As of this writing (July 4, 2016), the Chicago Cubs and the San Francisco Giants are the best teams in the National League. The Cubs have the best winning percentage; the Giants, who have played three more games than the Cubs, have one more win than the Cubs. An old tradition said that the team leading the league on the fourth of July would win the pennant. I know that tradition did not always hold true before the creation of divisions, although I suspect it was true more than half the time. Since the creation of divisions it has definitely been true less than half the time. Often, even the team with the best record at the end of the regular season does not win the pennant.
The Cubs and the Giants each have patterns that might determine their path to the pennant. The Giants have won the pennant and championship on all the even-numbered years of the decade so far (2010, 2012, and 2014). The Cubs’ pattern is more complex. Since divisions and playoff series were invented, the Cubs have reached the playoff games seven times. Each time they have been eliminated by a different team. On two occasions they met a team in the playoffs which had eliminated them in a previous year. Both times the Cubs defeated that team—the Giants in a one-game tiebreaker in 1998, and the Atlanta Braves in 2003. Last year’s playoffs demonstrated that the Cubs are not eliminated by a team in their own division. That leaves only three teams that can deny them the pennant: the Colorado Rockies, the Philadelphia Phillies, and the Washington Nationals.
Many baseball games remain to be played in July, August, and September. In the current standings, though, the Rockies and the Phillies are no threat to enter the playoffs. On the other hand, the Nationals lead the East Division of the National League. If the standings remain unchanged after the last games of the season, the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Mets would play for the Wild Card slot, with the winner playing against the Cubs. The Nationals and Giants would face each other.
Giants fans might believe that destiny is on their side, since 2016 is an even number. Given the Cubs’ pattern dating back to 1984, I would cheer for the Giants to beat the Nationals while the Cubs beat the Wild Card team. A Cubs-Giants match-up would favor the Cubs, since the Giants barred them from the pennant in 1989. A Cubs-Nationals match-up would favor the Nationals, since they have never kept the Cubs from advancing through the playoffs to the pennant.
In addition, the “Murphy” factor would remain in play for the Nationals. According to tradition, a billy goat named Murphy was barred from Wrigley Field in either 1908 or 1945, and Murphy’s owner cursed the Cubs, saying that they would never be champions again. In 1984, the first time the Cubs played in the National League playoffs, they were within one win of the pennant, but they lost three straight games in Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego. Last year the Cubs were winning solidly in the playoffs until the met the New York Mets. The Mets’ offensive hero of their four victories over the Cubs was Daniel Murphy, who hit a home run in each of the games. Murphy now plays for the Nationals (and, as of July 4, had the best hitting percentage in the National League).
Real baseball is played on the field, but baseball traditions and superstitions are almost as fun as the game. The Cubs were on a record-breaking pace until injuries slowed them late in June; they are still likely to reach the playoffs where they will strive once again to earn a National League pennant and, of course, a world championship. Go, Cubs, go! J.