Braves have pitching, matchups to chase down Rockies

Updated: September 30, 2009, 12:25 AM ET

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The Rockies need a big week from Troy Tulowitzki if they want to hold off the Braves for the NL wild card.

The final week of the season presents an interesting race in the National League wild card. Teams such as the Atlanta Braves, who won again Monday and now trail the Rockies by only two games, have come out of nowhere to put themselves into position to make the playoffs.

The Marlins and Giants, unless they go undefeated and get plenty of help from both the Rockies and Braves between now and Oct. 4, are pretty much nonfactors. Unfortunately for those looking for exciting races, that seems highly unlikely to happen.

We shouldn't be completely surprised that the Braves have propelled themselves into the wild-card race with 15 wins in 17 games. Starting pitching is the key to any winning streak, and the Braves have great depth in that area. Jair Jurrjens, who completely handcuffed the Marlins in a 4-0 win Monday, Derek Lowe, Tommy Hanson, Tim Hudson and Javier Vazquez make up an incredibly deep starting rotation. For this reason alone, the quality and consistency of their pitching, the Braves manage to stay in every game.

The Rockies have been one of the game's best stories after starting the season 18-28, going 70-40 since to claim the top spot in the wild-card chase. They've come down to earth a bit since the end of August, but that was bound to happen. It will be interesting to see whether they have enough to finish things off strong and head to the playoffs.

The week ahead will be difficult as the Rockies play the Brewers and Dodgers. Despite the fact that Colorado swept Milwaukee earlier this year, the Brew Crew will be a difficult matchup this time around. Milwaukee has a number of players looking to finish the year with strong offensive numbers. Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun give Milwaukee a chance to win every game with just one swing of the bat. The Brewers know what it's like to fight their way into the playoffs because they did it just a year ago. Trust me, they would love to play the spoiler role, given that they won't be returning to the playoffs this year.

The Rockies' last three regular-season games will come against the Dodgers, against whom they've struggled this year. Of the 15 times the two clubs have met, the Rockies have won only three. Troy Tulowitzki, who is the heart and soul of this Colorado club, is hitting only .219 against the Dodgers this year. The Rockies likely will have to win two out of three games in that series to make the playoffs. The key to their success is solid production out of Tulowitzki.

Atlanta's schedule is a bit easier; it has three games against the Marlins, against whom it is 8-7 this year. The Braves also have four against Washington, which they've beaten 10 times in 14 meetings this season.

Now that Braves manager Bobby Cox has agreed to one last one-year contract extension, that has provided additional motivation for Atlanta to make a 2007 Rockies-like run. Colorado won 21 of 22 and advanced to the World Series.

The Braves have an edge in playing their games on the East Coast because the outcome of their game could put pressure on the Rockies before their game even starts. It is important when you are playing teams that aren't necessarily in contention anymore to try to score early to take the opposition out of the game immediately. Then they need to keep looking to tack on runs to separate themselves. Remember, the Braves don't necessarily have to clinch the wild card; they only need to tie the Rockies and get to the one-game playoff.

If the Rockies and Braves tie, the one-game playoff will be played in Atlanta. The format changed after the 2008 season, and a coin toss no longer determines home-field advantage in the elimination game. While the two teams split their head-to-head meetings, each team winning four times, the next tiebreaker is how each team fared against opponents in their division. The Braves have the edge there.

It's going to be an exciting final week, especially in the NL wild-card race.

Past Baseball Tonight Clubhouses: Sept. 27 | Sept. 24 | Sept. 23 | Sept. 22 | Sept. 21

TOUCH 'EM ALL

Touch 'Em AllWho went deep? Keep track of all the home runs hit each day on "Baseball Tonight" and on the Baseball Tonight Clubhouse page.

For more, check out the Home Run Tracker page.

Home Run Tracker
NAME HR OPPSITUATION
Aaron Hill, TOR35BowdenTop 1: 1-2, 1 Out. None on.
Evan Longoria, TB32HendricksonBot 4: 1-1, 0 Outs. None on.
Kevin Youkilis, BOS27RichmondBot 3: 3-1, 1 Out. None on.
Kevin Youkilis, BOS26RichmondBot 1: 0-1, 2 Outs. 1 on.
Ben Zobrist, TB25HendricksonBot 1: 0-0, 2 Outs. None on.

