Well, this all got interesting in a hurry.

On the morning of Sept. 12, the Dodgers had a six-game lead over the Giants, and appeared to be cruising to their first NL West title since 1996. I remember this well, because one of my golf buddies is a big-time Dodger fan, and we were talking about whether he was going to purchase playoff tickets. The discussion wasn’t about whether the Dodgers would make the playoffs, but who they would face and his team’s chances against the Cardinals and Braves.

That discussion would have a different texture today. Just 11 days later, the Blue Crew’s lead in the West has been chopped to a half-game, and the Dodgers now face the possibility of going to San Francisco for a critical three-game series this weekend in second place. The Dodgers have gone 3-7 while the Giants ripped off eight wins in nine games to close the gap. Just behind the Giants are the Padres, who were left for dead before taking five of six games from the Dodgers over the past 10 days.

The Dodgers, who have spent much of the year making people forget that they spent 2003 playing an endless string of 3-2 games, have run into a stretch of pitching that even their improved lineup can’t cover. They’ve allowed at least five runs in nine of their last 12 games, and have been outscored 62-42 since having that six-game lead. Despite all the concerns about their bullpen, the culprit has been the rotation: Dodger starting pitchers have taken the team’s last six losses, going 1-6 with an 8.47 ERA in their last 10 games. The Dodger offense is improved, but the ’39 Yankees would have had a hard time doing better than 3-7 with that starting pitching.

The Giants have done the exact opposite. For the first time all year, they’re getting a quality start almost every day, and have allowed just 19 runs in their last 10 games. Their worst starter right now, believe it or not, is Jason Schmidt, who has an ERA of 7.26 in five outings since skipping a start in August with a strained right groin. He goes tonight against the Astros, who are one of three teams, along with the Rangers and Padres, facing a must-win game on what may be the most important day of the season.

With the NL West title back in play, and the Padres having moved past the Marlins this week, the NL race is now five teams for two spots, as follows:

Dodgers   86-65
Giants    86-66  --
Cubs      85-66   .5
Astros    83-69    3
Padres    82-70    4

The Cubs continue to take advantage of a schedule that has them playing lots of games against bad baseball teams. They’re 9-2 since Sept. 13, and won’t play another team above .500 until the last three days of the season. They’re not playing all that well–lots of close wins over the likes of the Pirates and Reds–but because the Giants and Dodgers will be pounding each other for the next two weekends, they remain the team with the best chance at the wild card. Even if the Astros win tonight, and take advantage of their own light schedule–Brewers, Rockies, and a Cardinals team managing health issues–they’ll need to just about run the table to catch the Cubs.

Of the NL West teams…I think I’m out of the predictions game for a while. The differences in quality among these teams are small enough that almost anything can happen in the season’s last week. The Padres get to play the Diamondbacks six times, and will face Randy Johnson no more than once in those games, so they have an edge in schedule, especially with the Giants and Dodgers squaring off six times. That’s a significant benefit at this point, but it will only be leveraged if the Padres can take at least two of three from the Giants at Petco Park next week. For a team missing its starting left side of the infield, that’s going to be a tall order. Like the Giants, though, they’re getting very good starting pitching, and have moved to a four-man rotation down the stretch that will maximize their chances.

That’s what we’re down to: head-to-head play. All the analysis and projections that we do to figure out what might happen in the course of a season lose their impact when dealing with 10 days of baseball. We often say that the playoffs are difficult to predict, because when teams good enough to reach the postseason play five or seven games against each other, any result is possible. Well, we’re basically in the first round of the playoffs now, and predicting what will happen in the next week is just as difficult.

Enjoying it, however…that’s going to be easy.

Over in the AL West, the Rangers have tracked the Padres to a T. By taking two games at home from the division leader, they’ve set up a must-win game today to stay in the race. Beat the A’s, and they move to within two games of them, tying the Angels for second place. Like the Padres, the Rangers close with two series against one of the worst teams in the league–while the two teams ahead of them play each other twice–and one at home against the second-place team in their division, a series they’ll have to win and may need to sweep.

By tomorrow morning, we’ll have a much better idea of whether the West division races will be contested by three teams or two. With no stake in any of the teams involved, I know which way I’m rooting. There’s the potential for an amazing, 1967 AL-style finish to this season, and that’s the kind of drama that creates baseball fans.

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