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9/21/2007 08:55:00 AM

Wild Card: Panic Gluttons

By Cliff Corcoran

Panic! In the streets of Boston! Panic! In the streets of Queens! The Yankees are coming! The Phillies are coming! Fire the manager! String up the GM! Sound the alarms! Lock the doors! Hide the kids!

On the morning of May 30, the Red Sox were 36-15 (.706) and had an 11.5-game lead in the AL East, while the Yankees were in fourth place, 14.5 games back and eight games under .500. The Sox then went 17-19 over the remainder of the first half and have since played .561 ball in the second half. The Yankees took two of three in Boston over the first three days of June, went 19-13 over the remainder of the second half, and have since played .682 ball in the second half. In the past month, the Yankees have taken five of six from the Sox and since Sunday have gained four games in the division, closing the gap in the AL East to 1.5 games, and just one in the loss column.

Last Thursday the Mets had a seven-game lead over the Phillies in the NL East. Since then the Phillies have won six of seven, including sweeping a three game series at Shea over the weekend to reduce the Mets' lead to 1.5 games (two in the loss column).

And that's just the half of it. The Diamondbacks have never led the NL West by more than four games this year, and the Padres' 6-3 victory over the Pirates yesterday, their seventh straight, pulled them within a half game of the D'backs, and both teams have been tied in the loss column since Tuesday morning. In the NL Central, the Cubs and Brewers have been no further apart than 2.5 games since July 28, and have woken up tied ten times since then, with the Brewers holding the lead for 19 days, and the Cubs holding the lead for 25 days, including the last three.

It's all terribly exciting. Unfortunately, none of these four sets of rivals has any head-to-head games left. What's more, six of the eight teams mentioned above will wind up in the playoffs, regardless of how their individual races turn out, with both the Yankees and Red Sox virtually guaranteed a postseason berth.

That means the only things left to fight over in the American League are bragging rights and playoff seedings. Of course, that's no small thing, particularly in Boston, where the Red Sox, despite making five playoff appearances in the last ten years and winning the World Series three years ago, have never beaten out Joe Torre's Yankees for a division title. It's no small thing in the Bronx either, as Yankee fans are dreading another first-round exit at the hands of the Angels, who can clinch their division with a win over the Mariners tonight. As for the Indians, the fact that the Yanks and Sox can't play each other in the first round because they're from the same division will force the Cleveland to face one of those two teams against whom they have a combined 2-11 record this year. Thus it's all the more important to them to get home field advantage for at least the division series. The good news for Tribe fans is that the race for home field is wide open, as just one game separates the three division leaders in the standings.

The NL is where the real action is, as six teams are battling for four playoff spots, with the Brewers and Phillies currently on the outside looking in. The Phillies have shown amazing fortitude thus far, despite having a losing record as late as July 19, they've thrust themselves into the NL East race, beating the Mets in their last eight head-to-head contests and winning seven of their last eight games overall, staging late-inning rallies in five of those wins. The Phillies are also just 2.5 games behind the Padres in the Wild Card race (three in the loss column). Of course, with just nine games left, that's likely too large a deficit to overcome, and the Phillies have a 12-year playoff drought to overcome as well, but there's still an outside chance that their surge for the division crown will have a consolation prize.

Six of the Phillies' remaining nine games come against the lowly Nationals, but the middle three see them host the Braves, who hold an 8-7 advantage in their season series. The Mets, however, face nothing but patsies, with six games left against the Marlins, three more against the Nats, and a makeup game against the freefalling Cardinals. Seven of those ten games are at home. Of course, the Mets are 1-3 against the Nats and Fish thus far this week, and they have a better record on the road than at home for the season.

The Padres, however, have a much tougher row to hoe, with three games against the underrated Rockies this weekend followed by seven on the road, which concludes with a four-game set against the Brewers in Milwaukee, so there's still hope for the Wild Card in Philadelphia. Things aren't much easier for the Diamondbacks, who finish with three in Colorado and have three at home against the Dodgers this weekend, two teams against whom Arizona is 13-17 this season.

