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A belated look at the Wild Card

It was my intention to examine the Wild Card race last week, but after reading some of Peter Gammons' ridiculous claims, I felt it a sin to let them go unnoticed. Perhaps, there was also an ulterior motive. With five teams so tightly bunched, it seemed that over the course of the week, at least one of might fall behind the competition.

That didn't happen.

San Francisco
Winning teams on schedule: 6 San Diego, 6 Los Angeles, 3 Houston

For two weeks, the Giants played arguably the three weakest teams in the National League -- Arizona, Colorado and Milwaukee. And the Giants took advantage of their weak schedule to leapfrog the Cubs into the Wild Card lead.

Unfortunately, the parade of Triple-A caliber opponents ends this weekend and the Giants won't face another sub-.500 opponent until 2005. Given that their lead is only half a game, and they have four teams chasing them, the Giants can't be considered a betting favorite to see a 163rd game.

Player to watch: Jim Brower
Now that Dustin Hermanson has shown himself an adequate closer, the Giants' bullpen isn't quite as unstable as a month ago. However, with Brower, their only dependable reliever, inching towards 100 innings for the season, it will be worth watching to see if his arm holds up. Brower was terrific in August, posting an ERA just a shade over one, but he's off to a rocky start so far in September. He'll have to continue to be reliable if the Giants have any hope of holding their position.

Chicago - .5 Game back
Winning teams on schedule: 3 Atlanta, 2 Florida

If Pete Rose were still managing the Reds, he would likely use the clubhouse phone to place some money on the Cubs making the postseason. For the last month, pundits assumed the Cubs would eventually separate themselves from the chaff and cruise into October well-rested. After all, they are the most talented team.

Most of the pundits are still on the Cubs' bandwagon, but their reasons for not jumping ship have nothing to do with the team's roster. What it comes down to is that the Cubs' finishing schedule is a joke. However, they caught a bit of a bad break when Hurricane Frances caused the postponement of games, leaving the Cubs without an off day for the remainder of the season.

The Cubs haven't inspired much faith with their play this year, but with eight games against the Reds, four against the Pirates and three against the Mets, it will be hard to screw this one up.

Players to watch: Jose Macias and Neifi Perez
The performance of these two players is irrelevant. The key is how often these two find the batter's box. Every at-bat that Perez receives will come at the cost of Nomar Garciaparra, which means Nomar is either hurt or Dusty has gone insane (or both). Currently, Nomar is scheduled to rest his hamstring through the weekend. More missed time could mean the people of Chicago will have only the Bears to warm the winter months.

Further proof that Dusty has gone mentally awry: Jose Macias has more at-bats in September than Todd Walker. Somehow, Walker, clearly the team's best second baseman, now finds himself third on the depth chart at the keystone corner.

Houston - 1 Game back
Remaining. 500 teams on schedule: 5 St. Louis, 3 San Francisco

If the Cubs were to falter (read: choke), the Astros would likely capitalize on the opportunity. Besides being the second best team in the race, they also have the second easiest schedule. One determining factor in how successful their playoff run will be is whether the Cardinals decide to rest their regulars in the penultimate series of the season.

At the age of 38, Biggio has rebounded from two straight bad years and has already matched a career best in home runs. However, if the only position he can ably man is left field, he is no longer an asset to the team. With Jeff Kent and Jeff Bagwell clearly on the decline, this appears to be the Astros last best chance to compete with this core of players.

Players to watch: Brandon Backe, Pete Munro and Tim Redding
Remember when people were comparing the Astros' staff to the Cubs' staff? This was before Backe and Munro replaced Andy Pettitte and Wade Miller in the rotation. Redding was in the opening day rotation, but he is doing a very convincing job that his strong 2003 was a fluke. The rotation, which was a pronounced strength at the beginning of the season, is the team's biggest question now.

Florida - 2 Games back
Remaining. 500 teams on schedule: 7 Philadelphia, 6 Atlanta, 2 Chicago

Despite leading the Wild Card race, the Giants aren't a good bet to make the postseason because of a torturous schedule. Like the Giants, the Marlins have fifteen games left against winning teams. They also don't get an off day the rest of the season and have two doubleheaders to boot. So, if the Giants aren't likely to make the playoffs, the Marlins certainly aren't either.

The good news for the Marlins is that they do have five games against Montreal and seven of the fifteen games against winning competition are versus the Phillies. Since Philadelphia is only mathematically involved in the Wild Card race, it wouldn't be shocking to see the Phillies limp home in September.

Player to watch: Ismael Valdez
Over the last month, both Josh Beckett and A.J. Burnett have started to demonstrate why they are considered among the league's most talented hurlers. Combined with Dontrelle Willis and Cy Young-frontrunner Carl Pavano, the Marlins' rotation can stack up with anybody from one to four.

In his six starts since coming over from the Padres, Valdez has done a great job fitting in with the team's talented foursome. However, this is still a guy with an ERA of 5.80 in his previous 45 starts, so there's reason to think that his 3.61 ERA with the Fish is nothing more than an aberration. If the Marlins have designs on defending their title, it better not be.

San Diego - 3 Games back
Remaining. 500 teams on schedule: 5 San Francisco, 6 Los Angeles

Three games might not sound like much, but it's an almost impossible obstacle to overcome when you are also chasing four teams. While one or two of the teams in front of them may stumble, it's quite unlikely that all four teams will slump. In fact, given the weak schedules of Houston and Chicago, it's likely one of them will win 60% of their remaining games. If that happens, the Padres are going to need to run over both the Giants and Dodgers to win the Wild Card.

Players to watch: Unknown
The Padres should choose the most devout player on their team and have him pray to his god that they are given super powers for the last three weeks of the season. Otherwise, the team will be left to wonder what could have been had Jake Peavy not missed eight starts in the middle of the season.

Special commendation this week goes to Rick Ankiel for pitching two scoreless innings for the Cardinals. In a season that has been nothing short of magical for the Red Birds, this is a nice feel-good story to accompany all the winning.

It's been a challenging last three years for Ankiel. After contracting, Mark Wohlers-throwing-syndrome, he was reduced from pitching phenom to organizational filler. Then just as he began to make progress in his return, he was told that he needed reconstructive elbow surgery.

Two innings certainly says very little as to what Ankiel's once promising career may turn into, but if there's one Cardinal this Cubs fan can root for, Ankiel is it.

As always, all comments are welcome and can be sent to [email protected].