Brace for a wild finish in the NL - NBC Sports

Brace for a wild finish in the NL
The teams aren't great, but the wild card battle has plenty of intrigue
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The Phillies are hot, butÿ nine of their final 12 games will be against the Bravesÿand Nationals, and last six will be on the road.
September 13, 2012, 4:09 pm

"How do you know we're not?'' was the first sentence of his response.

Gibson's predictably positive swagger aside, truer words haven't been spoken when it comes to the new and expanded version of the NL wild card race. Because even when you think you're out of contention - and make moves indicating you're thinking that way - you're still not out of it.

The focus lately is on the dual charges of the Phillies (seven wins in a row, 15-4 since Aug. 22) and Brewers (18-5 since Aug. 19). But the Diamondbacks also are hanging around despite being the epitome of a .500 team - 35-34 at home, 36-38 on the road, 5-5 in their past 10.

And that probably says as much about this watered-down second-wild card chase as anything. Truth is, you really don't have to be very good to stay in the race anymore.

Here's a team that traded away one of its veteran starting pitchers (Joe Saunders) and its best shortstop option (Stephen Drew), has gone with rookie call-up Adam Eaton in center field of late, has three rookies in its rotation and traded for its third baseman just before the July 31 deadline. These are not moves normally made by a contender.

Neither were those of the Phillies and Brewers. The former sent away Hunter Pence, Shane Victorino and Joe Blanton. The latter traded Zack Greinke. Yet here they are, aided by the recent struggles of the Pirates and Cardinals.

Meanwhile, the Dodgers did all the adding - Hanley Ramirez, Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, Victorino, Blanton, Randy Choate, Nick Punto - yet are 6-11 since the mega-deal with the Red Sox. And the only thing that's obvious in all of this is that the July 31 non-waivers trade deadline has been rendered moot.

The Dodgers-Red Sox deal shows that any trade can happen at any time. And the more the playoff field is expanded, the more general managers have to believe there's no need to abandon postseason hopes with two months left.

Heading into the final three weeks, there's a clear division of wild card contenders here, and it's one that points to the potential for tie-breaker chaos because the challengers are charging hard.

So what if this is an artificially created race among a handful of .500 teams, with nothing more than a one-game showdown guaranteed? It's getting more and more fun to watch, isn't it?

The rundown, in order of likelihood of grabbing a wild card spot and joining the Nationals, Reds and Giants in the NL playoffs field:

Braves
After last season, we'll assume nothing. And the Braves' edge did look better before they were swept by the Brewers over the past three days. Still, a 6 1/2-game lead is huge at this point, especially with no apparent reason to think they are about to collapse again. Before running into the red-hot Brew Crew, the Braves had won five in a row and seven of eight, and still are 18 games better than .500.

The schedule is a mixed bag: Six three-game series - vs. Washington, @ Miami, @ Philadelphia, vs. Miami, vs. New York, @ Pittsburgh.

Cardinals
They're 4-11 and averaging only 3.13 runs per game since Aug. 27. There's no Rafael Furcal and Lance Berkman, a limping Carlos Beltran and Lance Lynn is back in the rotation for Jake Westbrook. This doesn't sound like a repeat of last season's unlikely run is about to begin. But they still lead the second wild card race by one game, and their two closest competitors also are struggling.

A four-game series in Los Angeles this weekend is crucial, but then comes an Astros-Cubs-Astros nine-game sandwich that should help them right the ship. The final week presents a Nationals-Reds challenge, but both of those teams should have clinched division titles by then, so their focus likely will be on the playoffs.

Phillies
They're running out a rotation of Cole Hamels, Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and very-good-lately Kyle Kendrick, and they're scoring runs like we thought they could, even though the names are Kratz, Brown and Martinez, not Ruiz, Pence and Polanco.

Their 11-2 September roll likely will continue through a seven-game road trip to Houston (4) and New York (3). But nine of the last 12 will be against the Braves (3) and Nationals (6), and last six will be on the road - at Marlins and at Nationals. And they're three games back with three teams to pass.

Brewers
They're on an 18-5 roll since Aug. 19, are scoring runs in bunches, and even the bullpen has been OK. Which makes you wonder where this team would be if not for the pen's extraordinary earlier struggles.

After a home series with the Mets that should continue the hot streak, looming will be a critical 10-game trip through Pittsburgh (3), Washington (4) and Cincinnati (3). Let's see where they stand after that.

Dodgers
Matt Kemp is playing hurt. Adrian Gonzalez is hitting .229 since the trade. There's no feeling of a cohesive team offense. Chad Billingsley and Kenley Jansen are missed.

The next 10 days very well could determine the Dodgers' fate: Four games at home against the Cardinals, followed by three each in Washington and Cincinnati. Then it's a nine-game Padres-Rockies-Giants finish, the latter two series in Chavez Ravine.

Pirates
They don't seem capable of stopping a slide that reached 5-16 after being swept in Cincinnati. The rotation behind A.J. Burnett is leaking oil, and their season run differential turned negative in the Reds series.

But the schedule is favorable, as 11 of their next 14 games are against the Cubs (4), Astros (3) and Mets (4). They also close at home with the Reds and Braves, both of whom should have clinched by then.

Diamondbacks
Four games back and five teams to pass makes this highly unlikely. But 12 of the final 19 will be in Chase Field, including a Cubs-Rockies closing homestand. They do have six left with the Giants, starting with three this weekend at home.

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