I addressed the manner in which the remaining schedules for the Cubs and Brewers favor Chicago in my NL Central post on Wednesday. Indeed, the two teams were tied for first place when I wrote that, but the Cubs have since taken a 1.5-game lead. Baseball Prospectus's Postseason Odds, which are determined by simulating the remainder of the schedule a million times and are updated each morning, give the Cubs a 77.5 percent chance of winning the division, leaving the Brewers -- who have only made the postseason twice in franchise history, most recently in 1982 when they won the AL pennant -- with the remaining 22.5 percent. BP's odds also give the Phillies a mere 36.5 percent chance of making the playoffs, with that percentage split almost evenly between winning the NL East and taking the Wild Card, with a less than one percent lean toward the latter.

Over in the AL, the Yankees, who open a four-game series at home tonight against Roy Halladay and the Blue Jays' team that just swept Boston, then hit the road to play the Devil Rays and Orioles, have a mere 17.7 percent chance of overtaking the Red Sox, who open a three-game set in Tampa tonight, have Monday off, then finish with six at home against the A's and Twins. That 17.7 percent is nearly identical to the Phillies odds of overtaking the Mets. Then again, this is baseball. Stranger things have happened.


posted by SI.com | View comments | Add a comment  
9/20/2007 12:13:00 PM

NL East: The Fight for Fourth

By Ben Reiter

The Mets last week learned the hard way that their battle with the Phillies isn't the only race currently underway within the NL East.

True, the Washington Nationals, at 68-84, today stand 16.5 games behind New York in the division. But as the Nats demonstrated in taking games on Monday and Tuesday from the playoffs-hungry Mets, they're doing anything but giving up. In fact, should the Nats, who were expected to field one of the worst teams in MLB history this season, manage to finish atop the Marlins in the standings -– and they're currently enjoying a three-game cushion on Florida -– 2006 will have to be viewed an unqualified success in Washington.


  • Despite losing by far their best hitter (Alfonso Soriano, who slugged 26 percent of the team's homers in `06) and their most experienced starting pitcher (Livan Hernandez), and despite playing without their injured ace (John Patterson) since early May, the Nats have two more wins than they did last Sept. 20.

  • Since a miserable start left them at 9-25 on May 9, they've gone 59-59.

  • No fewer than eight teams -– the Orioles, Devil Rays, White Sox, Royals, Pirates, Astros, Giants, and, of course, the Marlins -– currently own worse records than they do.

    In SI's MLB preview issue back in March, I wrote, "The tenor of Washington's spring was a mix of optimism and realism -– the optimism born, in part, or the reality that the club is widely anticipated to be the worst in the majors and can only exceed expectations." When I spent some time in the Nats' clubhouse on Tuesday afternoon, I found that none of that optimism had diminished -– but that it's now born of the reality that the Nats can be sure that they're on the track to respectability, especially with a new ballpark set to open next spring and with the quick ramping up of a formerly-barren farm system that suddenly boasts both legitimate prospects and legitimate scouting talent.

    (Meanwhile, the Marlins, who were a Nationals-esque surprise last season, and who were, at 31-31, a .500 ballclub on June 8, appear to have completely lost their way -– they're 34-56 since then, and with no new stadium on the horizon their time in South Florida appears to be growing short).

    In the cramped, fragrant confines of RFK Stadium's visitors' clubhouse on Tuesday, where the Mets were hunkered down and trying to figure out a way to beat the Nats (they would go on to lose again that evening, 9-8), I discovered nothing but admiration for the Nats' accomplishments this season. "They don't have the marquee names -– they might not have the Jose Reyeses and the Carlos Beltrans -– but they have good solid players that can get the job done," said probable NL MVP David Wright, who is close friends with fellow Virginian third baseman Ryan Zimmerman.

