The Cubs still have two series left against the NL Central-leading Brewers, and winning two out of three games in both would not only pull them within a game of Milwaukee, but assure them of the tiebreaker over the Crew if the two teams finished with the same record. Thus, they have some meaningful measure of control over their destiny even within the division, but the odds are stacked against them. According to FanGraphs, it's Milwaukee who owns almost a three-in-four chance of winning the division flag.
Chicago really doesn't need to worry about that as much as they did a month ago, though. Whereas, in June, it looked like division title or bust for everyone in the Central, the Wild Card pack has fallen back so badly that the Cubs are now closer (2.5 games back) to the first Wild Card position than they are to first place in the Central. The Diamondbacks and Marlins look, if not like frauds, then like the not-quite-ready upstarts most observers projected them to be before the season began. The Phillies and Giants have both come back to Earth after stretches during which they looked like they might sew up the top two spots easily, and in fact, they play one another in Philadelphia this week, giving the Cubs a chance to gain ground on at least one of them with each win they manage in Detroit.
As a result of all that, the team's Playoff Odds have roughly doubled this month, despite only a nominal change in their underdog status within the division. Whereas they were given 11.5 percent hopes to claim a Wild Card spot three weeks ago, they're now pegged at 33 percent. That's pushed them to the right side of a coin flip to reach the postseason somehow, and it doesn't even account for the fact that they're no longer in the running only for the second and third Wild Card berths, which would line them up to be visitors in a Wild Card Series.
In effect, the top Wild Card spot is as valuable as winning the division. It's harder to claim, because there will be more teams in the running for it, but the Cubs would host a Wild Card Series at Wrigley Field whether they were the division champions or that top Wild Card winner. They still have head-to-head games left with the Giants, too, so they will have an opportunity to seize that position, rather than merely scoreboard watching.
It's the Phillies who pose a problem. Partially thanks to bad timing, the Cubs were dominated by Philadelphia in head-to-head play this year, so they own the tiebreaker between those two teams. The difference between playing them in Chicago or in Philadelphia in October, too, could be decisive. It would almost be better for the Cubs, if they couldn't surpass the Brewers or the Phillies, to finish with the third Wild Card, thereby playing Milwaukee in Milwaukee for that playoff showdown.
We're getting ahead of ourselves, of course. As has been the case for the last month, the Cubs just need to focus on winning the games on their own schedule. If they take care of business, they have an excellent chance to reach the postseason, as the projections are beginning to reflect. Still, it's nice to keep an eye on the standings and the odds, to gain a better sense of perspective on this race. The avenues to success are getting wider and more welcoming. The division race might not be as make-or-break as we first believed, and the most important objective of this sprint to the finish--earning home games in front of a rabid Wrigley crowd when the playoffs begin--seems to be more achievable than we might have imagined.
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