September 20, 2005
The Elusive Magic Number
Even the St. Louis Cardinals have a magic number. All they have to do is win three more games sometime in the next two weeks and they are assured of home field throughout the National League playoffs. And with a nine-and-a-half-game lead on the team with the next best record, they might not even need three wins. While no team wants to develop bad habits before the playoffs, the prescription for the Cards is rest the weary, mend the broken, and stay as sharp as you can until October. For the rest of the contenders, there's still work to be done.
The Atlanta Braves look solid as the second seed in the NLDS. The schedule makers have given them a nine-game homestand that starts on Tuesday against Philadelphia and ends with three games versus the Colorado Rockies, by far the team with the worst road record in the NL (although 10 of Colorado's 24 road victories for the season have come in the last month, and in the last week alone they have been bad guests in effectively killing the playoff hopes of the Diamondbacks and Dodgers).
The magic number for the Padres is eight. Normally this means the combination of Padres wins and their closest pursuer's loses totaling eight gets them into the playoffs, but this season that number could just as well mean that the Padres have eight more chances to screw it up before the league calls a halt to the whole mess in the West and decides the division winner with a coin flip or a three-legged race or a swimming relay. San Diego has won three in a row, but the last time they won three in a row, which was earlier this month, they followed it with a four-game losing streak. They have six more on the road in the hitters' parks in Colorado and Arizona, so anything can happen before they get home to face San Francisco and Barry Bonds next Monday.
The wild-card race boils down to Houston, Philadelphia and Florida. Forget the Washington Nationals. The last thing that they needed at this point was a Western road trip, but after dropping two of three in San Diego, the Nats arrive home to face the Giants and Bonds while their best player, Jose Guillen, faces a possible suspension for an on-field blow-up that occurred last week. Maybe manager Frank Robinson can find a syringe tucked in Barry's elbow armor, or Jim Bowden can successfully plead the lack of a structured upbringing as the root of Guillen's problems and stave off any suspension.
The Astros started a four-game set with Pittsburgh on a bad note, with Roger Clemens getting shellacked by a 7-0 score. Houston has been fairly inept on the road all season, so the remaining three games of this series, three with the Cubs and two at St. Louis could prove troublesome. Incidentally, Monday's defeat was the ninth shutout loss for the Astros in games started by Clemens, and the 17th time they have been shut out this season.
Between the Phillies and the Marlins, the edge in the schedule goes to Philadelphia, as the Phillies have only three games remaining against the Braves, while Florida will meet Atlanta six times in the next two weeks. It makes sense that Atlanta would rather dispatch Florida and their big three of Willis, Beckett and Burnett during the regular season than run the risk of facing them in the playoffs.
Finally, for the Dodgers, it's time to let the postmortems begin. It could be a messy offseason. A 2-7 record versus the Rockies in August and September doesn't help. Then again, it could have been worse. They could have resigned Jose Lima last December.
Posted by Andrew Torres at 8:52 AM