    Said Mets GM Omar Minaya, "I was with [the Nationals' franchise] when they were the Expos. We always tried to finish in first place, and then if we couldn't our goal was to finish at .500 -– but it's still a successful year [for them] not to play in last place."

    The Mets attributed much of the Nats' success to manager Manny Acta, who spent the previous two years as third base coach in New York and whose work my colleague John Donovan recently analyzed on SI.com.

    "I knew he was going to be a huge addition over there, and I think he's instilled into their minds that, Hey, although everybody else expects us to be at the bottom of the totem poll, we're not going to have that mindset," said Wright. "I think guys are feeding off Manny's energy and his beliefs. I think he's one of the best young minds in the game."

    Added Minaya: "They're feisty, they play hard. It's a credit to Manny that they're doing all this. That's how I expect a Manny Acta team to play."

    When the Phillies looked at their schedule before the season, they must have jumped for joy when they saw that six of their final nine games of the season would come against the Nationals. After seeing how well the Nats play the spoiler role, one doubts the Phils are currently as enthused. "When they're not playing us, I'm rooting for them," said Wright on Tuesday, with more than a little self-interest. "It definitely would be a nice springboard into next year if they can finish on a positive note."

  • Chris Needham's Capitol Punishment features some helpful advice for reeling Mets fans.

  • Is self-flagellation next for for Mr. Lo Duca? A hair shirt, maybe?

  • This Marlins team really is a bunch of franchise record-setters. Unfortunately those records include worst batting average against, most errors, and fewest complete games.

  • The Braves may be the only NL East team not fighting for its position in the standings right now -– they're pretty much a lock to finish a disappointing third, as they're three games behind the Phillies and 11 ahead of the Nats -– but both Chipper Jones and Edgar Renteria are in the thick of the race for the NL batting crown.

  • The Good Phight praises the man who leads the Phillies in OBP -– and it's definitely not who you think.


    posted by SI.com | View comments | Add a comment  
  • 9/19/2007 09:01:00 AM

    NL Central: Neck and Neck

    By Cliff Corcoran

    Although the D'backs and Padres are tied in the loss column atop the NL West, and things are tightening up in the eastern divisions in both leagues, the NL Central remains the closest division in baseball.

    With less than two weeks remaining in the season, the Cubs and Brewers are tied for first place entering today's action. The remaining schedule strongly favors Chicago. The Cubs will face the Reds, Pirates, and Marlins, while the Brewers have four games in Atlanta starting tomorrow and will conclude the season with four at home against the Padres. What's more, the Cubs have a pair of off-days (tomorrow and Monday), while the Brewers, who have played two fewer games, have none. Among other things, that will allow the Cubs to put off using a fifth starter until the opening game of their final series in Cincinnati. If things are still tight entering that series, Lou Piniella may be tempted to bring Carlos Zambrano back on three days rest against the Reds. Then again, maybe not, as that's exactly what Piniella did in last night's loss, the first game in Zambrano's major league career in which he started on short rest.

    Should the Cubs win the division (NLDS tickets go on sale in Chicago on Sunday), it will be well earned. They went 9-6 against the Brewers, 11-5 against the Cardinals, and came back from being 8.5 games behind in late June. There is hope for the Brewers, however, as the Cubs have a losing record against each of the three patsies remaining on their schedule -- the Cubs are 11-17 against the Reds, Bucs, and Fish, including a three-game sweep at the hands of the Marlins at the end of May. Then again, the Brewers are 1-5 against the Braves and Padres this year, and have a losing record against their other remaining opponent, those freefalling Cardinals.

    The Cardinals' last hope was their four-game series at home against the Cubs last weekend, but, although none of the games was decided by more than two runs, the Cardinals only managed to take one of them, in large part because they were only able to scratch out 10 runs in the series. Thus the Cards finished the weekend seven games out of first place, and eight games below .500. Their one win in that series, a 4-3 victory in the nightcap of Saturday's doubleheader, remains their only win since The Daily News broke the Rick Ankiel HGH allegations on Sept. 7. Ankiel himself has hit .139/.156/.163 with 13 Ks and just one RBI over that stretch. As a result, the minds of Redbird fans have shifted to next year's starting rotation (Mark Mulder is scheduled to meet on Monday with the team doctor, who may recommend another MRI on his sore left shoulder), and the uncertain status of manager Tony La Russa.

