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September 27, 2007
The Excitement of the Present
You won't find a bigger opponent of the post-1993 format in baseball than I. I dislike the Wild Card intensely, believing that whatever has been added by the extension of races among the mediocre into September is more than wiped out by the elimination of the great do-or-die race between two teams. The expansion of the playoffs, although interesting in the moment, has served to make October about survival as much as excellence, and contributed to the sense that becoming the champion in MLB is about surviving a crapshoot.
With that said, you play the hand you're dealt, and thanks to the mediocrity in the National League, we have a pretty good one. With four days left in the season, no team has clinched a postseason berth, and seven teams remain within two games of one. In fact, no team can be eliminated today or can clinch today, which means we'll head into the last series of the season with seven teams jockeying for four spots. That's not excellence, but it is certainly entertaining.
I'm no longer counting Atlanta in those ranks of playoff possibles; the Braves' valiant push for a playoff spot likely ended last night in Philadelphia with a 5-2 loss to the Phillies. Tim Hudson and Chipper Jones made misplays in the third inning that contributed to three Philly runs and a 4-0 lead, and Kyle Lohse took it from there. (What an absolutely bizarre clause to write.) Lohse went seven effective innings in his ongoing quest to be the Gil Meche of the 2007-08 free agent market. We all need to start mentally preparing ourselves for the idea that Lohse is going to get a five-year deal for $11 million or more per season. As important as he's been to to the Phillies the last two months, he hasn't exactly pitched well for them: delivering less than six innings a start, only 39 strikeouts and 23 walks in 58 2/3 frames, ad a 4.76 ERA. That those numbers look good tells you more about the rest of the rotation and the power of a great offense.
So with the Braves now about a 3000-to-1 shot to play next week, we turn our attention to the two remaining races-the Central battle between the Cubs and Brewers, and the five-teams-for-three-spots train wreck in the East and West.
Don't let the records fool you-both the Marlins and Reds are dangerous, thanks to offenses that can drop seven runs on you on any given night. Now that they're down Ken Griffey Jr. and Adam Dunn, the Reds are hobbling to the finish, but they've still been scoring a lot of runs in their home park. Those injuries should nevertheless make a difference Friday, when the Cubs send Carlos Zambrano and his massive platoon split to the mound. Working against the Cubs is that they'll see both Bronson Arroyo and Aaron Harang in the series. Still, they only need to split their last four to force the Brewers to win all of their games just to achieve a head-to-head playoff.
The Brewers benefit from playing at home, but it didn't help them last night, as Brad Thompson shut them down in a 7-3 loss. The three games they lost in the late innings last week loom very large in the standings right now, and the prospect of playing a Padres team that is both good and fighting for its own playoff spot doesn't bode well for them. Being at home doesn't hurt-the Brewers have the biggest gap between their home and road records of any team-and if Ben Sheets can go on Saturday, they'll have the better starter in every one of their next three games. Realistically, the Odds Report's 1-in-10 shot seems about right. They need to win, and they need help.
Team Record GB Games to Play Diamondbacks 88-70 -- @ Pirates (1), @ Rockies (3) Mets 87-71 1 vs. Cardinals (1), vs. Marlins (3) Padres 87-71 1 @ Brewers (4) Phillies 86-72 2 vs. Braves (1), vs. Nationals (3) Rockies 86-72 2 @ Dodgers (1), vs. Diamondbacks (3)
My bet is that the top three in this list will go to the postseason, with the caveat that the Mets or Phillies have to be one of the three. Just eyeballing itů
I'd like to give you more analysis than that, but predicting the results of a season is hard enough. Predicting the results of the next four days? Virtually impossible. The Rockies haven't lost since September 15, and if you saw that coming, go ahead and have that second dessert. The Mets scored six runs a game against the Nationals this week-and got swept.
On that note, can we dispense with the notion that the Mets are undergoing some teamwide collapse, or that their struggle here at the end reflects some lack of character? To start off with, the Mets' offense has been just fine; their pitching has simply been disastrous for a couple of weeks. Secondly, this team, currently being criticized in New York for not having heart, is virtually the same team that was the darlings of the city a year ago. Unless you think Julio Franco took the heart with him to Atlanta, it's a ridiculous notion. They're not losing for any reason other than that they're giving up close to eight runs a game over the last two weeks. That's not heart or character; that's pitching and defense. The combination of Pedro Martinez and the St. Louis Cardinals should fix what ails them, at least for one night.
I'm headed down to Philadelphia to catch the Braves/Phillies tilt and, I imagine, do a whole lot of scoreboard-watching. It will be the first time I've seen Citizens Bank Park, and I'm very much looking forward to it. It seems like a fun place to watch a game, and there's been some excellent crowds in that park this week for the first two games of this series. It's a critical game for the Phillies; they are the one team that can't afford any losses at all, and the pitching matchup-John Smoltz vs. Kyle Kendrick-is awful for them. I'm hoping for a CBP special, 11-10 in extra innings, even though a game that long would mean sleeping on a bench at the 30th Street station until 5 a.m. or so.
Even so, it'd be worth it. The current playoff format may not be optimal, but in 2007 at least, it's made for some excitement. In the struggle between being an analyst and being a fan, being a fan should always win.