As St. Louis Cardinals fans know all too well, the team cannot achieve its immediate goal of making the 2011 National League post-season without significant help. That assistance must come from continued losses by the Atlanta Braves.
Atlanta finishes with three at Washington and three at home against their Eastern Division foe and 2012 champion Philadelphia Phillies. Having already clinched home field advantage for the NL Divisional and Championship Series, what might the Phils have left to prove as the regular season ends?
It is too bad that MLB doesn’t give home field advantage in the World Series to the team with the best record in the regular season. In that case, perhaps the Phils would be motivated to ensure they win more games than the Yankees, but that is not the case – leaving an argument ripe for picking another day.
As they will enter into the final three games of the regular season against the Braves Monday through Wednesday, what will take precedence for Philadelphia, currently losers of six straight?
Will they want to rest up to prepare for the playoffs? Will they feel an obligation to play their best, trying to re-establish some momentum? Will they have in the back of their minds which team they would prefer to play in the first round?
Perhaps if rotations were altered, starters were removed early and/or stars were given multiple days off, then questions could be raised. The motivations of the individuals and how hard the players are playing could never be measured, however.
Without even asking, we know the Phillies will say the right things. They play every game to win and the identity of their first-round opponent does not matter to them. But what are they really thinking?
It is only natural to have a preference as to their NLDS opponent. What is unnatural is that they could help decide that team based on their play in the final three games. Somehow, somewhere, the Cardinals need at least two Atlanta losses in the final six. If the Braves win and keep winning, they are in.
So, which team would the Phillies prefer to play in the NLDS? If Atlanta wins the wild card, the Phils would play Arizona, the division winner with the worst record currently. (It could be Milwaukee instead, based on how the final six games unfold.) Instead, if the Cardinals claim the wild card, they would face the Phillies in the first round.
The Cardinals are one of only two teams to take their season series against Philadelphia at six wins and three losses. (The Nationals at 10-8, including a just-completed sweep, are the other.)
Would that lack of success against St. Louis motivate the Phillies to want another shot at the streaking Cards, who took three of four from them in their house last weekend? Or would they prefer to face Arizona, against whom they split six games this year? Overall, the Snakes are 5-5 over their last ten games. (Philadelphia had a 4-3 season edge over the Brewers.)
Could all of this somehow affect how the Phillies’ approach their final three regular season games against Atlanta?
(Of course, it should go without saying that if the Cardinals don’t take care of business against the Chicago Cubs this weekend, the final three games may not matter to anyone. Specifically, a combination of five Atlanta wins and St. Louis losses, which could occur as soon as Sunday, would end the wild card race once and for all.)