    The Pirates and Astros, both of whom have been mathematically eliminated, also have their minds on the front office, as both are in the market for new general managers. The Bucs have already interviewed Mets' vice president of development Tony Bernazard and Blue Jays' director of player personnel Tony LaCava, and are expected to seek permission to interview local boy Jack Zduriencik, the Brewers' special assistant to the general manger and director of amateur scouting who oversaw the drafts that brought in Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun, Yovani Gallardo, Corey Hart, Rickie Weeks, and J.J. Hardy. Indians' vice president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti and the White Sox's vice president and assistant general manager Rick Hahn have declined to be interviewed.

    John Perrotto suggests some other candidates here, while Bones over at Honest Wagner has all the latest on the team's search. The New York Sun's Tim Marchman has a good piece on the man who will be making the decision, new team president Frank Coonelly. Meanwhile, Cory Humes of the Pittsburgh Lumber Co. looks at the sunny side of another loosing season.

    The Astros, meanwhile, have completed their initial interviews with 11 candidates and, although they are considering doing some call-backs, could arrive at a decision very soon. The list of eleven can be found toward the bottom of this article by the Houston Chronicle's Jose De Jesus Ortiz.

    Finally, the Reds, who staved off elimination last night when Aaron Harang beat Zambrano, have been doing some housecleaning of their own.


    posted by SI.com | View comments | Add a comment  
    9/18/2007 02:15:00 PM

    AL Central: Status Report

    By Joe Lemire

    Ever see that movie Sliding Doors? Nah, me neither.

    But from what I remember of seeing the coming attractions, the premise was great. Gwyneth Paltrow lives parallel lives with two vastly different outcomes, separated by a seemingly mundane, everyday activity -- making or missing a certain subway car.

    Well, after Cleveland's extra-inning walkoff win over Detroit last night, extending the Indians' lead to cutting to 5.5 games -- and cutting their magic number to seven -- the division can be called by everyone and not just over-eager bloggers.

    So the history books might remember the Tribe running away with the division down the stretch, but I think the American League Central could just as easily have gone in a very different direction. I know I cite Baseball Prospectus' postseason odds pretty regularly. Obviously, predicting the future, especially over a long baseball season, is a very inexact science, but BP's odds are a good gauge of realistic expectations.

    To wit, the Indians were at their lowest on April 19, the day Joe Borowski blew a four-run lead in the ninth to the Yankees on Alex Rodriguez's walkoff grand slam. Oh, the carnage.

    What, to me, might have been more important about that day -- after all, Borowski's a veteran who has a knack for bouncing back from horrifying performances -- is that Fausto Carmona, in his second start of the season, made a quality start, holding the Yankees to two runs in six innings. As I detailed earlier this year, Carmona entered the season as very damaged goods. A few bad outings, such as the six runs he allowed in 4.1 innings to the White Sox in his debut, could have ruined the confidence of the temperamental, young pitcher for good.

    Instead, Carmona battled in that game through a few a dicey situations. In the first inning, with two on and one out, he struck out A-Rod and induced a groundout from Giambi. In the third, with one run already in and a runner on with one out, Carmona again struck out A-Rod and then got Giambi to fly out.

    Suppose A-Rod homered in either the first or third innings, rather than saving his heroics for the ninth. Sure, it'd still have been one loss for Cleveland either way, but the Tribe might not have even given Carmona any more chances this season to prove his worth. That start proved to be the first of eight consecutive quality starts for Fausto. Hence, my Sliding Doors analogy. Now Carmona sports a 17-8 record with 3.07 ERA. As John Donovan points out, since the All-Star break, C.C. Sabathia and Carmona "have allowed a combined 158 hits in 188 innings pitched and together have a butt-kicking 2.44 ERA"

    For the visual learners in the group (you know who you are), BP also provides this neat color graph showing the fluctuating playoff expectations of the AL Central teams.

