Commentary

Phillies emerging as NL favorite

As season winds down, NL wild card and pair of division titles remain up for grabs

Updated: September 24, 2010, 5:15 PM ET
By Tim Kurkjian | ESPN The Magazine

It is the second-to-last weekend of the regular season, the second-best weekend of the season. A lot has changed in a week -- the Twins have clinched the American League Central -- but there is a lot going on, especially in the National League West and NL wild-card race.

The Giants moved back into first place by one-half game over the Padres in the West by winning two out of three in Chicago, allowing a total of two runs. It gave the Giants 17 consecutive games allowing three runs or fewer, the longest streak in the live ball era (1920-on), passing the 1972 Indians and the 1981 A's. In the opening victory of that three-game series, the Giants beat the Cubs on a home run by Buster Posey, who became the only rookie in history to hit a homer to win a 1-0 game for a first-place team in September or October.

On Friday night, the Giants open a three-game series at Coors Field against the Rockies. San Francisco will have Tim Lincecum, Barry Zito and Matt Cain going, while the Rockies have had to shuffle their rotation slightly, and will not have ace Ubaldo Jimenez in the series.

National League wild card

The Padres fell back out of first place by one-half game -- and one-half game behind the Braves in the wild-card race -- after ace Mat Latos lost 3-1 to the Dodgers on Thursday night. On Wednesday night, the Padres had regained first place with a 3-1 victory that featured Miguel Tejada's 300th career home run (Tejada, Cal Ripken and Alex Rodriguez are the only players with 300 career homers who have played at least half their games at shortstop) and the 37th hold by Luke Gregerson, setting a major league record. The Padres play host to the Reds for a three-game series starting Friday night. This division, it seems, will all come down to the Padres-Giants three-game series in San Francisco next weekend.

The Rockies are struggling. After winning 10 in a row in September, they have lost six out of nine to fall 3½ games behind the Padres in the West, and 3½ games behind the Braves for the wild card. The Rockies were swept by the Diamondbacks, the first time since 2004 that the Rockies have lost three in a row to a team with 90 losses. On Wednesday night, Jimenez, shooting for his 20th win, was given four runs in the top of the first in Arizona and couldn't make it past the fourth inning in an 8-4 loss to the Diamondbacks, who have played better under Kirk Gibson; new general manager Kevin Towers might be leaning toward keeping him as the manager next year.

Shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, who carried the Rockies in early September with an amazing show of power (14 homers in 15 games), went 2-for-17 with seven strikeouts in the four-game losing streak.

National League East

The Phillies have pulled away, opening a six-game lead by sweeping the Braves three games in Philadelphia. In the second game of that series, Roy Halladay won his 20th game, the first Phillies pitcher to win 20 since Steve Carlton in 1982. In that 5-3 win, the Phillies knocked out Braves starter Mike Minor in the third inning, the seventh straight game that an opposing starting pitcher has failed to go five innings against the Phillies. That tied a record set by the New York Giants in July 1949 and the Phils in September 2006.

In the third game of that series, Roy Oswalt pitched seven shutout innings (one hit) in a 1-0 victory, marking 10 straight starts that the Phillies have won in which Oswalt has pitched: Carlton (10 straight in 1972) and Tommy Greene (11 straight in 1993) are the only Phillies pitchers to do that in the live ball era. The Phillies have won 10 in a row, joining the Rockies with a 10-game winning streak in September; the last time that happened in the NL was when the Braves and the Mets won 10 straight in September 1969.

Two weeks ago, the NL would seemingly have no favorite entering the postseason, but the way the Phillies have played the past two weeks, they have become the clear team to beat because of their sensational starting pitching: In September, the Big Three of Halladay, Oswalt and Cole Hamels are a spectacular 12-0. And the Mets come to Philly this weekend with nothing on the line except the fate of manager Jerry Manuel, who, by all accounts, will be replaced after this season, but probably not by Joe Torre.

National League Central

The Reds have lowered their magic number to three not necessarily because of how well they've played, but because the Cardinals' stunning collapse has continued. The Reds could wrap up the division this weekend in San Diego against the Padres.

American League East

The Yankees and Rays split a four-game series in New York; the Yankees' lead in the division remains at one-half game. On Thursday night, David Price beat CC Sabathia 10-3, giving Price 12 wins this year against teams with a winning record, most in the major leagues.

The Rays have an easier schedule the rest of the way, playing the rest of their games against teams with a losing record (three games, however, are against the Orioles, who are playing as well as any team in the division). The Rays will open a three-game series Friday at home against the Mariners, and will not have to face Seattle ace Felix Hernandez in the series. Meanwhile, the Yankees play the Red Sox this weekend in the Bronx. The Red Sox are out of it but they always play hard, even with their Triple-A lineup on some nights, and they never give up, especially against the hated Yankees.

American League Central

[+] EnlargeJim Thome
AP Photo/Jim MoneJim Thome, who turned 40 last month, is averaging a home run every 10.8 at-bats this season.

It is over in the AL Central. The Twins have ripped through the second half, going 46-18, to give them the best record in the American League; remember, the Twins have the best home record (52-25) in the league. So many have led the way, including DH Jim Thome, who lately has looked a lot like the Thome of 10 years ago. He blasted his 25th home run on the night the Twins clinched, becoming the ninth player in history to have 14 25-homer seasons. (Barry Bonds and Hank Aaron have the most 25-homer seasons (18); Thome is tied with Willie Mays and Ted Williams on that list.)

Catcher Joe Mauer did not play in the clincher due to a sore left knee. He had an MRI on the knee Tuesday only as a precaution; there was no significant damage to the knee, and no significant change to how it looked a month ago. Still, Mauer had a cortisone shot in the knee Wednesday and was not expected to play this weekend in Detroit. The Twins have a good enough team to get to, and win the World Series, but they can't do either without Mauer at his best. It appears Mauer will be able to play through October with that knee, but will he be at his best for another month?

Twins manager Ron Gardenhire announced that Francisco Liriano will be his Game 1 starter in the playoffs, a fitting choice for a pitcher who has had a terrific season. There are plenty of options behind him, led by Carl Pavano, who likely will start Game 2. When Nick Blackburn won Wednesday, it gave the Twins six 10-game winners for the first time in club history.

American League West

The Rangers could clinch the AL West this weekend in Oakland, and fittingly, the clincher should be saved by Neftali Feliz, who has tied Kaz Sasaki's rookie record for saves in a season. But there are concerns with the Rangers. Left fielder Josh Hamilton, the leading candidate for the AL MVP, hasn't played since Sept. 4 because of fractured ribs. He took a cortisone shot in the ribs Tuesday, and it usually takes 48 to 72 hours before it is known whether the shot did any good. Only when the discomfort subsides will Hamilton be allowed to resume baseball activities.

Hamilton said it is his hope to play the final three regular-season games next weekend. But will he be ready, and not rusty, for the start of the playoffs? He is their best player. They can get to the World Series for the first time in club history if he is healthy, but will he be 100 percent as he tries to play through fractured ribs?

That question will be answered next weekend, the best weekend of the regular season.

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback in May 2008. Click here to order a copy.