As the 2022 regular season has winded down, all eyes have been on Aaron Judge's chase to break Roger Maris' American League record for most home runs in a single season and Albert Pujols' race to 700 career home runs.
One of those milestones has been reached, with Pujols hitting two home runs against the Dodgers in Los Angeles to join the elusive 700 club, while Judge sits at 60 homers, two away from the record.
While these have surely been two of the most exciting storylines the past couple of months, there is still plenty left to play for in the final weeks of the season. Will the Atlanta Braves or New York Mets come out on top of the NL East and secure the No. 2 spot in the National League? Are there any players to pay special attention to before the postseason?
The season ends on Oct. 5, with the postseason scheduled to begin two days later. What should we be watching? ESPN MLB experts Bradford Doolittle, Buster Olney, Jeff Passan and David Schoenfield tell you everything you need to know. Let's get into it.
Which playoff races are you following most closely the final two weeks of the season?
Doolittle: The race with the most impact on the playoff bracket is the one for the NL East title between the Braves and Mets. In terms of the overall season, these are the second- and third-best teams in the NL, in whatever order you want to put them in. The winner of the division gets a first-round bye. The second-place team gets to host a wild-card series, starting the playoff fatigue meter on its pitching staff, and if it survives that, then it gets to face a rested and unusually strong Los Angeles Dodgers team. Score one for the new format because this is a race for first place with some real stakes on the table.
Olney: There is some intrigue built around the home-field advantages in the American League, specifically the Seattle Mariners and Toronto Blue Jays. A three-game series in Seattle would be intense, given the great history of Mariners fans supporting their laundry, and any series in Toronto seems to carry a special passion. But let's face it, down the stretch, we will be locked into the resolution of the NL East, because you could argue that these are two of the four best teams -- and the loser will have an extra playoff round to hurdle.
Passan: Well, seeing as there are only three real races and nobody has mentioned the third, I'll give some love to the sprint -- or jog ... or crawl -- for the final two NL wild-card spots. The San Diego Padres hold the first and have that could-get-hot-and-do-a-lot-of-damage-in-October feel to them. The Philadelphia Phillies shook off their miserable start and, like San Diego, are top-heavy. And the Milwaukee Brewers, after getting lapped by the St. Louis Cardinals in the Central, have hung around by doing what they do well: hitting tanks and pitching. It might not be the sexiest race, but for now, it's a race nonetheless. And for that we should celebrate -- or appreciate ... or acknowledge.
Schoenfield: I was just out in Seattle and saw more Mariners gear and heard more Mariners talk than I have in a long, long time. The recent tough stretch and the injuries to Julio Rodriguez and Eugenio Suarez have Mariners fans thinking a lot of bad thoughts -- and as one of those fans, those thoughts are admittedly hard to avoid given the 21-year playoff drought. So while the NL East race is certainly more important -- as Brad alluded to, delaying that pitching fatigue meter for a round could be huge -- my eyes are on that wild-card race.
Which remaining series do you have circled on your calendar?
Doolittle: There isn't a whole lot left on the docket in terms of teams facing each other who are competing for the same thing over these last couple of weeks. A notable exception to that is next weekend when the Mets visit the Braves in Cobb County. The division should be on the line in a playoff atmosphere and all that.
Olney: Mets at Braves next weekend, largely because we've got the last game for Sunday Night Baseball, but also because there will be so much at stake. Depending how the Mets handle their rotation in the last two weeks, it looks like we could have Jacob deGrom in that game, which would be a blast.
Passan: The only series in the season's final three days between two teams with October dreams is Philadelphia at Houston. Currently, the Phillies are lined up to throw Aaron Nola in Game 1, Ranger Suarez in Game 2 and the unfortunately named Bailey Falter in Game 3. Philadelphia understandably wants to have a postseason spot locked up by then, because the prospect of facing Cristian Javier, Lance McCullers Jr. and Justin Verlander in must-win games is a daunting one indeed.
