Commentary

From spoiler to wild-card hopeful

Originally Published: September 26, 2007
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

We're all about accuracy here at Pennant Pulse. So it's time for a little correction.

It was just two days ago, right here in the Pulse-hood, that we found ourselves getting all pumped up about the National League's "three-team wild-card race."

Oops. Forgot somebody. It's time to welcome those Atlanta Braves back into the grand Pennant Pulse ballroom.

As recently as Saturday afternoon, that seemed like a ridiculous idea, since the Braves had fallen to 5½ games out in the wild-card standings with eight to play. So obviously, they hadn't just slipped off our Pennant Pulse radar screens. They'd practically slipped off their own.
NL WILD CARD
TEAM RECORD GB
San Diego 87-71 --
Philadelphia 86-72 1.0
Colorado 86-72 1.0
Atlanta 83-75 4.0
NL EAST
TEAM RECORD GB
New York 87-71 --
Philadelphia 86-72 1.0
NL CENTRAL
TEAM RECORD GB
Chicago 83-75 --
Milwaukee 81-77 2.0
NL WEST
TEAM RECORD GB
Arizona 89-70 --
San Diego 87-71 1.5
Colorado 86-72 2.5
For more on the races, see Hunt for October.

"Basically," Chipper Jones told The Pulse on Tuesday night, "we went into it, thinking, 'Let's try to wreck some other people's offseasons.'"

Ah, but a funny thing happened on the way to the wrecking ball: The Braves miraculously resurrected their own season.

By the time they'd finished scrunching the Phillies 10-6 in Philadelphia on Tuesday, for their third straight win and eighth in nine games, whaddayaknow -- they were just three games back of San Diego, and only two behind Philadelphia and Colorado, in the crazy, mixed-up NL wild-card free-for-all.

And look out. The Braves have Tim Hudson and John Smoltz lined up to start the next two games in Philly. Then they finish up with three games against the Astros.

So until further notice, we will now be using the official terminology, "four-team wild-card race," to describe this brouhaha.

Now all we need to do is convince the Braves themselves to start using that same terminology.

Your faithful Pulse correspondent observed to Jones on Tuesday that it might be time for the Braves to change agendas -- and shift from spoiler mode to it's-1993-all-over-again mode. But the Chipster wasn't budging. He's cagey that way.

"I think I would rather keep it as spoiling other people's aspirations," Jones chuckled, "because I think if some of these young guys start thinking our playoff lives rely on whether we win or lose, that might be putting a little too much pressure on them. The fact of the matter is, we've been playing really relaxed and doing what we need to do to win the ball games. I think if we just continue to take the same approach, that would be the best way to go about it."

But as he was speaking, those same young guys he was trying to snowball were gathered around the clubhouse big screen, locked in on the Padres-Giants game. And over in the manager's office, Bobby Cox was monitoring Rockies-Dodgers. So who was snowballing whom here?

"We've got a lot of people scoreboard watching," Jones confessed. "And we've got a lot of people watching games in the afternoons and at night after our games. We're all interested in what the teams ahead of us are doing. But the fact is, we're probably going to have to run the table to get in. And then it's still not even guaranteed. So we're just going to ride this little wave we're on as long as we can."

No matter how hot the Braves may be, the math still isn't good. No team in baseball history has made it back from three games out with five to play to win any kind of race -- league, division or wild card. So the odds would be grim even if this team didn't have to climb over three other clubs to win this particular race. Which it does.

But if there was ever going to be a year when something that whacky happened, this would be it. And if there was ever going to be a team that pulled this off, the always-upbeat Cox would be the perfect guy to manage it.
NL GAMES TO WATCH
• Arizona 8, Pittsburgh 0
• Chicago at Florida, 4:05 ET
• Atlanta at Philadelphia, 7:05 ET
• St. Louis at New York, 7:10 ET
• San Diego at Milwaukee, 8:05 ET
• Colorado at Los Angeles, 10:10 ET
For more on today's big games, see Diamond Daily and probables.

"Their team has changed over the years, but Bobby has a history," said Phillies starter Jamie Moyer, Tuesday's losing pitcher. "However he does it, I don't know. Some way, somehow, either he or his players figure out a way to motivate themselves."

Well, if they can somehow motivate themselves all the way into the playoffs, the Braves actually shape up as "the one team in the National League that would be best suited to October, if they could ever get there," says one scout.

Think about it. Hudson and Smoltz are dominators. Their bullpen has pitched great since the return of Octavio Dotel and the call-up of Manny Acosta. And they're the first team since the 1937 Tigers to roll out four .330 hitters in the same lineup (Jones, Matt Diaz, Edgar Renteria and Yunel Escobar). And sheez, we haven't even mentioned Mark Teixeira, whose three-run homer Tuesday made him 26-for-51 with runners in scoring position since he pulled into Atlanta.

So that makes the next two nights -- with Hudson and Smoltz on the mound -- the two biggest evenings in the Braves' year.

"If we win these next two games," said Chipper Jones, "we just might find ourselves right there."

No kidding. Just don't tell those young guys huddled around the TV screen. They might actually notice there's a race going on.

Tiebreaker game alert!

Next Monday and Tuesday are supposed to be off days before the playoffs begin. But don't reserve those tee times yet.

According to coolstandings.com, there is now better than a 50 percent chance that at least two teams will finish the regular season in a tie, and possibly more. Which would result in games Monday, and maybe Tuesday, and possibly even Wednesday.

