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NL Roundup

Cy Young and a reminder

Quick Wild Card update...
In just one week, the Wild Card race slimmed to just three ballclubs. The Padres have as good a chance of winning their division as they do the Wild Card (both zero), and the Marlins' coaches and players can officially start making plans to go trick-or-treating with their kids.

The rest of the Wild Card race looks much the same as it did a week ago. Despite a half-game deficit to the Giants, the Cubs still look to be in the best position to grab the coveted fourth playoff spot because of their feeble schedule. However, with their recent winning ways, the Giants have inched to within 1/2 a game of the flagging Dodgers. With six games versus Los Angeles over the next ten days, the 'Beat LA' chants should start the minute Houston leaves town.

No one knows what's going to happen in the Wild Card or the NL West except that baseball fans in California will have much to cheer about at the end of September.

On to the Cy Young…
Over the last month, pitchers have passed the NL Cy Young award around as if it were a steaming, hot potato. Jason Schmidt looked to have a sleeper-hold on the award as of Aug. 17, with a 15-4 record and a 2.53 ERA, but since then he has allowed five or more runs in four of his last five starts. His ERA has ballooned to 3.24 and his record has fallen to 16-7.

His successor appeared to be the Marlins' Carl Pavano. The Marlins opened the month on a nine-game winning streak that had put them squarely in contention for the Wild Card. However, as the Marlins cooled, so did Pavano. Three of his last four starts have been mediocre, and the greatest argument in favor of his candidacy -- the Marlins qualifying for the postseason -- has been rendered moot.

The letdowns of the other Cy Young hopefuls has allowed Roger Clemens' name to reappear in discussions involving the award. His sterling 18-4 record, coupled with a tidy ERA of 3.00 makes him a legitimate candidate. In addition, no one should dismiss how 'nice' a story it would make for the baseball writers, who happen to hold the ballots, to have a player come out of retirement for love of the game and win the award. All of this makes Clemens the frontrunner, with one caveat: the Astros must win the Wild Card.

On the other hand, if the Cubs were to sneak into the postseason, it seems clear that the award should go to Carlos Zambrano. His ERA of 2.64 is tied for first in the NL with Randy Johnson, and he has pitched exceptionally in September. In each of his four starts this month, he has completed at least seven innings and only given up a single run. Zambrano has clearly been the best pitcher on the best staff in baseball, and were the Cubs to qualify for the postseason, he would be the single, biggest reason why. Unfortunately, with a record of 15-8, there's probably nothing that Zambrano can do, short of pitching no-hitters the rest of the way, to secure the award.

In essence, all those vying for the award are dependent on their team's success in securing a postseason berth. This is because the best pitcher, performance-wise, has been Randy Johnson. He is second behind Zambrano for best ERA, but this actually belies how good he's been. He's hurt by the Diamondbacks' porous defense, which ranks near the bottom in virtually every metric - fielding percentage, zone rating, defensive efficiency. His batting-average-against (.193), walks-plus-hits-per-inning-pitched (.89) and strikeouts (272) all top the league. Furthermore, he's been more durable than his fellow Cy Young contenders. At 230.2 innings, he's pitched 20 innings more than the other pitchers competing for the award. While this might not sound like much, it constitutes two complete games. Like Zambrano, Johnson will be unfairly penalized for his unimpressive record - 14 wins and 14 losses - but it's not his fault his teammates should be playing for the Tucson Sidewinders.

While the notion that the Cy Young must be awarded to a pitcher on a team contending for the postseason is overemphasized by most baseball scribes, it's reasonable to use this criterion as a means to differentiate between candidates of similar quality. Though Johnson has been the best pitcher, it hasn't been by such a margin that he should feel cheated were he not to receive the award. If the statistics for the contending pitchers were to remain the same for the rest of the season, this would be the correct way to vote.

If the Giants win the Wild Card: Randy Johnson.
If the Cubs win the Wild Card: Carlos Zambrano.
If the Astros win the Wild Card: Roger Clemens.

Special commendation this week looks into the future to remind those having a say in the NL MVP not to do something colossally stupid.

After hitting two home runs on Sept. 21, Adrian Beltre looks to be in position to break the 50-home run barrier. If he does reach that plateau, manages to hit .350, and the Giants fail to reach the postseason, it seems likely that the sportswriters will hand the award to Beltre.

Regardless who wins the MVP, ballots should be checked and anyone who hasn't scribbled Bonds' name into the first blank should have their press credential revoked and be forced to go door-to-door through San Francisco and beg for forgiveness. While the quality of one's team can be used as a tiebreaker between players performing at a similar level, it is not a reason to rob the greatest player any living person has ever seen play of his rightful laurel.