Schoenfield: Besides Mets-Braves and every Mariners series, I'm looking at the season-ending series when the Blue Jays travel to the Baltimore Orioles, which could determine whether the Blue Jays host the wild-card series and/or whether the Orioles get in. But here's one that has nothing to do with the playoff races but will have history on the line: Colorado Rockies at Dodgers for six games to finish the season. The NL record for wins in a 162-game season is 108, by two legendary clubs -- the 1975 Reds and 1986 Mets. The Dodgers won't catch the 1906 Cubs, who won 116 games, but they have a chance to be the greatest regular-season team in modern NL history.
Of the teams that have already clinched a playoff spot, who has the most left to play for in the final weeks?
Doolittle: Well, this is really a choice between the Braves and the Mets. And I guess I would say the Mets have more to play for. For the Braves, they have a couple of things going for them that lighten the pressure load. First, they are the defending champions. Their fan base is as happy as it's ever going to get. Second, most of the roster has a fresh memory of navigating all the way through the playoffs and winning it, despite not having a particularly strong playoff seed. Of course, that was a different format, but I don't think the Braves are going to be fazed if they end up as a wild-card team.
On the other hand, for much of the summer, this felt like "one of those years" for the Mets, when everything just seemed to be falling in place on the way to a banner season in team history. While the Mets haven't exactly fallen apart, to go all the way through that and end up as a wild-card team -- and not have a division title to show for it -- would just seem to me to be a bit of a letdown.
Olney: The Braves and Mets -- Atlanta seems to have a legit shot at becoming the first team in more than 20 years to win back-to-back titles, but playing that first round would be a burden for a club that is already kind of banged up right now, with the injuries to Ronald Acuna Jr., Spencer Strider et al. And as for the Mets, at a time of the year when they would likely prefer to limit the innings of Max Scherzer and deGrom, having to roll them out in a wild-card round would be taxing.
Passan: The right answer is Braves and Mets for all the reasons outlined above. But let's not forget Seattle. If the Mariners snag the top wild-card spot in the AL, they'll guarantee their first home playoff game in 21 years. If they finish in the second or third slot, they'll head on the road for all three games and need to advance to bring playoff baseball back to T-Mobile Park, one of the most beloved -- and loud -- stadiums in baseball.
Schoenfield: I'll be curious to see how Dodgers manager Dave Roberts works his bullpen after he announced the other day that Craig Kimbrel will no longer be the closer. He said it will be closer by committee, but this final stretch will be an indicator as to exactly what that means and who might be in line to get those final three outs. Evan Phillips has been the team's best reliever, but he's also been so valuable in a setup role and has little ninth-inning experience with just three career saves. The Dodgers are the best team in the majors, but with one glaring weakness that will remain a question heading into the postseason.
Which individual stat performances not involving Aaron Judge or Albert Pujols are you watching closest the rest of the way?
Doolittle: This question is not fair because I'm only watching Judge and Pujols for the most part on the stats front. How can you not? And not for the obvious home run chases, but because there are other cool things in play. For one thing, Pujols is getting very close to overtaking Babe Ruth on the all-time RBI list. I mean, that's amazing. (Though, because the statistic wasn't recognized by baseball until 1920, many of Ruth's aren't officially counted, leaving Pujols recognized as No. 2 on the all-time list, even though he technically trails Ruth by six RBIs.)
Beyond that, I have been anxiously following the injury news regarding Patrick Corbin and his ailing back. It sounds like he should be back in the Washington Nationals' rotation soon, so that he can continue his quest to lose 20 games. He has been stuck at 18 for a while now. I know it's perverse, and I truly wish no ill on Corbin. I just have a thing for little historical oddities like that. No one has done it since Mike Maroth in 2003.
Olney: I'm going to cheat on my answer a little bit, because it does actually involve Judge -- the AL batting title could be the difference between him winning the Triple Crown or not. If Xander Bogaerts wins it, that will nicely frame his foray into free agency; if Luis Arraez pulls it out, what a cool accomplishment in a race with other great players.
