When August began, the Mets were in first place in the National League East, which was the fifth-best record in the Senior Circuit. The Padres were right ahead of them, holding the second wild-card position as the Giants and Dodgers battled at the top of the West. And the Reds, though seven and a half games behind Milwaukee in the Central, stood four games behind San Diego, very much in playoff contention.
Barring a dramatic turn of events, none will make the playoffs. Atlanta has taken command in the East, three other teams have passed San Diego, and Cincinnati, though still four games out of the second wild card, now has less than two weeks to make up that deficit on the Cardinals, who have rallied from being .500 at the start of August to sitting at 81-69 and in line for a third consecutive trip to the postseason.
On their own, New York, San Diego, and Cincinnati all have reasons to regret the last two months. Together, they are authoring a historic multi-team collapse.
The teams ranking fourth, fifth, and sixth in their league’s overall standings at the end of July are supposed to be key contenders for October.
Two years ago in the National League, all three such teams wound up making the playoffs, while the Cubs, who were third in the league behind Los Angeles and Atlanta, fell apart down the stretch. The Nationals wound up winning the World Series. In the American League that year, Tampa Bay and Oakland edged out Cleveland for the final wild-card spot as Houston, New York, and Minnesota held their division leads through the final two months.
The last time that three teams in the end-of-July position held by the Mets, Padres, and Reds all missed the playoffs? Technically, it happened in 2015, when the Angels, Twins, and Orioles all failed to reach the postseason, but Baltimore was 52-50 while Toronto was 53-51 on the morning of August 1 that year, a virtual tie.
That’s it for the era of two wild-card teams. Before that, you need to go back to 2009, when the Angels ran away with the American League West, the Yankees and Red Sox topped the East and took the wild card, and the Tigers — sixth in the league with a 53-48 record through four months — choked their way to a Game 163 for the Central title with the Twins, which they lost at the Metrodome.
In the National League? The last time something like this happened was the incredibly strange 2005 season, when the Nos. 4-6 teams through July were the Nationals, Marlins, and Phillies, respectively, none of whom were in a playoff spot at that point because every team in the West was under .500. The Padres eventually won that division at 82-80, which would have been a game better than last-place Florida in the East.
There’s no weird division stuff happening this time, and there’s two wild cards now. The only thing that’s funky about any of this is the way the Mets, Padres, and Reds have played down the stretch.
The Mets are 17-30 since the end of July. The only teams with more losses in the majors since then are the Diamondbacks, Nationals, and Orioles. The Mets have the same record as the Pirates, a team that made its October tee-time reservations in the first week of April. But it hasn’t just been a matter of the Mets playing terribly. They’ve only been outscored by 23 runs in a stretch where they’re 13 games under .500, while the Cubs, also 13 games under .500 in the past two months at 16-29, have been outscored by 96. It’s borderline impossible to lose as many close games as the Mets have, but that’s the Mets for you, forever inventing new ways to lose.
For San Diego, it’s much simpler. A team that had a 2.87 staff ERA in April and 2.69 in May has since put up a 4.23 in June, 4.70 in July, 4.44 in August, and 5.63 in September. The Padres have given up as many runs, 94, in 17 games this month, as they did in all of April, when they played 27. They’ve also lost as many games, 12, this month, as they did in all of April.
As for the Reds, their swoon has been more of a standard slump at the worst time. Since a four-game sweep of the Marlins that ended on August 22 and put Cincinnati in that second wild-card spot, the Reds have not won a series. They lost two of three in Milwaukee, two of three in Miami, two of three at home to both the Cardinals and Tigers, two of three in Chicago, three of four in St. Louis, two of three in Pittsburgh, and then two of three at home to the Dodgers. It’s bad, for sure, but also having eight of their last 10 games against the Pirates and Nationals does mean that the Reds still have a chance to go west and get obliterated by an actual good team in the playoffs.
With a four-game deficit, though, and the Cardinals having remembered that they’re the Cardinals, it’s probably too late for anything but the biggest stretch-run collapse three teams have had at the same time in this era of baseball.