With a six-game lead in the National League East, the Washington Nationals are sitting pretty – at least compared to other NL hopefuls. Six teams are gunning for four spots, which will make for a fun and fluid September, except, perhaps, for the managers involved. USA TODAY Sports' Jorge L. Ortiz breaks down how it may unfold:
Where they stand: Second in the Central, one game back of the Cardinals..
In their favor: The Brewers rank in the league's top three in runs and on-base-plus slugging (OPS), and their offense features five hitters with at least 60 RBI. They have a veteran rotation with three starters — Kyle Lohse, Yovani Gallardo and Matt Garza — who have pitched in the postseason. Until dropping to second Monday, Milwaukee had been in first place, either alone or tied, every day since April 5.
Working against them: A recent skid that has seen Milwaukee drop six in a row. The Brewers were hammered for 31 runs over the weekend in San Francisco despite sending out two of their best starters in Wily Peralta and Kyle Lohse. Getting the ball to closer Francisco Rodriguez has been a problem, which the club hopes it remedied by acquiring Jonathan Broxton on Sunday.
The schedule is...: Insular. The Brewers play 22 of their final 26 games against division foes, including seven with St. Louis.
Bottom line: The Brewers have battled the perception that they're overachieving all season long, and with a 53-56 record from May 1 on, they're not gaining many converts. The division is very much up for grabs, but the Brewers are not exactly charging after it.
MLB standings: Who leads the wild-card chase?
St. Louis Cardinals
Where they stand: First in the Central, one game ahead of the Milwaukee Brewers.
In their favor: Team leader and receiver nonpareil Yadier Molina is back, making his presence felt at the plate and behind it. The lethargic offense has gotten a jolt from his return and the hot hitting of outfielder Matt Holliday, who has a major league-high 19 RBI in his last 13 games. Michael Wacha is in line for an early-September return.
Working against them: The acquisitions of Justin Masterson (7.90) ERA and John Lackey (4.23) have failed to provide the desired boost to the injury-weakened rotation. St. Louis is the only division leader with a negative run differential (minus-seven).
The schedule is...: Favorable. Sixteen of the Cardinals' remaining 26 games – including the final nine – will be against teams that currently have losing records.
Bottom line: Getting Molina and Wacha back will be a huge help during the stretch run for this playoff-tested club, which may finally be primed to play its best ball.
Where they stand:Third in the Central, three games behind the Cardinals and two games back in the wild-card race.
In their favor: Pirates starters have fueled the club's resurgence after a seven-game losing streak, logging a 2.34 ERA in the 10 games after the skid and going at least six innings nine times. Pittsburgh has Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole back from the disabled list.
Working against them: Getting hot at the end is often a key to reaching the postseason, but the Pirates haven't won more than four in a row this year. Right-hander Charlie Morton is sidelined by a hip injury that may end his season.
The schedule is...: Ominous: The Pirates play 17 of their last 26 games on the road, starting with a 10-game swing that opens Monday in St. Louis. Pittsburgh's 27-37 road record is the worst among contenders in either league.
Bottom line: Pittsburgh has the second-best home mark in the league and has gone 20-11 in one-run games at PNC Park, but has only nine home games left this season. The climb will be steep.
Where they stand: Second in the East, six games behind the Washington Nationals and 1½ games back in the wild-card chase.
In their favor: Justin Upton, who drove in 28 runs in August, is batting .311 since the All-Star break and has shown the ability to carry the offense. Atlanta has taken off since Jason Heyward returned to the leadoff spot. The Braves are 70-45 in the last two seasons with Heyward hitting first in the lineup.
Working against them: Atlanta has been riding a wild fluctuation of highs and lows, which leaves the club prone to large stretches of futility, such as the one it experienced in getting no-hit by the Philadelphia Phillies on Monday. The Braves offense ranks third in the league in strikeouts, and four hitters — B.J. and Justin Upton, Chris Johnson and Freddie Freeman — already have more than 125.
The schedule is...: Manageable. A nine-game trip awaits the Braves and it includes three against the division-leading Nationals, whom Atlanta meets six times in September. There are also a total of nine September games against the last-place Phillies and Rangers.
Bottom line: With strong starting pitching and an elite closer in Craig Kimbrel, the Braves are always a playoff threat, although unlikely to catch the Nationals.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Where they stand: First in the West, 2 games ahead of the Giants.
In their favor: With Hyun-Jin Ryu rejoining a rotation headed by Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, the Dodgers have their Big Three in place to try to defend their division crown. Closer Kenley Jansen has been a rock, converting 36 of his last 38 save chances.
Working against them: Entering September with a mere 2½-game lead in the West qualifies as underachievement for the club with the largest payroll in the game, and the pressure will only intensify if the Dodgers don't hold on to first place. The outfield situation, with highly paid former All-Star Andre Ethier usually the odd man out and Yasiel Puig in a funk, continues to hover threateningly.
The schedule is...: Homey, or maybe homely: L.A. plays 15 of its final 25 games at Dodger Stadium, which would be a much bigger advantage if the club were any better than 34-32 at home.
Bottom line: The Dodgers have all the weapons – including MVP candidate Kershaw – to fend off the Giants' rally. If they don't, changes may be coming.
San Francisco Giants
Where they stand: Second in the West, 2 1/2 games behind the Dodgers and leading the wild-card race.
In their favor: A six-game winning streak fueled by Buster Posey and some excellent pitching – a 1.07 ERA for the starters in the last seven games – has thrust the Giants back in the division race. Rookies Joe Panik and Andrew Susac have filled voids, and the emotional Jake Peavy has brought an edge to the pitching staff.
Working against them: The Giants have no idea how long Yusmeiro Petit's magic ride will last, or what they'll get out of Tim Lincecum in the bullpen. Santiago Casilla has been shaky as the closer.
The schedule is...: No cakewalk. The Giants play 16 of their final 26 games on the road, including a three-game trip to Detroit this week. The last 10 games are all in California, though, seven of them against the Padres.
Bottom line: The division crown seemed out of reach as recently as last Monday, when the Giants fell to five games back, but the current surge has made it quite achievable. The six remaining games with the Dodgers will probably provide the final say.
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