The best is yet to come

Originally Published: September 27, 2006
ESPN.com

BASEBALL TONIGHT EXTRA

With only four days to go in the season, multiple races in the National League remain up for grabs. You couldn't ask for more exciting games than those played on Wednesday night. At one point, four contests of note were tied late.

Albert Pujols may have saved the Cardinals' season with a dramatic home run to beat the Padres. Jimmy Rollins may have done the same for the Phillies against the Nationals. The Astros kept things interesting with a phenomenal come-from-behind victory in Pittsburgh to remain within striking distance of the Cards.

Though it would be hard to top those games, there is the feeling from the Baseball Tonight crew that this is just the beginning of something special. Baseball is made for late-season dramatics, and it figures that things will only get better the rest of the way.

NATIONAL LEAGUE POSTSEASON PUSH

ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
Who's hot: Albert Pujols leads the majors in game-winning RBI with 25, six more than current second-placeholders Mark Teixeira and David Wright, and 10 more than MVP candidate Ryan Howard.
Who's not: Chris Carpenter has a 7.20 ERA in his last two starts, but should be ready to go if needed on Sunday. He may be needed before that, though he hasn't pitched in relief since 2000.
Outlook: The Cardinals might end up following the model of the 2005 White Sox, who endured a similar tailspin at the end of the season but snapped out of it in the final days of the year.
HOUSTON ASTROS
Who's hot: Lance Berkman, as expected, has carried Houston through September. He's hitting .364 this month with seven home runs and 22 RBI.
Who's not: Most everyone is pitching and hitting well. Brad Lidge, despite two shutout innings on Wednesday, is one who has struggled. He's allowed eight runs in 10 1/3 innings.
Outlook: The Astros will be making their only trip this season to Turner Field this weekend. Houston went 0-4 there in the regular season in 2005.
PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES
Who's hot: Perhaps the most unlikely standout this season is backup catcher Chris Coste. All he's done in the last 10 games is hit .432 with six runs scored and four RBI.
Who's not: As we've previously documented, Pat Burrell is having a miserable September, with just eight RBI in 24 games.
Outlook: The Phillies close in Florida, where they are 4-2 against the Marlins this season. One win will give them a winning record at Florida for the first time since 2001.
LOS ANGELES DODGERS
Who's hot: Derek Lowe's win on Wednesday made him 7-0 in his last 10 appearances and put him in position to open the NLDS should the Dodgers get that far.
Who's not: Wilson Betemit is 6-for-30 in his last 11 games, though he showed signs of breaking out of his funk with a home run in Wednesday's win.
Outlook: The Dodgers close in San Francisco, where they are 4-2 this season and have held Giants hitters to a .203 batting average.
SAN DIEGO PADRES
Who's hot: Despite an 0-for-4 on Wednesday, Mike Cameron is hitting .324 with 12 RBI in his last 10 games, including the go-ahead hit in Tuesday's win over Chris Carpenter and the Cardinals.
Who's not: The Padres entered Wednesday with six straight wins, so most everyone was playing well. Todd Walker, who's used to playing in big games, has just three hits in his last 18 at-bats.
Outlook: San Diego won't have it easy in Arizona, where Brandon Webb may pitch on the final day of the regular season to boost his Cy Young candidacy. The Padres are 7-8 against Arizona this season.

BIRDS ON A WIRE

The Cardinals' collapse this season is the worst I've ever seen in baseball. The Yankees-Red Sox collapse in the 2004 ALCS isn't in the same category because it was just three games, and the Yankees were facing Derek Lowe, Pedro Martinez and Curt Schilling. The Cardinals aren't facing great teams and losing. They are facing mediocre teams and losing -- and that's unacceptable.

The reason why this team is collapsing is fairly simple, though. Injuries have finally caught up to them. There's not a team in the league that could lose Jim Edmonds, David Eckstein and Mark Mulder and still win its division. This team just wasn't deep enough to weather these losses, and that's why they may end up missing the playoffs.

ELIAS SAYS
Tim Hudson • With a win over the Mets in what was probably his last game of the season, Tim Hudson improved his record to 13-12. Hudson is the third pitcher in the live-ball era (since 1920) to post a winning record and have at least 10 wins in each of his first eight (or more) major-league seasons. Carl Hubbell (12 seasons, 1928-1939) and Andy Pettitte (nine, 1995-2003) are the only other pitchers to do it over that span.

• Hanley Ramirez hit two home runs against the Reds, including one to lead off the first inning. It was Ramirez's seventh leadoff home run this year, tying the single-season major-league record for rookies. Nomar Garciaparra hit seven leadoff home runs as a rookie for the Red Sox in 1997.

• Joe Mauer dropped below Derek Jeter and into second place in the American League batting race on Sept. 15. Mauer has hit .429 (15-for-35) since then to regain the lead. Jeter has hit .277 (13-for-47) over the same span.

More from Elias Says

NEWS AND NOTES
Barry Bonds • Barry Bonds will play in 2007, his agent told the Los Angeles Times. "Barry's going to play in 2007," Jeff Borris of Beverly Hills Sports Council told the newspaper. "I've had many discussions with Barry, and he's going to play. My intentions are to see to it he's in a big-league uniform next season. Those are my marching orders." Contract talks with the Giants could begin next week. Bonds, who is finishing up a five-year, $90 million deal, plans to play sparingly in the season's final week now that San Francisco has been eliminated from playoff contention.

