29 is a Magic Number

Between the months of March/April and October, I’m immersed in the MLB season, following my Cardinals day in and out, but come September 1, I ratchet it up a notch. With only one month left in the season, the playoff picture is a bit clearer, and it’s easy to identify the threat(s) to the Cardinals’ playoff hopes. With sights set on October baseball, my eyes turn to the baseball equivalent of a holiday advent calendar: the magic number.

The concept of the magic number is not a complex one. Simply put, it is the collective number of wins by the leading team (Team A) and losses by the team in pursuit (Team B) that it will take for Team A to clinch a postseason berth (or prevent Team B from passing Team A in the standings, if both are playoff teams). To calculate the magic number outright for Team A over Team B, the equation for baseball purposes is: 162 (number of games in a season) + 1 – (number of Team A’s wins) – (number of Team B’s losses). As the games are played, if Team A wins, subtract one from the magic number. If Team B loses, subtract one. However, if Team A loses and Team B wins, the number stays put. It’s that simple!

Obviously, the ultimate goal is to zero out that magic number, and if that happens, break out the bubbly and the celebration goggles! With that said, Team B also – technically speaking – has a magic number* (to eliminate Team A), and thus, if Team A were to falter and Team B were to keep winning, the script would be flipped. (*To figure out Team B’s magic number, here is the equation: 162 + 1 – Team B’s wins – Team A’s losses.)

This magic number exists throughout the entire MLB season, but without the close proximity of playoff baseball, counting it down lacks luster because so many teams are still mathematically in playoff contention. Furthermore, the magic numbers mid-year are so high that counting them down would be more chore than fun. (Unless you are ESPN, which started counting down the Chicago Cubs’ magic number way back in late July or early August – ah, the perks of leading the division by a zillion games.) Given the mathematical difficulty earlier in the year, from April to August, I focus on my Cardinals and hope they take care of their own business. I’ll cheer for other teams ahead or in pursuit to lose, but so long as the Cardinals win more than they lose, September is sure to bring excitement.

With the playoffs nigh, on any given September evening, the number of games to pay attention to multiplies. It’s not just the Cardinals to follow but two, three, four other teams as well. If the Cards lose, I can still scratch a game off the Cards’ magic number with a loss here and there from a trailing club. This month, I will follow each Cards game per usual, but I’ll also pay close attention to how the Pirates, Mets, and Marlins perform and give a silent fist pump each time one of them loses. Any day that magic number goes down – even if only by way of an opponent’s loss –  is a good day in my book.

Today, the Cards’ magic number sits at 29 with 30 games left on the schedule. I find myself looking at the Playoff Magic standings and doing the math myself. “If the Cards go 20-10 the rest of the way, that only gives the Pirates eight losses’ worth of wiggle room. If they each lose nine, we’d be in! But wait. 20-10 is a little generous for this year’s Cardinals. Maybe 17-13 is more realistic. Or 16-14. Eek! Then we need 13 rum-drowned nights for the Buccos. Possible, sure, but not a given.” Each night, the equation changes, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. As the number of games left dwindles, the excitement builds and pressure mounts. Soon, it’s either a shot – any shot at all – at the title or bitter disappointment and a months-long wait until hope is restored with a new season.

With each passing day this month – if the Cardinals remain in their current position, I must add – I’ll text my dad an update of that magic number. Together we’ll hope for that number to go away, but at the same time, we know that other teams and their fans, including one here at It’s the Emotion, will do all in their worldly power to ensure that day never comes.

Cover photo by Jleybov – own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

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