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Posted: Wednesday September 2, 2009 12:31PM; Updated: Wednesday September 2, 2009 2:49PM
Ted Keith Ted Keith >
INSIDE BASEBALL

Assessing the races (or lack thereof) with one month remaining (cont.)

NL East

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Cliff Lee
Cliff Lee is 5-1 with a 1.80 ERA in six starts with the Phillies.
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Current leader: Philadelphia Phillies, 76-53.

Contenders: Atlanta Braves, 70-62, 7 1/2 games out.

We use the word "contenders" very loosely here. Barring a Mets-like collapse, the Phillies have all but wrapped up the NL East. The only thing keeping the Braves alive is their effective and deep starting pitching staff, which just got even better when Tim Hudson came off the disabled list.

The problem for the Braves, of course, is if there's one team in the NL that can match their starting pitching depth, it's the Phillies, especially now that Cliff Lee and Pedro Martinez have joined forces with Cole Hamels, J.A. Happ and Joe Blanton. Moreover, the Braves don't have an offense that can keep them in games like the Phillies' can. Philadelphia leads the league in runs scored, home runs, slugging percentage and OPS, and boasts four players (Ryan Howard, Jayson Werth, Raul Ibanez, Chase Utley) who will finish the year with at least 30 home runs. Atlanta doesn't have a single player with more than 17.

Key series: The Phillies play the Braves Sept. 18-20 in Atlanta, but if the Braves haven't made a serious move by then, even a sweep may not be enough to keep their title hopes alive.

Predicted division winner: Phillies.

NL Central

Current leader: St. Louis Cardinals, 78-55.

Contenders: None.

Surely Tony La Russa can find something with which to occupy his lawyer's mind over the last month of the season, because he no longer needs to worry about winning his 12th division title in 31 years as a manager. He can decide which of his Cy Young-contending starters (Chris Carpenter or Adam Wainwright) should start their playoff opener, just how many more at-bats Albert Pujols needs to wrap up his second straight NL MVP, and how to keep Matt Holliday swinging a red-hot bat.

Just when it looked like the Cubs might finally rise up and snatch the NL Central crown that had seemed theirs for the taking all year long, they instead tripped over themselves in a can't-look-away disaster that included ugly incidents on the field and meltdowns and finger-pointing off it. They caught the Cardinals atop the NL Central in early August but have gone just 9-15 since, nose-diving to a season-worst 10 1/2 games out of first place. Even if the Cardinals were to go 14-15 over their remaining 29 games -- which seems highly unlikely given that they have the NL's best record at 29-13 in the second half -- the Cubs would have to go 26-6 to catch them. Not happening.

Key series: Sept. 18-20, Cubs at Cardinals. Don't bet on it, but if these two continue playing the way they have for the past month, there's a chance the Cardinals could clinch the division title on their home field against their archrivals. Otherwise, the clinching will almost certainly have to come on the road, as the Cards don't return to St. Louis until a season-ending three-game set with the Brewers.

Predicted division winner: Cardinals.

NL West

Current leader: Los Angeles Dodgers, 78-54.

Contenders: Colorado Rockies, 73-59, 5 games behind; San Francisco Giants, 72-60, 6 games behind.

The Dodgers have steadied themselves after a rough stretch, and despite a losing record in August and watching the Rockies catch fire, they entered September with a 5 1/2 game lead, only 2 1/2 worse than at the start of August. In fact, all their recent slump seems to have done is scare them straight.

Rather than rest on having the best record in the National League and being in first place all but six days this year, they went out and got better and deeper, adding veterans Vicente Padilla, Ronnie Belliard, Jim Thome and Jon Garland in the past week. The offense is superb, leading the league in hitting and on-base percentage and ranking third in runs scored. Another bonus: Their bullpen has been outstanding this year, leading the majors in both ERA (3.22, half a run better than the runner-up Red Sox) and batting average against (.229).

The schedule is especially beneficial down the stretch: In addition to 11 games against the woeful Diamondbacks and Padres, the Dodgers out-of-division competition consists entirely of 10 games against the last-place Nationals and Pirates.

The Rockies have finally cooled off after a torrid stretch that lasted three months and took them from 12 games under .500 in May to 18 games over .500 in late August, an incredible 30 game turnaround. Did they peak too soon? As usual, the offense is dangerous, ranking second in the league in runs, home runs, on-base percentage and slugging percentage, though they have been plagued by strikeouts at times (only the Diamondbacks and Rangers whiff more often).

The Giants have managed to hang in the race despite a dreadful offense that has only one true threat (third baseman Pablo Sandoval). For all they have gotten from Matt Cain, and the stunning turnaround notched by Barry Zito, their season rests on the slight frame of Tim Lincecum, who leads the league in innings pitched and is second in total pitches thrown. Lincecum was given an extra day of rest this week in an effort to keep him as fresh as possible down the stretch. After his start Thursday in Philadelphia, if he continues to pitch every fifth game, he'd make only five more starts. The Giants probably can't afford to waste any of them if they are to get back to the playoffs for the first time in six years.

Key series: Sept. 11-13, Dodgers at Giants; Sept. 14-16, Rockies at Giants; Sept. 18-20, Giants at Dodgers; October 2-4, Rockies at Dodgers.

Predicted division winner: Dodgers.

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