Here are coolstandings' estimates for all those scenarios:
  • Two-team playoff: 40.0%
  • Three-team playoff: 11.2%
  • Four-team playoff: 0.6%
  • Five-team playoff: less than 0.1% (but it could still happen)
Everybody have those five-team tiebreaker scenarios memorized? Yeah, sure you do. We'll worry about those about midnight Saturday if that's still an option. If you'd like more detailed tiebreaker possibilities, you can find them here.

If the season ended today …

Fortunately for a bunch of these teams, the season isn't real likely to end today. But if it did, here are your prospective matchups:

  • American League: Red Sox-Angels, Indians-Yankees
  • National League: Diamondbacks-Cubs, Mets-Padres
Those NL pairings could change 11 times between now and Sunday. The AL matchups, on the other hand, are just about a lock. The only way they could change now is if the Yankees make up a three-game deficit on the Red Sox, or if the Angels pass both Cleveland (two games ahead, plus a tiebreaker on the Angels) and Boston (1½ ahead, plus a tiebreaker on the Angels) in the next five days. And we don't recommend betting your beach-house mortgage on either of those scenarios.

Around the Pulse-hood

New York Yankees • No team looks scarier to play than the Yankees right now. But they reminded us again Tuesday that they still have their issues. After Kei Igawa miraculously spun off five shutout innings in Tampa Bay, their bullpen kicked away a five-run lead. Which means all Yankees relievers not named Mariano Rivera and Joba Chamberlain have allowed 20 earned runs in 15 2/3 innings (an 11.49 ERA) in their past five games.

• Another Yankees red flag: Roger Clemens was scratched from yet another start because of what the team is describing as a strained left hamstring. But remember, Clemens also got a cortisone shot in his elbow a couple of weeks ago. So if he makes a start in the playoffs, as he keeps saying he will, it probably wouldn't be before Oct. 7 at the earliest. If he started that day, it would be Clemens' first appearance in three weeks and just his second in 34 days. True, the Rocket is used to longer periods of idleness than most pitchers. But this time around, he won't have the option of making any rehab starts in Round Rock or Scranton, due to a distinct lack of games being played in Round Rock and Scranton next month.

• The Mets have a similar saga unfolding across town with Orlando Hernandez. El Duque ditched that boot on his aching foot Tuesday and threw off a mound in a bullpen session. But it now appears unlikely he'll fit in a start before the end of the regular season. So can a guy who has pitched three innings since Aug. 30 -- and none since Sept. 11 -- make a major October contribution? Big question. And, for the Mets, a vitally important question.

• Why is it so important? Hey, have you seen the Mets' pitching lately? After their 10-9 loss to Washington on Tuesday, they've allowed 80 runs in their past 10 games, including 48 in five games to the lowest-scoring team in baseball (the Nationals). That stretch includes precisely one quality start -- by Oliver Perez (who else?) on Saturday in Florida.

Colorado Rockies • The Rockies are turning into the best story in baseball in September. Their nine-game winning streak is the longest in the glorious 15-season history of the franchise. But here's an even more relevant note: In the division-play era, only three teams have ridden a winning streak that long, this late in a season, into the playoffs: the '69 Mets (nine) and Braves (10) and the 1983 Phillies (11). The most recent near miss: Last year's Astros ran off nine in a row, starting on Sept. 20, and scared the red-blood cells out of the Cardinals, but couldn't quite catch them.

• Manny Watch: The artist formerly known as Manny Ramirez folded up the beach umbrella, ended his late-summer vacation and made it to home plate three times Tuesday night at Fenway (the recap: line-drive single to right, pop-up, walk). That makes 21 at-bats for our man Manny in the past two Septembers combined, if you're keeping track at home.

Milton Bradley may have wiped out two-thirds of the Padres' starting outfield (spiking Mike Cameron and tearing his own ACL) on Sunday, but he left Brian Giles in one piece. Whew, good thing. The Padres were a strike away from their fifth straight loss Tuesday, but Giles interrupted a 4-for-52 funk to bomb a three-run, game-winning homer in San Francisco.

San Diego Padres • OK, now the bad news for the Padres: Brett Tomko got them four runs down by the end of the third inning. So here's the state of the San Diego rotation if you spare Jake Peavy from cross-examination: Chris Young hasn't won in 10 starts. Greg Maddux has a 10.50 ERA in his past three starts. And the fifth starter is Jack Cassel, who lasted 2 2/3 innings Sunday in the third start of his big league career. In other words, all of a sudden the outfield isn't this team's only worry.

• The Phillies' bullpen almost looked respectable on the 8-2 road trip they completed Sunday, allowing only six earned runs in their past 33 2/3 innings (a 1.60 ERA). But back home in the pitchers' nightmare known as Citizens Bank Park, the 'pen gave up four earned runs in 3 2/3 innings Tuesday and allowed another inherited run, charged to Moyer, to score. The Phillies are 41-17 this year when their starting pitcher gets past the sixth inning. But that's a phenomenon that's been sighted just twice in the entire month of September.

• Tuesday marked the first time in the past 50 years the Braves had ever given up four home runs in a game against the Phillies -- in Philly, Atlanta or Milwaukee -- and somehow won it. "We gave up just enough solos to survive," said Chipper Jones after digesting that little factoid.

• Finally, Prince Fielder's two homers Tuesday gave him 50 this year -- and made the Fielders (Prince and Cecil) the first father-son 50-50 combo in history. In fact, according to SABR home run aficionado David Vincent, only two other father-son duos have even made it to 30-30: Bobby and Barry Bonds, and Felipe and Moises Alou. Anybody want to take a shot at naming the only grandfather-father-son/grandson 20-20 trio? OK, time's up. It was the Bells (Gus, Buddy and David).

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," has been published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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