Padres looking to pull away from the pack

Originally Published: September 13, 2006
ESPN.com

BASEBALL TONIGHT EXTRA

With little more than two weeks left in the season, both wild-card races remain up for grabs.

The teams chasing the Padres in the National League seem to change every day. For a few hours, it will be the Phillies, then the Giants, then the Marlins -- with the clubs alternating between crushing defeats and amazing victories. The Marlins, in particular, need to get up off the mat over the next few days and try to rebound from a pair of devastating losses.

Meanwhile, in the American League, the Twins are facing some tough news of their own with the loss of Francisco Liriano, which could have a dramatic impact in the AL Central and wild-card showdowns.

NATIONAL LEAGUE

SAN DIEGO PADRES
Who's hot: Jake Peavy has looked like his old self lately, with a 2.68 ERA in his last seven appearances.
Who's not: Mike Cameron is just 6-for-34 (.176 BA) in his last 10 games, with five 0-fors in that stretch.
Outlook: Last crack at the Dodgers is four games beginning Friday in Los Angeles. Padres are 5-0 in L.A. this season, hitting .322 in those five games, with Mike Piazza hitting .462.
PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES
Who's hot: Ryan Howard's 2-for-6 in Wednesday's doubleheader lowered his September batting average to "only" .525. He's gotten to the point where no one wants to pitch to him.
Who's not: Pat Burrell has been the anti-Howard in September, with a 3-for-26 performance resulting in his benching.
Outlook: Phillies head to Houston on Friday and must face Roger Clemens first. They have been swept in three of their last four Minute Maid Park experiences and can't afford that sort of setback after two impressive wins on Wednesday.
SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS
Who's hot: Moises Alou has eight RBI in his last seven games. In five of the last six games in which Alou has driven in a run, the Giants have won.
Who's not: Noah Lowry has struggled in his last two starts, allowing 11 runs in 9 1/3 innings. Jason Schmidt has a 6.56 ERA in his last four starts.
Outlook: Giants have a favorable schedule once they get past the Cardinals this weekend, with 10 straight against the Rockies, Brewers, and Diamondbacks.
FLORIDA MARLINS
Who's hot: Josh Willingham is coming off a huge series against the Mets and would have been much more heralded had the Marlins not lost the last two contests. He's tied with Prince Fielder for the NL rookie lead in home runs with 25.
Who's not: Closer Joe Borowski has blown four of his last seven save opportunities, including a costly one on Wednesday against the Mets.
Outlook: The Braves might take pleasure in knocking someone out of the race, and the Marlins could be a prime target as they travel to Atlanta this weekend. The Marlins have lost 20 of their last 25 at Turner Field, dating back to start of the 2004 season.
CINCINNATI REDS
Who's hot: Rich Aurilia has stepped up his play considerably, hitting .426 in his last 14 games. His 22 home runs this season are the most he's hit since clubbing 37 in 2001.
Who's not: Adam Dunn is 6-for-35 with five singles and one home run in September. That's unimpressive, especially considering Ken Griffey Jr.'s absence means the Reds need him more.
Outlook: The Reds catch the hapless Cubs at a good time this weekend, but remember, Cincinnati played a hand in knocking out the Cubs in 2004, and some Cubs could be eager to avenge that.

AMERICAN LEAGUE

MINNESOTA TWINS
Who's hot: Besides Johan Santana? Boof Bonser is 3-1 with a 2.93 ERA in his last five starts and batterymate Joe Mauer is hitting a robust .375 over his last nine games, allowing him to maintain a slim AL batting lead over Derek Jeter.
Who's not: Middle reliever Juan Rincon has allowed five runs in his last 6 1/3 innings but figures to get a lot of work setting up Joe Nathan the next two weeks.
Outlook: Minnesota begins a 10-game road trip against the Indians, with stops in Boston and Baltimore. The Twins are 35-36 on the road this season. If they can go 5-5 in this stretch, it would set them up well for a seven-game season-ending homestand against the Royals and White Sox. Minnesota is 50-24 at home, best in the majors.
CHICAGO WHITE SOX
Who's hot: In his last six games, Paul Konerko has two games with four hits and another with three. He's 12-for-23 in that span with eight RBI.
Who's not: Closer Bobby Jenks has a 16.20 ERA in his last four appearances, allowing at least one run in each game.
Outlook: Next up for the White Sox is Oakland, which Chicago swept in three meetings earlier this season, outscoring them 17-9.

WILD THINGS

Both wild-card races are exciting to me. In the AL, it's down to the Twins and White Sox. Freddy Garcia just pitched a great game for the Sox, and Jose Contreras and Jon Garland are both on a roll. The Twins are in trouble with Francisco Liriano now out for the season. Boof Bonser and Matt Garza will need to deliver for them down the stretch.

The best story in the NL is the way the Marlins are playing right now. I thought they'd come close to setting the record for losses in a season, and now they are just three games out in the wild-card standings. Last year, they thought they had a chance with an excellent pitching staff and with hitters like Luis Castillo, Carlos Delgado, Mike Lowell, Alex Gonzalez, Juan Pierre and Miguel Cabrera. This year, they got lucky in some ways with guys like Dan Uggla, but they traded for Hanley Ramirez and Anibal Sanchez in the offseason to go along with their core of Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis. This is a heck of a story, and it's fun to watch them play.

The Marlins definitely have a good shot to win the wild card because the other teams in front or tied with them have so many issues. The Padres need to start scoring some runs to keep the other contenders off their backs, while the Phillies need their bullpen to hold it together. The Giants are just hoping that age doesn't catch up to them. At some point, the drudgeries of the season have to take a toll because they are so old ... right?

