Daily Windup: Who has the edge in tight National League races?
Somebody in this National League dogpile is going to be accused of choking away a trip to the postseason. That's just the way it's going to be. When you look so good for such long stretches of the season, and so pathetically terrible in others, that's how it has to be.
For one night, though, the Mets, the Phillies and the Brewers all looked like playoff contenders. On Wednesday, the Phillies, new leaders of the NL East, brushed aside the Braves for a sixth straight win. The Brewers, still on the postseason perimeter looking in, snapped their five-game losing streak with an easy handling of the Cubs.
And the for-now wild-card possessing Mets? Well, they won, too. It was a little hairy there for a while. It took seven Mets pitchers to get through the final four innings against the Nationals. The beleaguered bullpen gave up two runs in the ninth, and had to face the tying run at the plate before they could exhale.
But these are the Mets. We've come to expect hairy with the Mets.
One game in the loss column and a few minor percentage points are all that separate the Phillies, Mets and Brewers right now, with 11 game days left in the season. What will separate the two winners from the one that will ultimately be crowned the choker?
Here are five big factors:
The schedule: The trailing Brewers have four games left with the Cubs, including three on the final weekend. Those are their toughest games. But the Brewers almost certainly can't catch the Cubs, who are eight games ahead in the Central. Instead, they have to hope someone else can take care of Philly and New York, the wild-card challengers. Who can help out the Brewers? The Mets have four more games with the Cubs (Sept. 22-25 in New York), which might aid Milwaukee's cause. But the Phillies cruise from here. They play the Braves, Marlins and Nationals. Advantage: Phillies.
The momentum: The Brewers are 4-12 in September, worst in the NL. The Mets are 8-6. The Phillies are 10-5. Advantage: Phillies.
The lineups: Only the Cubs have outscored the Mets in the second half, and while they have been inconsistent, they may be waking up. On Wednesday, Jose Reyes went 2-for-4 with a home run against the Nationals, and Carlos Delgado and Carlos Beltran, who have 13 RBIs apiece in the Mets' 14 September games, combined for four hits (with one home run apiece) and five RBIs. The Phillies and Brewers can score, too. Ryan Howard is carrying Philadelphia. Prince Fielder is doing the job in Milwaukee. But neither of those teams can put numbers on the board like New York. Advantage: Mets.
The rotations: Ben Sheets went only two innings for the Brewers on Wednesday, leaving with pain in his pitching elbow. Losing him could be a huge blow for Milwaukee, whose rotation has the second-best ERA in the second half (3.63), behind the Cubs. But this is a tight race, with the Phillies (mainly Cole Hamels, Brett Myers and Jamie Moyer) in third and the Mets (Johan Santana, Oliver Perez, Mike Pelfrey) in fourth. Advantage: With Sheets doubtful, it goes to the Phillies.
The bullpens: Well, we know the Mets flunk this sniff test. The Brewers have the league's best bullpen, by ERA, in the second half (at 3.44). Yet anyone who watches Milwaukee's relievers gets a case of hives just by seeing Eric Gagne out there. And Philly's bullpen, statistically, is only so-so (a 4.26 ERA in the second half, ninth in the league). Yet they have Brad Lidge at the end, probably the NL's most dominant closer. Advantage: We'll wimp out and call it a tie between the Phillies and Brewers, though Lidge makes us want to lean toward Philly.
The thing about choking, at least with these three franchises, is that they all know it too well. The Mets, of course, famously gagged away a seven-game NL East lead with 17 games to play last year. The Phillies are still remembered for one of the worst collapses in history, blowing a 6 1/2-game lead with 12 to play back in 1964.
The Brewers haven't much sniffed the postseason since their last trip there, in 1982. But they had an 8 1/2-game lead in the NL Central last year and were tied for the lead with 12 games left before stumbling to a 5-7 finish and missing the playoffs. And, of course, they had that 5 1/2-game lead in the wild-card at the beginning of this month and now sit a half-game out.
Who chokes this time around? Well, on Wednesday, the Mets certainly looked the shakiest. But the Brewers aren't playing much better -- no better with the bats -- and with Sheets possibly gone for the season, these are collar-tightening times in Milwaukee, too.
This much is certain. With 11 days left in the season, there's still plenty of time for anybody to fold up and head home.
