ST. LOUIS – There are three weeks left in the National League wild-card race and there are four teams separated by 3½ games.
The San Diego Padres hold a one-game lead over the Cincinnati Reds, but they’ll have to earn it with a daunting schedule. The Padres have the toughest remaining schedule in baseball, facing opponents with a combined .602 winning percentage.
The Reds have a 5-15 record in their past 15 games, fortunate they didn’t fall further out of the playoff picture.
Here’s a look at how the weekend shapes up for the wild-card contenders:
SAN DIEGO PADRES (74-65, one game ahead)
The Padres have 16 games remaining against the San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers, and they don’t have any games left against clubs with a sub-.500 record. They’re beginning a 10-game, 10-day road trip Friday through L.A., San Francisco and St. Louis.
"It's probably the most exciting and most anticipated road trip I've been on as a Padre, which is pretty cool," outfielder Wil Myers told MLB.com. "Should be a lot of fun. This is why you play in the big leagues: To play these kinds of games late in a season."
Manny Machado and Fernando Tatis Jr. are hitting well at the right time, but a weekend series against the rival Dodgers will be an important tone setter for the rest of the road trip. San Diego enters with a 7-6 record against L.A. this season.
Friday: RHP Joe Musgrove (10-8, 2.87 ERA) vs. LHP Julio Urías (16-3, 3.11).
Saturday: RHP Chris Paddack (7-6, 4.95) vs. RHP Walker Buehler (13-3, 2.31).
Sunday: LHP Blake Snell (7-6, 4.22) vs. RHP Max Scherzer (13-4, 2.28).
CINCINNATI REDS (74-67, one game back)
The Reds desperately need to stop their slide, losing eight of their last 11 games and dropping five consecutive series. They’ll conclude their nine-game, 11-day road trip with a three-game series in St. Louis this weekend and a three-game series in Pittsburgh after an off-day Monday.
The offense has fizzled in the last two weeks and All-Star Jesse Winker isn’t expected to return for another week. The bullpen remains a question mark.
“Obviously, it’s a little bit frustrating for us, but this team is strong,” rookie pitcher Vladimir Gutierrez said, according to team interpreter Jorge Merlos.
Friday: RHP Tyler Mahle (11-5, 3.76) vs. LHP Jon Lester (5-6, 4.89).
Saturday: RHP Luis Castillo (7-15, 4.20) vs. RHP Miles Mikolas (0-2, 5.06).
Sunday: RHP Sonny Gray (7-6, 3.88) vs. LHP J.A. Happ (8-8, 6.24).
ST. LOUIS CARDINALS (71-68, three games back)
The Cardinals are trailing a bit in the wild-card race, but they control a lot of their future. It’s their final three games of the season against the Reds this weekend and then they’ll play host to the Padres next weekend.
They’re averaging only 2.5 runs in their last six games, but their bullpen has shown improvement.
Since taking two of three games against the Reds at Great American Ball Park, the Cardinals dropped two of three games to the Milwaukee Brewers and split a four-game series with the Dodgers.
PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES (71-69, three-and-a-half games back)
Depending on how the New York Mets play over the next week, the Phillies may not play another team with a winning record until Sept. 28. They’re the one team in baseball with a softer remaining schedule than the Reds.
The Phillies have struggled to put away games with the back of their bullpen, giving up a go-ahead homer against the Colorado Rockies in their series opener Thursday when they were within a strike of a win. They blew a two-run lead in the eighth inning against the Miami Marlins last weekend.
“It hurts a lot,” manager Joe Girardi said after the 4-3 loss to the Rockies on Thursday. “But we can’t change it. We’ve got to come out and play better tomorrow and find a way to put a streak together here.”
Friday: TBA vs. RHP Germán Márquez (11-10, 4.08)
Saturday: RHP Zack Wheeler (12-9, 2.91) vs. TBA
Sunday: RHP Aaron Nola (7-8, 4.57) vs. TBA