Passan: I want to see Shohei Ohtani's final stat lines -- and whether his 2022 performance actually exceeds that of 2021, when he was the runaway AL MVP. The easy answer is: probably. He's nearly the same offensive player and is significantly better on the mound. The fact that Judge is putting up an all-time-great season which could be capped by a pair of historic moments, and that there's actually a pretty good argument in Ohtani's favor, would seem to suggest that the only thing that should separate Ohtani from the MVP as long as he's in the midst of his prime is something truly extraordinary.
Schoenfield: Justin Verlander's ERA. He's at 1.82 with one start remaining for the Houston Astros. Not including the shortened 2020 season, only 11 pitchers have finished with a sub-2.00 ERA in the wild-card era (since 1995). But only two of those have come in the AL: Pedro Martinez's 1.74 for the Boston Red Sox in 2000 and Blake Snell's 1.89 in 2018 for the Tampa Bay Rays. If Verlander tosses eight scoreless innings (right now, his start might be Friday against the Rays), he would finish with an ERA of 1.737, which would edge him past Martinez's 1.742.
OK, we couldn't get through this without one Judge question ... Will he win the Triple Crown or not?
Doolittle: Triple crown? What about the double triple crown? Or more accurately, what about the quintuple crown? Or even the sextuple crown? Yes, Judge has a chance to become the first hitter since Miguel Cabrera to win the traditional Triple Crown, and that would be very cool. But Judge also has a chance to win the sabermetrics triple crown, leading the league in all three slash categories. Nobody has won both the traditional and the sabermetric triple crown since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967. It has happened only a handful of times in baseball history.
And then you can even tack on a sixth category, runs scored, which Judge is going to win anyway. You might even say Judge would become the first person to win the double triple crown, because back when Yaz did it, no one knew what the hell a sabermetric triple crown was. Anyway, the answer to your question is yes, he's going to win all the things.
Olney: No, I don't think he will. In spite of manager Aaron Boone's statement to the contrary, I do think he's wearing down a bit from the scrutiny of the home run chase -- and after he breaks the record (assuming he breaks the record), I think there will be a bit of an exhale from him. We've seen that from other stars after passing milestones. But context is important: I'm the idiot who said at midseason he wouldn't get to 60 homers.
Passan: Yes. Not because he matches up better with his opponents or because Bogaerts and Arraez, his two batting-average foes, have some discernible advantage. If we've learned anything this year, it's very simple: Don't bet against Aaron Judge.
Schoenfield: Unfortunately, I'll say no. It's a toss-up at the moment between Judge, Bogaerts and Arraez for the batting title, which basically gives Judge a one-in-three chance, meaning the odds are against him.
And finally, what is one under-the-radar theme fans should be paying more attention to in the final games of the regular season?
Doolittle: The rules are changing, so fans who really love baseball the way that it is right now should be storing as many of these moments to come in their memory banks as they can. If you love batters stepping out of the box and adjusting their gear, or pitchers taking a half a minute between pitches, you better get your fill now. And if you love a second baseman standing in shallow right field, you better get to the ballpark and snap a few pictures. Because these things are going away.
Olney: Watch for the team that finishes strongly, because as the Braves showed us last year, a group of players rolling into the postseason can ride that hot streak right into the World Series. My No. 1 candidate: the Cleveland Guardians, who could be baseball's version of a No. 10 seed advancing to the Final Four. They are playing well and have such a unique style with strong pitching and hitters who put the ball in play. They could never be the best regular-season team because of the lack of power, but in a few postseason rounds? Maybe.
Passan: That sound you hear ... is the bullpen door swinging open. The playoffs have turned into a relief parade, and while an excellent bullpen doesn't necessarily foretell a team's success, here's a stat worth chewing on: The top seven bullpen ERAs belong to teams that either have already secured a postseason berth or are current wild-card contenders: Astros, Dodgers, Braves, New York Yankees, Guardians, Mariners, Rays. And with every out in October more meaningful and every situation with increasing leverage, bullpen ball is coming.
Schoenfield: Has anybody mentioned the NL wild-card race? Because, umm, the Padres and Phillies haven't exactly locked up those final two spots over the Brewers.