Stud of the Day
Nobody's going to suggest that Prince Fielder is choking. Not to his face, anyway. Wednesday, the big first baseman had three hits and three RBIs to snap Milwaukee out of its September funk -- at least temporarily -- in a 6-2 win over the Cubs. Fielder has nine RBIs, four homers and four doubles in the Crew's last six games.
Dud of the Day
You just never know what you're going to get with a knuckleballer, and what the Red Sox got Wednesday from Tim Wakefield ... well, it wasn't much. The aggressive Rays nicked Boston's papillon pusher for six hits, three homers and six runs in just 2 1/3 innings in a 10-3 rout in St. Pete that pushed Tampa Bay's American League East lead to two games over Boston.
What Was He Thinking?
The Dodgers are sitting pretty in the NL West. But if we're to take them seriously, they can't have too many more nights like Wednesday.
In a seemingly innocuous seventh-inning move in a tie game against the Pirates, L.A. manager Joe Torre replaced Scott Proctor with 22-year-old lefty Scott Elbert with two outs and nobody on. From there, everything immediately went into the toilet. By the time the inning had ended, Torre had used two more relievers, the Pirates had scored eight runs and the game, for all intents and purposes, was over.
Really, it wasn't a bad move by Torre. Proctor had thrown 21 pitches. Elbert was in to face lefty swinging Nate McLouth. It just didn't work out. The Dodgers entered the game with the best bullpen in the NL in the second half of the season (a 3.52 ERA). It just wasn't very good on this night.
Quote of the Day
"He communicates. That's not to say Ned [Yost] didn't. But Dale is different. He's just a smart baseball person."
-- Brewers catcher Jason Kendall on new manager Dale Sveum, to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Thursday's Key Games
Brewers (Bush) at Cubs (Harden), 2:20 p.m.
Harden's 1.65 ERA in NL is better than CC's
White Sox (Vazquez) at Yankees (Mussina), 7:05 p.m.
Two poor starts in a row have cost Moose shot at 20 Ws
Phillies (Hamels) at Braves (Reyes), 7:10 p.m.
Hamels 2-0, 2.11 ERA in 3 starts vs. Atlanta in '08
Mets (Santana) at Nationals (Redding), 7:10 p.m.
Santana (6-0, 2.33 last 14 starts) hasn't had L since June
Twins (Perkins) at Rays (Shields), 7:10 p.m.
Rivals hitting .393 vs. Perkins in last 3 starts
Giants (Lincecum) at Diamondbacks (Johnson), 9:40 p.m.
It's old funky vs. new funky in another must-win for Arizona
The Twins blew a chance Wednesday to pick up a game in the AL Central when the Indians completed a three-game sweep with a 6-4 win in Cleveland. The Twins, the last team to beat Cliff Lee, held their own against the probable AL Cy Young winner Wednesday. But the bullpen gave up back-to-back two-out doubles in the seventh, and now the Twins, losers of four straight, face the sizzling Rays in Tampa. It's been uphill all season for Minnesota.
Reliever Scott Linebrink had his second straight bad outing for the Central-leading White Sox, giving up three hits and three runs in a loss to the Yankees. Ozzie Guillen probably had something to say about it. But we couldn't print it here anyway.
Tampa Bay's early aggressiveness set the tone of Wednesday's game. The Rays stole a couple bases early, and Evan Longoria scored from second base on a bouncer up the middle that didn't even get to the outfield. Yet another reason that these Rays might keep winning straight through October.
No, the Diamondbacks aren't dead yet. Brandon Webb won his 21st game despite allowing three early runs, helping himself with a two-out, two-run double in a five-run second. The D'backs beat the Giants, but they still trail the Dodgers in the NL West by 3 1/2 games.
Jason Marquis' first inning against the Brewers on Wednesday -- two walks, a couple of hits, a stolen base, three runs allowed -- shows you why he almost assuredly won't be a part of the Cubs' postseason rotation.
Arizona announcers Daron Sutton and Mark Grace were wondering Wednesday why Philly closer Brad Lidge -- 37-for-37 in save attempts, no losses, a 1.96 ERA, a .196 batting average against -- isn't getting more consideration for the NL Cy Young award. It's a legitimate question.