The order in which teams play each other really should not matter much. Since divisional rivals roughly wind up playing the same teams, a matchup with an opponent in April seems equivalent to one in August. However, in practice, the relative difficulty of a given team’s dog-days schedule can have a profound impact on the pennant race. The Brewers appear to have the second-hardest remaining schedule among NL Central contenders, while the Cardinals have the easiest path ahead.
The Brewers schedule down the stretch seems daunting. Twenty-seven of Milwaukee’s 44 remaining games (61.4%) feature opponents with winning records. The Brewers’ final interleague matchup pits them against a resurgent Toronto club. Further, a brutal travel schedule looms as a threat to the Brewers’ hopes. Milwaukee is the only NL Central contender that still needs to make a California trip. In fact, while their rivals remain relatively close to home, the Brewers must embark on two separate journeys to the Pacific coast. While Milwaukee has already won a series against each of these West Coast teams (Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco all lost two of three at Miller Park), the travel will certainly grate on the Brewers’ drained bodies. Fortunately, the Brewers should pad their stats during the 10 games left against the hapless Cubs. Yet a nine game road trip in late September – at St. Louis, at Pittsburgh, at Cincinnati- illustrates the gauntlet that separates the Brewers from October.
Pittsburgh has a similarly challenging schedule. The Pirates play teams over .500 in nearly three quarters of their upcoming games (32 of 45, 71.1%). Pittsburgh enters its toughest stretch this week, when they play three division leaders (Atlanta, Milwaukee and former AL Central leader Detroit) in four series. Further, since the Bucs have struggled against the NL Central, their 24 remaining divisional games present a unique challenge. The Pirates have compiled a meager 22-30 mark against their Midwestern foes, including 3-10 versus Milwaukee. Their divisional difficulties make the Pirates’ schedule the toughest in the Central.
The Reds also have a difficult road ahead. They face winning teams in nearly two-thirds of their games (29 of 44, 65.9%). Further, Cincinnati has struggled to a 3-6 mark against St. Louis, and still has 10 games looming against the Cardinals. Fortunately, the Reds have a relatively easy travel itinerary, with only two series out of the Midwest. Still, the strength of their opposition may make it difficult for Cincinnati to overcome its five game hole.
Of all Central contenders, the Cardinals possess the easiest schedule. St. Louis plays only half of its remaining games (23 of 46, 50.0%) against teams with winning records. The redbirds get to play the last place team from every NL division. In addition, the Cardinals play 25 games against the NL teams with the worst wRC+ (Cubs, Reds, Phillies, Padres), allowing their stacked rotation to dominate weak-hitting offenses. St. Louis has manageable travel as well. While they do make a three-game trip to Arizona, the flight from St. Louis to Phoenix takes roughly three hours – half as long as the Brewers’ own West division voyages. The Cardinals certainly do not need any assistance, but the baseball gods smiled upon them when designing the late-season schedule.
After the fact, only the teams that fail to make the playoffs will think about the difficult schedules they faced. Fans do not accept a tough schedule as an excuse for missing the playoffs. Still, the schedule presents a serious obstacle to the Brewers’ postseason hopes. Ultimately, the difficulty of the upcoming schedule enhances the glory the Brewers deserve if they can make their way into October.