• Chien-Ming Wang tied Minnesota's Johan Santana for the major-league lead in wins with 19. Wang, selected by the Yankees to start next week's playoff opener, allowed four runs on 10 hits over six innings in his regular-season finale as New York beat the Orioles 16-5. Wang will start Game 1 of the ALDS on Tuesday and be followed by Mike Mussina in Game 2. Randy Johnson, bothered by a bad back, will pitch Game 3 on the road.

• Tim Salmon will remain an Angel through and through. The veteran designated hitter and outfielder will retire following his 15th season as a member of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. A news conference with Salmon is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. ET Thursday. The 39-year-old Salmon will end his career as the longest tenured member of the Angels.

• ESPN's Peter Gammons won at the Boston Music Awards on Wednesday night. Gammons was named "Best Blues Act" at the annual BMAs held at The Avalon on Lansdowne Street in Boston. The award went to "Peter Gammons and the Hot Stove All-Stars," his band. His CD "Never Slow Down, Never Grow Old" debuted in July.

ROYAL BLOW
Twins still trail Tigers after losing to K.C.
NOTEWORTHY PERFORMANCES
GOOD
Derek Lowe Derek Lowe won his seventh straight decision as the Dodgers beat the Rockies 6-4 to maintain their one-game lead in the NL wild-card race -- and pull within a game of the West-leading Padres. Lowe (16-8) got the win despite scuffling through six innings and getting roughed up for four earned runs and 10 hits. Lowe, who has one win in relief, hasn't lost since Aug. 9 against Colorado.
BAD
Pedro Martinez Pedro Martinez hardly looks ready for the playoffs. The Mets' ace was rocked again in his final start of the regular season, giving up eight hits, seven runs and two homers in 2 2/3 innings of a 13-1 loss to the Braves. Martinez (9-8), who recently spent a month on the disabled list with a strained right calf, took his third straight loss since being activated and fourth in a row overall. The Mets have dropped four straight and seven of eight, and lost the first two games of their series at Turner Field by a combined score of 25-1.
UGLY
Josh Beckett Josh Beckett had a forgettable outing as the Red Sox lost to the Devil Rays 11-0. Beckett (16-11) gave up eight runs on eight hits in 6 2/3 innings. He surrendered two homers and has allowed a team-leading 36 this season.
PHOTO OF THE DAY
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images
The Astros beat the Pirates 7-6 in 15 innings to win their eighth straight and remain 1½ games behind St. Louis in the NL Central.
QUOTE OF THE NIGHT
"Jimmy [Rollins] calls me Mr. President. [Jon] Lieber says, 'Who's your daddy?' So now that's catching me off guard. I have to start writing stuff down to come up with something good to say."
-- Phillies reliever Rick White, in the Philadelphia Inquirer, on some of the responses he gets when teammates pick up the phone following one of his congratulatory calls from the bullpen to the dugout after a player comes up big in a game

HOMER HAPPY
Glaus and Molina lift Blue Jays over Detroit.
FORWARD THINKING: THURSDAY
Roy Oswalt • Astros at Pirates, 12:35 ET: Houston continues its miracle quest for a playoff berth. With another strong start, Roy Oswalt (14-8, 3.07) could win the NL Cy Young. He is 4-0 with a 2.21 ERA in September. Tom Gorzelanny (2-4, 3.79) is winless since Aug. 4.

• Blue Jays at Tigers, 1:05 ET: Toronto is playing for second place in the AL East while Detroit tries to hold off Minnesota for the Central crown. A.J. Burnett (9-8, 3.83) has pitched well in the second half, going 8-5 with a 3.64 ERA. Kenny Rogers (17-6, 3.63) has been Mr. Reliable at Comerica Park. He is 7-1 with a 2.80 ERA in 15 home starts.

• Dodgers at Rockies, 3:05 ET: L.A.'s story still could have a happy ending. Brad Penny (16-9, 4.21) has been lights out against Colorado this season. He is 5-0 with a 1.93 ERA and .238 BAA in five starts. Byung-Hyun Kim (8-12, 5.29) hasn't won since Sept. 3 and is just 3-7 with a 5.67 ERA since the All-Star break.

Jon Lieber • Phillies at Nationals, 7:05 ET: Philly hopes to avoid another close-but-no-cigar finish. Aside from a rough outing Sept. 18 against the Cubs, Jon Lieber (9-10, 4.92) has pitched well down the stretch. He is 5-1 with a 3.66 ERA over his last eight starts. Mike O'Connor (3-8, 5.04) is 1-1 with a 3.27 ERA in two starts versus the Phillies, limiting them to a .200 BAA.

• Brewers at Cardinals, 8:10 ET: Milwaukee looks to play spoiler as St. Louis tries to regain its mojo. Doug Davis (10-11, 5.02) is 1-5 with a 5.20 in his last seven outings. Jason Marquis (14-15, 5.80) has struggled at Busch Stadium, posting a 6.49 ERA and .301 BAA in 16 home starts.

Jake Peavy • Padres at Diamondbacks, 9:40 ET: San Diego heads to Arizona with the NL West still up for grabs. Jake Peavy (10-14, 4.13) ranks first in the NL in strikeouts and is 2-0 with a 2.37 ERA in his last three starts. Miguel Batista (11-7, 4.36) allowed only one earned run in his only start against the Pads this season but got a no-decision.

Thursday's probable starters