The complete list of Monday's homers

ON DECK: TUESDAY'S BEST MATCHUPS

Twins at Tigers, 12:05 p.m., 7:05 p.m. ET

OK, let's try this again. The two teams, separated by two games in the AL Central, will play two games Tuesday thanks to Monday's rainout. The pitching matchups stay the same, with Justin Verlander-Brian Duensing in the opener, followed by Nick Blackburn-Rick Porcello (which was Monday's scheduled matchup). By night's end, the division race could be all square -- or Detroit could have have complete control again.

Marlins at Braves, 7 p.m. ET

The Braves, thanks to Monday's win, have trimmed the Rockies' lead in the wild-card race to two games. Tim Hudson makes his sixth start of the year; his first this season came against the Marlins on Sept. 1, when he allowed just two runs in 5 1/3 innings but suffered the loss. Rick VandenHurk is still looking for his first decision since being called up Sept. 1; he is 0-0 in four starts, all games Florida ended up winning.

Brewers at Rockies, 8:40 p.m. ET

The Rockies are trying to hold off the hard-charging Braves. They'll need Jason Marquis to pitch a bit better. Marquis has lost four of his past five decisions and given up at least five runs in four of his past six outings. Chris Narveson is having a solid September; he is 1-0 with a 2.21 ERA in three starts.

For the rest of Tuesday's schedule, click here.


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BBTN ON THE AIR: TUESDAY

TIME WHO'S ON?
10 p.m. ET
ESPN2
Host: Karl Ravech
Analysts: John Kruk, Chris Singleton, Peter Gammons
12 a.m. ET
ESPN
Host: Karl Ravech
Analysts: John Kruk, Chris Singleton, Peter Gammons

BBTN MINUTE: WILD WEEK AHEAD IN NL

SIMON SAYS

Simon Says ESPN researcher Mark Simon digs deep looking for the night's best baseball numbers.

Tonight, he looks at Braves starting pitchers, a group that has pulled Atlanta within two games of Colorado's NL wild-card lead:

Starting to sense it
Braves starters since Sept. 8
W-L 13-2
ERA .253
Quality starts 13
Starts 19

Jair Jurrjens, who tossed seven shutout innings in a 4-0 win Monday against the Marlins, is 4-0 with a 0.62 ERA in this hot stretch.

WEB GEMS

MONDAY'S BEST AND WORST

BEST
Chase HeadleyAndy LaRoche and the Pirates would not allow the Dodgers to clinch the NL West title. LaRoche went 5-for-5, homered twice, drove home six runs and scored four of his own in an 11-1 thumping of Los Angeles. LaRoche entered the game with only three homers all month.
WORST
Michael BowdenMichael Bowden's first start of the year with the Red Sox did not go well. The 23-year-old right-hander, who filled in after Josh Beckett was scratched from the start, gave up seven hits, seven runs and two homers in an 11-5 loss against the Blue Jays.

NUMBERS TO KNOW

Chad Billingsley Chad Billingsley will take the mound Tuesday against the San Diego Padres as the Dodgers try again to clinch the NL West. Billingsley appears to have taken a step back in 2009 after a 2008 campaign in which he posted a 3.14 ERA with 201 strikeouts in 200 2/3 innings pitched

Billingsley's biggest problem this year appears to be that he struggles when runners have reached base. His strikeout rate is down, and his batting average and slugging percentage against are up, as is his walk rate. In the Dodgers' 17 wins in Billingsley's starts, he has allowed 7.1 runners to reach base per start. In 14 losses in Billingsley starts, he has allowed 9.0 baserunners.

The good news for Billingsley is that the Dodgers are undefeated this season when he has taken the mound against the Padres. Billingsley has allowed an average of 5.0 baserunners per start against San Diego this year and hasn't allowed more than three runs in any of his starts against L.A.'s division foes.

Chad Billingsley
With runners on base (2008-09)
2008 2009
BA .266 .302
SLG .364 .422
K pct. of PA 20.8 16.5
BB pct. of PA 10.5 11.9

-- ESPN Stats & Information

FANTASY: PREVIEW OF TUESDAY'S GAMES

Adam Madison examines the 16 games on Tuesday's slate.

Fantasy Madison ranks the pitchers scheduled to take the mound and supplies loads of other information that could help shape your roster for Tuesday. Daily Notes

HUNT FOR OCTOBER

Here's the latest in the wild-card races:

NL WILD CARD
TEAM W-L GB POFF
Rockies 88-68 -- 77.6%
Braves 86-70 2.0 22.9%
AL CENTRAL
TEAM W-L GB POFF
Tigers 83-72 -- 76.8%
Twins 81-74 2.0 23.2%

For more on all the playoff races, see the Hunt for October