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Fight to the finish

Six NL teams scramble for three remaining spots

Posted: Friday September 29, 2006 12:05PM; Updated: Saturday September 30, 2006 1:44AM
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Scott Rolen and the Cardinals are on the verge of what would be one of the biggest collapses in baseball history.
Scott Rolen and the Cardinals are on the verge of what would be one of the biggest collapses in baseball history.
NL Playoff Reset
San Diego, 86-73
Los Angeles, 85-74
St. Louis, 81-77
Houston, 81-78
Cincinnati, 79-80
Wild Card
Los Angeles, 85-74
Philadelphia, 83-76
Playoff Seedings
New York, 94-65*
San Diego, 86-73*
St. Louis, 81-77*
Los Angeles, 85-74
Philadelphia, 83-76
Houston, 81-78
Cincinnati, 79-80
*division leaders

Go ahead. Indulge. You've earned it.

In fact, get fired up. You've been watching this game, this silly game where grown men go on a field and hit a ball with a stick, for six months, like you do every silly year. And now, with only three days left in the regular season, there are no fewer than 18 games that could directly impact the National League playoffs.

You get your TiVo working right, and you could spend 54 consecutive hours or more this weekend watching the entire NL season play out before your eyes. That doesn't include potential makeup or tiebreaker games that could be played Monday -- or even Tuesday or Wednesday!

Six NL teams are still alive for three available postseason spots, and only the New York Mets -- who seem to have clinched about 27 years ago, as compressed as the season has become -- are fully in playoff preparation mode. (And rest assured, with their injury problems, the Mets have some preparing to do.)

Feeding the frenzy is the fact that no contending teams are playingone another, which may not do much for one's High Noon aspirations but otherwise pushes scoreboard-watching to the max. September insanity hit new levels of crazy Wednesday when the Philadelphia Phillies and Houston Astros combined to play 29 innings (using nearly 50 players between them), then continued Thursday with the Los Angeles Dodgers winning a 19-11 slugfest and the Phillies starting a game (and losing) at almost midnight.

We're rolling around in it now, and man, it's beautiful.


Cincinnati at Pittsburgh, 7:05 p.m. ET
We kick things off with the Reds, who led the wild-card race for a good part of August's dog days before turning into dogs themselves. But the collapse of the St. Louis Cardinals (more about that later) has kept Cincinnati alive, and the Reds enter the final weekend 2 games out of first place but facing the NL-worst Pirates. Pittsburgh gave the Mets and the Dodgers a rough time earlier this month, but the Pirates have now lost seven straight. Aaron Harang, who has turned in a surprising 3.83 ERA this year for Cincinnati, faces Zach Duke.

Houston at Atlanta, 7:05 p.m.
A living embodiment of the rally cap, the Astros moved Thursday within rend-your-garments distance of one of the most dramatic regular-season comebacks in baseball history, winning their ninth straight game to pull just a half-game behind St. Louis in the NL Central after trailing by 8 games on Sept. 17. Houston's bid to seize first place will be led tonight by none other than Roger Clemens, who once again has humiliated his peers by posting a 2.35 ERA in 107 1/3 innings at age 44. The Braves will pitch Chuck James, 20 years younger than the Rocket, with a 3.94 ERA. Though the Astros are dead even with the Cardinals in wins and the whole weekend is in front of them, Houston should look at this game as a veritable must-win. The Astros' starting pitching takes a big dip Saturday -- a loss tonight, and Houston's bid for immortality could turn quickly into ignobility.

Philadelphia at Florida, 7:05 p.m.
Washington, D.C., 2:07 a.m.: Barely 24 hours after nearly losing in epic fashion to the Nationals, the Phillies succumbed meekly this morning to the last-place team in the NL East, 3-1, falling two games behind the Dodgers in the NL wild-card race. OK, boys -- time to head down south and play the Marlins in 17 hours. If the Phillies need to buoy their spirits, here are two inspirational messages: Jamie Moyer (4.27 ERA since coming from Seattle) looks good in comparison to Florida's Brian Moehler (6.22 ERA), and the Dodgers have rarely made things easy for themselves in 2006. A win keeps the Phillies alive for at least another day.

Milwaukee at St. Louis, 8:10 p.m.
Did we mention the Cardinals are having some problems? Back on the 17th, St. Louis' magic number to clinch the NL Central was eight. Eleven days later, it's been whittled down ... to four. These are not expert whittlers we're talking about. The bloodied Cardinals fans probably won't be inspired by the sight of Jeff Weaver (5.79 ERA), designated for assignment this summer by the Los Angeles Angels, pitching to save St. Louis' hold on first place, although Weaver has a passable 4.03 ERA this month. Conversely, Milwaukee's Chris Capuano has a 3.80 ERA for 2006 but has allowed 16 earned runs in his past 18 innings. The Cardinals have every chance of winning this game, but they're going to have to overcome the fact that the game has any importance at all.

San Diego at Arizona, 9:40 p.m.
S.D. stands for San Diego; it could also stand for Seize (the) Day. After playing .500 ball for their first 122 games, the Padres have gone 24-12 and positioned themselves as the No. 2 team in the NL. They haven't quite locked up a playoff spot -- though they have ensured themselves no worse than a tie for the NL wild card -- but an NL West title and home field advantage in the first round of the playoffs are still targets to be reached. Clay Hensley (3.73 ERA) pitches for San Diego against the Diamondbacks' Livan Hernandez (4.95 ERA).

Los Angeles at San Francisco, 10:15 p.m.
Who? Kuo, that's who. Hong-Chih Kuo, with one victory in his major league career, is the guy the Dodgers will be asking to help preserve their lead in the wild card and their pursuit of San Diego for West supremacy. After strike zone struggles sent him to the minor leagues, Kuo came back at the end of August and has since struck out 29 in 24 1/3 innings with a 2.59 ERA, walking seven. The Giants are out of it, but with a chance to spoil the season for their archrivals in what might be Barry Bonds' last weekend in San Francisco whites, there will be no more hostile atmosphere in all of baseball.