This is going to be a blast to watch, and I look forward to it.

ELIAS SAYS
• Brad Penny pitched seven scoreless innings to earn his league-leading 16th victory of the season in the Dodgers' 6-0 win over the Cubs. With the exception of the strike-shortened 1981 season, this is the first time in the NL's 131 years of operation that no pitcher won more than 15 games before the second week in September. In fact, there were only two previous seasons in which no NL pitcher won at least 16 games by the end of August.

• The A's avoided a three-game sweep with a 1-0 victory over Minnesota. The Twins haven't swept a first-place team during the month of September since 1989, when they won three games against the Blue Jays at the Metrodome. The A's haven't lost three consecutive games since July 23-25, posting the best record in the majors since then (32-13, .711).

• For the first time since 1993, Craig Biggio was a "healthy scratch" in consecutive games. Biggio is hitless in his last 20 at-bats, equaling the fourth-longest hitless streak of his career. The only time since then that Biggio didn't appear in consecutive Astros games was in 2000, when he missed the final 56 games on the DL with torn ligaments in his left knee.

More from Elias Says

THAT'S ALL FOLKS
Liriano's return was short and painful.
NOTEWORTHY PERFORMANCES
GOOD
Freddy Garcia was perfect for 7 2/3 innings in the White Sox's 9-0 win over the Angels. Garcia (14-9) retired the first 23 batters before Adam Kennedy cleanly lined a single to center field on a 3-2 count in the eighth inning. Garcia struck out three and walked none in eight innings. Neal Cotts pitched a 1-2-3 ninth to complete the one-hitter as Chicago moved within 1½ games of Minnesota in the AL wild-card race.
BAD
Tim Wakefield struggled in the Red Sox's 4-0 loss to the Orioles at Camden Yards -- his first appearance since July 17, Wakefield (7-9), who was activated from the disabled list before the game after being sidelined with a stress fracture in his rib cage, yielded four runs on 10 hits in five innings as Boston lost its sixth of seven on the road and 11th of 17 overall.
UGLY
The Mariners allowed nine runs in the fourth inning to the Blue Jays and fell 10-0. It was the 15th time the M's were shut out this season (most in the majors), the second time they have allowed nine runs in an inning this year, and the first time they lost a home series to Toronto since May 2001.
PHOTO OF THE DAY
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images
Gary Matthews Jr. became the third Rangers player to hit for the cycle -- joining Mark Teixeira (2004) and Oddibe McDowell (1985).
QUOTE OF THE NIGHT
"These guys can feel it, smell it. ... This is a collective group that wants to win badly. Hopefully, we'll get it done this weekend. It would be nice to sip some champagne, smoke a cigar."
-- Mets manager Willie Randolph on winning the NL East. New York beat the Marlins 7-4 in 11 innings to trim its magic number to two.
NEWS AND NOTES
• Astros left-hander Andy Pettitte had a cortisone injection in his elbow on Wednesday, a day after leaving a game in the third inning. Pettitte returned to Houston a day ahead of the team to be with his father, who was undergoing a surgical procedure. He also underwent an MRI exam that team doctors said revealed tendinitis in the elbow. "We're hopeful that he'll make his next start this weekend," said GM Tim Purpura. "But we're going to take it day by day."

• San Francisco closer Armando Benitez is done for the season with inflammation in his right knee. The Giants plan to place the right-hander on the 60-day disabled list Thursday, after hoping he could come back before the end of the year. To fill the roster spot, San Francisco will purchase the contract of right-hander Billy Sadler from Triple-A Fresno. The Giants expect the pitcher to be in town for Thursday's afternoon game, the series finale against the Rockies.

• After signing big-money free agents A.J. Burnett and B.J. Ryan among others, the Blue Jays expect to lose around $22 million this season. But Rogers Media Inc. views the loss as "sustainable" when looking at the big picture. "I think we're going to lose $25 million or $26 million [in Canadian dollars], something like that, on the Jays -- it's hard to know because we're not at the end of the season," Tony Viner told a BMO Capital Markets media investment conference Tuesday. "The question is, what kind of a loss do you sustain with your ball team, and what's its overall importance to the company?"

THE HITMAKER
Jeter extends streak as Yanks beat D-Rays.
FORWARD THINKING: THURSDAY
Aaron HarangPadres at Reds, 12:35 ET: The NL wild card is still up for grabs. Clay Hensley (8-11, 3.87) has only one win in his five starts despite allowing just five earned runs over 30 innings. Aaron Harang (13-10, 3.83) is 0-1 with a 5.14 ERA in his last three appearances, but ranks fourth in the NL in innings (202.1), third in complete games (4) and second in strikeouts (189).

Twins at Indians, 7:05 ET: Cleveland looks to play spoiler as Minnesota continues its quest for the postseason. Boof Bonser (5-5, 4.50) has been impressive in September so far, going 2-0 with a 1.35 ERA. Cliff Lee (12-10, 4.53) is 6-6 with a 4.64 ERA in 13 home starts.

Chuck JamesPhillies at Braves, 7:05 ET: While Atlanta will likely miss the playoffs for the first time since 1990, Philly remains in the hunt for October. Jamie Moyer (8-13, 4.32) is 2-1 with a 3.96 ERA in four starts since being acquired from the Mariners. Chuck James (9-3, 3.57) hasn't lost a decision since Aug. 4. He is 5-0 with a 1.96 ERA over his last seven starts.

Thursday's probable starters