After a week loaded with critical matchups, there are just three series between postseason hopefuls this weekend. Each features an NL team that has had a disappointing August trying to get back into the picture by taking on a division leader or virtual leader. How crowded the NL playoff picture stays will be determined by these nine games.

Mets at Braves: The Mets helped make this series matter by dropping four games to the Phillies, two in dramatic fashion, the one yesterday in what may have been the game of the year. Through Sunday, the Braves had dropped eight of their last 11 to fall seven games behind the Mets, but thanks to the Mets’ struggles in Philly and taking two of three from the Marlins, they find themselves 4 ½ back headed into the weekend. With their next six, and 12 of their final 31, against the Mets and Phillies, they are most definitely still alive.

The real question is, how did they get here? When the Braves acquired Mark Teixeira at the trade deadline, they looked like not only a wild-card favorite, but a threat to take the division away from the Mets. The Braves are just 13-14 in August, however, mostly because they’ve allowed 141 runs. The back end of the rotation has simply imploded. In August, starters other than John Smoltz and Tim Hudson combined for 16 starts, 79 innings and 67 runs allowed. You wouldn’t think the Braves would miss Kyle Davies, but even Davies’ wretched performance of late would have been an upgrade for this team. The bullpen, bolstered by a healthy Rafael Soriano and the addition of Ron Mahay, has been effective but overworked, throwing 94 innings in 27 games, about 3 1/3 per contest. That’s a recipe for disaster.

The lineup is staying ahead of the staff, if just barely. The Braves have scored more than 150 runs for the second month in a row, putting up 159 tallies thanks to Teixeira upgrading the first-base slot, Chipper Jones staying in the lineup and the productive middle infield of Yunel Escobar (.359/.407/.495) and Kelly Johnson (.267/.377/.456). There’s no reason to think that they can’t have one of the most productive lineups in the game in September as well, even if Edgar Renteria remains on the sidelines. Low-profile, high-production players such as Matt Diaz and Brian McCann give the Braves a true eight-man lineup, and a puncher’s chance in any game.

In the short term, the Braves toss Hudson and Smoltz at a reeling Mets team, one dealing with a collapsing bullpen. They have to take two of these three games to have any chance in September, and they have a realistic shot at doing so. Being the team that’s trying to make up ground adds some pressure to tonight’s Hudson/John Maine matchup. Maine has been struggling with his command of late, walking 14 batters in his last five starts and seeing his ERA climb by three-quarters of a run. The Braves are patient enough to make him pay if he can’t get ahead in the count, so watch Maine’s command early. They absolutely have to have tonight’s game.

Rockies/Diamondbacks: The Rockies have been a .500 team in August, going 14-14 and never winning or losing more than three games in a row in that time. That seems like the right spot for them; they’re a team with very few weaknesses-the bench isn’t great, and they’re a little slow-but no outstanding strengths, either. Their problems keeping Kazuo Matsui and Willy Taveras on the field have hindered them, as both are good defenders-Taveras is very good-and the two represent the only real speed on the team, 58-for-70 on the bases this year.

Nevertheless, they’re six games out and get a shot to close that gap by playing the Diamondbacks in Chase Field this week. They probably need all three games, being not just six games out, but in fourth place in the division. The Rockies have not been a good road team at all, losing 39 of 68 games away from Coors Field, and the Diamondbacks are 40-26 at home, so the task ahead of the Rockies is daunting. With Brandon Webb lurking on Sunday afternoon, they’re playing must-win games the next two nights behind Ubaldo Jimenez and Elmer Dessens (yes, that one). Any team above .500 and six games out at the end if August has to be taken seriously, but the odds are stacked against this edition of the Rockies. I definitely underestimated this team, which is a couple of high-OBP hitters and one power starter from winning 92 games next year.

Dodgers/Padres: They’re still here. When the Dodgers opened August 3-10, scoring fewer than three runs a game in that stretch, I filed them under “D” for “done.” Just four days ago, they were 6 ½ games off the pace in the NL and in fourth place. Today, following a big road win at Shea Stadium and three one-run wins over the Nationals, they’re just four games out and getting a shot at the Padres this weekend, having added a league-average starter off waivers in the form of Esteban Loaiza.

The Dodgers’ problems haven’t gone away, of course. They still have a bad #2 hitter in Juan Pierre, they’ve elected to “solve” their third-base problem by employing Shea Hillenbrand, and they may have broken their catcher, Russell Martin, by working him like a dray horse in the summer heat. The defense isn’t very good at all, and features two of the three worst throwing arms in baseball in Pierre and Luis Gonzalez. David Wells looked like a solution to them, and Wells’ ERA outside of Petco Park this year is 7.57, with the league hitting .370 against him. That’s not going to end well.

But perhaps not tonight, as Wells gets to start in his safe place to open the series against Jack Cassel, making his second major-league start. It’s a must-win for the Dodgers, who run into Jake Peavy Saturday, and at best have to hope to win two games this weekend. The Dodgers are simply trying to hang on for two more weeks. Starting September 11, they get the Padres and Diamondbacks at Dodger Stadium for six games. That week will determine their chances.

So even if it’s not quite as exciting as the last four days, there’s still plenty of interesting baseball to watch this Labor Day weekend. If you’re traveling, drive safely, and check in from the road for Unfiltered updates and new articles all weekend long.

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