    It may be harder to pinpoint a Sliding Doors experience for the other teams in the division, but none of the teams is where, at the beginning of the season, I'd predicted they'd be at this point in the season.

    White Sox

    Where they are: Celebrating Jim Thome's 500th home run (a walkoff) like it were the World Series. Chicago has been so bad and so far out of the playoff race for so long, that they have little else to cheer. Despite the disappointing year, the ChiSox extended manager Ozzie Guillen through 2012.

    Where I thought they'd be: Out of the postseason race, yes, but just barely. Sure, the main sluggers in that lineup are old, but who could have predicted this much of a decline? I expected Josh Fields to be up with the big club and learning left field, to accommodate a lineup with him and Joe Crede, but that's about all I had right. No one could have anticipated such an historically bad bullpen.


    Where they are: An unexpected also-ran. Firmly entrenched in third place for the most of the year, never too far out of but never really in the pennant race either, the Twins never quite the lineup production they needed. Joe Mauer missing some 40 games with injury certainly didn't help, but Nick Punto's .262 on-base percentage at a corner infield position probably hurts more. If it seems like I've belabored Punto's offensive struggles a lot this year, then you're right, but it's not without good reason: I pegged him for a late-round fantasy sleeper, and he has endlessly disappointed me on a personal level. That said, manager Rod Gardenhire still favors him as the starting second baseman next year.

    Where I thought they'd be: In possession of Terry Ryan as their general manager and fighting to the last day of the season to slip into the playoffs, likely as the wild card. The Ryan news was a shocker to everyone -- but not quite as shocking as Twins CEO Jim Pohlad thinking Minnesota might be better off without him.


    Where they are: In second place, staring at an insurmountable divisional deficit. Trailing New York by 3.5 games in the wild card isn't a fun prospect either. They heeded my challenge from last week, rolling off five straight wins, but it doesn't help if the Yankees continue to play like they'll never lose again. Joel Zumaya and Fernando Rodney couldn't replicate last year's bullpen magic, Jeremy Bonderman got hurt down the stretch and Kenny Rogers couldn't stay healthy all season long.

    Where I thought they'd be: I thought there might be an AL pennant hangover for the Tigers and that they'd have finished in fourth place, though in record fashion. So little seemed to separate the top four teams in the division, and I certainly never saw Magglio Ordonez, Gary Sheffied and Placido Polanco having quite the seasons they did to keep them in the race.


    Where they are: Only a half-game behind Chicago for fourth place. And the two are playing each other this week, with banishment to last place at stake. They have an anemic offense in which catcher John Buck leads with 18 HR. Alex Gordon leads the team in RBIs ... but with only 59, tied with Emil Brown. That's not very good. Brian Bannister is a leading candidate (along with Boston's Dustin Pedroia and Hideki Okajima) for AL Rookie of the Year.

    Where I thought they'd be: Even farther back in last place. I knew they'd have a Rookie of the Year candidate, but like everyone else I thought it'd be Gordon and or even Billy Butler, not Bannister. The way the Royals splurged on Meche, they need to do the same on a veteran hitter or two for next year, if they want to make more progress for next year.

    With Thome hitting that magical 500 milestone -- historically a ticket into the Hall of Fame -- baseball writers are beginning to ask, Does Thome's career merit induction? Tom Verducci says Thome will need more than 500 homers, as his career has lacked any stretch of true dominance. ESPN's Rob Neyer says he'll need 600 home runs.


    posted by SI.com | View comments | Add a comment  
    9/17/2007 09:23:00 AM

    AL East: Till We Meet Again

    By Alex Belth

    Is there any surprise that the final meeting of the regular season between the Yankees and Red Sox came down to Mariano Rivera v. David Ortiz with the game on the line? Given the recent history between the two teams, the answer is no. Rivera has shown signs of mortality against Boston in recent years. Now, with two men out, the bases loaded, and the Yankees ahead by just one run, Rivera was facing the most accomplished big moment hitter in recent memory. The Yankee closer was not sharp. He walked the leadoff hitter in the ninth. A two-out double to Julio Lugo put the tying run on base and then Rivera hit a batter and walked another to set the stage for Ortiz.

