perez also leads the majors with 115 RBIs, two ahead of Jose Abreu (who is going for his third straight AL RBI title). The last catcher to lead his league in RBIs was Darren Daulton of the Phillies in 1992 and the last to lead the majors was Bench in 1974 (with 129). I guess that Bench guy was pretty good.

9. Will we see one more no-hitter?

The no-hitter barrage cooled down after we had six by the end of May, but there has still been a record nine of them -- not counting the two seven-inning no-hitters, which no longer are regarded as official no-hitters. To refresh your memory, the nine:

April 9: Joe Musgrove, Padres (first in franchise history)

April 14: Carlos Rodon, White Sox (lost his perfect game with one out in the ninth when he hit a batter)

May 5: John Means, Orioles (only baserunner was a strikeout/reached on wild pitch with the runner subsequently caught stealing)

May 7: Wade Miley, Reds (second time Indians were no-hit)

May 18: Spencer Turnbull, Tigers (second time Mariners were no-hit)

May 19: Corey Kluber, Yankees (walked one batter in the third inning)

June 24: Cubs combined no-hitter (four pitchers)

Aug. 14: Tyler Gilbert, Diamondbacks (first career major league start)

Sept. 11: Corbin Burnes/Josh Hader, Brewers (third time Indians were no-hit, all started by Zach Plesac)

10. The race for last place ... and the No. 1 pick

It's hard to believe the Orioles haven't locked up the No. 1 pick in the 2022 draft.

It's also hard to believe the Diamondbacks haven't locked up the No. 1 pick in the 2022 draft.

Both begin the week with a 50-106 record. The Orioles are 9-16 in September -- a big improvement over their 4-24 August. They finish with the Red Sox and Blue Jays, which definitely has 0-6 potential. The Diamondbacks are 6-16 in September; their bad month came back in June, when they went 3-24 (they also went 5-24 in May). Wow, 8-48 over two months and they might not even finish with the worst record. They end with the Giants and Rockies.

I feel like neither team should be rewarded. Draft lottery, anyone?