    According to the Boston Globe:

    "Well, what else?" Joe Torre said when asked what he thought of seeing Ortiz at the plate in that situation. "You figure, 'why not him,' at that point in time when he walked Varitek to start the inning, then hits the kid, and you keep hoping he gets the next guy out, and then the next guy is that mountain who comes up there and he had no place to go and we had no place to put him."

    Fenway Park holds far fewer than 40,000 fans, but that doesn't prevent them from sounding like 50,000. The air was crisp and it felt like October in every way. With virtually the entire park on its feet, Rivera fell behind Ortiz then evened the count at 2-2, before throwing a 93 mph cutter, up and in. The ball got just under Ortiz's hands and the mighty slugger popped a short fly ball to center field. Derek Jeter -- whose three-run home run off of Curt Schilling in the eighth proved to be the difference -- back-peddled, made the catch, and pumped his fist, a trademark gesture sure to give indigestion to Red Sox fans everywhere.

    In a game that featured outstanding starting performances from two old-timers Roger Clemens and Curt Schilling, it was Jeter, whose body has looked tired for weeks now, with the final word. The victory gave New York a 10-8 season record against Boston.

    Schilling pitched a gem, but in the eighth, he allowed a one-out single to Doug Mientkiewicz, then a pinch-hit double off the top of the green monster by Jason Giambi. His at-bat with Jeter seemed to last forever, as Schilling met with his catcher on at least three occasions. The tension continued to build when Jeter fouled a fastball down the right-field line, a long run for the right fielder, second and first baseman.

    Then Schilling made a mistake and left an 84 mph splitter over the plate. Jeter punched a three-run homer over the Monster. "I was trying to bounce that ball in the dirt," Schilling told reporters after the game. "I don't ever take credit away from the hitter, but I was trying to bounce that ball ... I missed horribly probably in the most crucial situation of the game. That's not something I can do anymore. I can't overthrow the ball late in the game."

    Jeter is now at a point in his career when it is fashionable to emphasis his short-comings, writes Mike Vaccaro in the New York Post. But the Yankee captain delivered a key hit against Jonathan Papelbon on Friday night, and then, the winning blow on Sunday.

    Joba Chamberlain gave up his first earned run in the big leagues, a solo shot to Mike Lowell, but was still looked good in two innings of work -- in the eighth, he struck out Dustin Pedroia and JD Drew looking on nasty curve balls.

    It was a huge win for the Yankees, who are trying to fend-off the surging Tigers (New York remains 2 1/2 ahead in the wild-card standings). The Red Sox may not be thrilled with the outcome of the weekend series -- Friday night's loss being especially painful -- but they avoided being swept and still have a 4 1/2-game lead. Josh Beckett won his 19th game of the season on Saturday and baring a total collapse, Boston will win the East.

    The Yankees and Red Sox are finished with each other for the year, but would anyone be surprised to see them at it again, with Rivera and Ortiz, or Papelbon and Alex Rodriguez in the spotlight when it counts most?


    posted by SI.com | View comments | Add a comment  
    9/17/2007 09:16:00 AM

    NL West: D'backs In Control

    By Jon Weisman

    Those Arizona Diamondbacks are wacky, but they're about to have the last laugh.

    Sunday in Los Angeles, Arizona starting pitcher Edgar Gonzalez threw 58 pitches but got the victory -- the fewest pitches that any winning starting pitcher in baseball has thrown this season (verified by Baseball-Reference.com.

    In fact, the Diamondbacks have three of the five unhardest-working winning starting pitchers on the list. Randy Johnson is No. 2 with 61 pitches on May 30, and Gonzalez is No. 5 with 63 pitches on June 16.

    It's all part of a season in which, as has been well-documented by now, Arizona has been outscored but is within .001 of boasting the best record in the National League. As recently as Sunday morning, the Diamondbacks looked like they would finally be heading toward their comeuppance after losing to the Dodgers twice in a row. But a 6-1 victory over Los Angeles moved Arizona much closer to its taste of the postseason since 2002.

    The Diamondbacks have a 3 1/2-game lead over the second-place team in the NL wild-card race, Philadelphia, with 12 games to play. As Jack Magruder of the East Valley Tribune wrote, "The Diamondbacks can differ on the importance of their Sunday victory over the Dodgers, but the fact that they could debate the point made their plane ride home so much more palatable."

    If any team is going to cast aside the myth that batting average is key to winning championships, it's Arizona. Aside from injured Orlando Hudson, Eric Byrnes is the team's only regular hitting better than .290, and Conor Jackson is the only other batting above .270. The Diamondbacks' team batting average is last in the National League.

    But it's not as if they're drawing a lot of walks, either. Arizona is 12th in that category, and last in the NL in on-base percentage.

    And they don't really have that much power. The team slugging percentage of .412 is 10th in the NL, and the Diamondbacks' adjusted OPS is a below-average 88.

    And the starting pitching isn't even that deep. After Brandon Webb, only one other member of the current rotation, Doug Davis, has an above-average ERA.

    But the bullpen is pretty sharp, and Arizona manager Bob Melvin has developed a reputation for deploying his relievers expertly. In the end -- or near the end -- Arizona has simply dodged enough bullets and cashed in enough opportunities to very much control its destiny.

    Ever since they fell out of first place in August, the Dodgers have been pushing giant baseballs up a hill, getting close to the top, only to have them roll back down on them. Sunday, Los Angeles was a victory away from closing within 2 1/2 games of Arizona, but a career-high seven walks by newly acquired Esteban Loaiza basically did them in. Loaiza allowed only one hit, but it was a three-run homer by the Diamondbacks' Chris Snyder.

    Two games the previous weekend in which the Dodgers allowed San Francisco to win in its last at-bat continue to haunt Los Angeles, especially after San Diego swept the Giants this past weekend to rebuild its lead over the Dodgers in the wild-card race to 2 1/2 games.

    It could get worse -- and then too late -- before it gets better for Los Angeles. While the Dodgers travel to Colorado for a three-day, four-game series, their top division rivals will each host teams eliminated from the playoff race: San Diego against Pittsburgh, and Arizona against San Francisco.

    As desperate as the Dodgers have become, Colorado is two games worse, trailing San Diego by 4 1/2 games. A 13-0 shutout of Florida on Sunday only came after a potentially devastating winless skein.

    "Colorado's downfall during its three-game losing streak (was) its starting pitching," C.J. Moore of MLB.com wrote. "Jeff Francis gave up eight runs in 3 1/3 innings on Thursday in Philadelphia, then Josh Fogg lasted five innings Friday night, but gave up four runs. And (Ubaldo) Jimenez had his second shortest outing of his career Saturday night, lasting only three innings."

    San Diego, meanwhile, is sitting relatively pretty. The Padres keep fending off the wild-card challengers, and remain within striking distance of Arizona for the division title. (The distinction is potentially important, because if the wild-card team comes from the NL West, the NL West champion will get to play the champion of the weak NL Central in the first round of the playoffs.)

    Henry Schulman of the San Francisco Chronicle thinks that the Giants should consider San Diego a role model.

    "Two weeks from today, the misery will be over and Giants management can begin the challenging task of building a winning team for 2008," Schulman wrote. "Given their biggest strength, stout young pitching, the Giants' best option might be to photocopy the Padres' master plan."

    Barry Bonds, who suffered a sprained toe Saturday and could miss most of this week, may be down to just a few handfuls of at-bats in his momentous Giants career.


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