Tuesday, August 23, 2005

From May 31 to June 12, the Phillies played perhaps the best baseball they were going to play all year. During that time period, the Phillies rattled off 12 wins in a 13 game homestand, and everyone was handing the Phillies the NL East crown. During that same time period, Washington had its own impressive homestand - also going 12-1 - and at one point won 10 straight games. So, many predicted a Philadelphia-Washington fight to the end culminating in a series in the nation's capital between the two to finish off the 2005 regular season. Who could blame them? The Phillies were written off before the season even began, as everyone else in the NL East got stronger in the offseason, and the Nationals are the perpetual cellar-dwellers. Who couldn't help but hope for a playoff berth for teams that hadn't felt the pressure of meaningful October games since 1993 and 1981 respectively? Hey, the Eagles got over the NFC Championship hump, why couldn't the Phillies get over the NL East hump (also known as the Atlanta Braves)?

After that impressive homestand, the Phillies managed to lose every series they played until splitting a four-game set in Pittsburgh, and then took two of three from Washington right before the All-Star break. At that point, the Braves had jumped back in contention, and the same could be said for the Marlins and Mets, as well. The Nationals were playing so cold, snow could melt them, and the Homerun Derby supposedly ruined right fielder Bobby Abreu, who didn't hit a second-half homerun until August 4 against Mark Prior and the Cubs. Abreu is currently in a 12-game homerless drought, but he's gotten a hit in all but three August games.

So, as the bandwagoners were handing the division to it's usual owner, the Atlanta Braves, the Phillies started to piece it together again. Cory Lidle started locating his pitches better; Jon Lieber wasn't serving up homeruns on a silver platter; and more importantly, Vicente Padilla scared away those voices in his head that mysteriously become audible when he allows baserunners. The offense was clicking, and Charlie Manuel was starting to get a feel for his players so he could use them effectively (i.e. Jason Michaels starting in center field against left-handed starters; Kenny Lofton against right-handers). August was going to be a great month for Philadelphia. And it has been so far.

The Phightins have managed to drop only one series in August: a three-game set at home against Milwaukee after the Chicago series. To their defense, hardly anyone hits Ben Sheets, and no configuration of a Phillies lineup has been able to solve Tomo Ohka. When the Nationals came to Philadelphia for a four-game set, most were calling it the make-or-break series of the season for the Phils, and "most" couldn't have been more wrong. The series ended up being split, and the Phillies had a hold of the Wild Card lead, but certainly without a clenched fist. In the last few days, the NL Wild Card has been a lackluster tug of war between the Phillies, Nationals, and Astros. That begs the question: who is going to win the NL Wild Card?

Click a team's logo for its remaining schedule-at-a-glance.

The Astros, without a doubt, have the easiest remaining schedule, and that's why I think they are going to start pulling away with the Wild Card race anytime now. Their three starting pitchers, Roger Clemens, Roy Oswalt, and Andy Pettite, are arguably the best 1-2-3 punch in the Majors, and their offense is not to be taken lightly. Third baseman Morgan Ensberg has emerged as one of the bigger offensive threats in the National League, hitting .290 with 33 HR and 91 RBI. They have Rookie of the Year candidate Willy Taveras in centerfield, a catalyst at the top of the lineup. He leads the Majors by far in infield hits, and is fourth in the NL in stolen bases with 31. Oh yeah, and Lance Berkman. He missed the first month of the season, and just recently broke out of a 20-game homerless drought, but pitchers still fear pitching to the switch-hitting left fielder/first baseman. There is no glaring hole in Houston's roster, it's just a matter of them producing. Their remaining schedule is appealing, as they play 7 of their remaining 11 series against teams with sub-.500 records.
The Phillies have begun to play better, but their sporadic offense leaves a lot to be desired. Jim Thome's absence isn't going to have any noticeable effect on the team, especially since Ryan Howard has shown he can be their go-to guy. In a three-game set at Los Angeles, Howard had lead-changing homeruns, including a grand slam. The Phillies cannot rely on their starting pitching down the stretch: Robinson Tejeda flirts with danger too much for situations to continue coming out in his favor; Cory Lidle and Jon Lieber both have shown tendencies to hang breaking balls and serve flat fastballs on more than one occaision. Basically, they're relying on Brett Myers to give an encore of his nine-inning, 6 hit, 1 run gem against the Pittsburgh Pirates at home. Their bullpen is their obvious strength, but it's up to Charlie Manuel to keep them fresh. Ugueth Urbina showed signs of fatigue after being used extensively between August 9 and August 18. For the Phillies to have any shot at staying in contention, Jimmy Rollins needs to become the great leadoff hitter he was last year, Mike Lieberthal and David Bell need to snap out of season-long offensive slumps, and the offense in general needs to execute the fundamentals. However, their schedule certainly doesn't favor them, or any other NL East team, as 8 of the Phillies' remaining 11 series are against NL East opponents. While the NL East teams beat up on each other, the Astros will feast on sub-.500 teams like Cincinatti and Pittsburgh, the NL Central cellar-dwellers.
The Nationals have one of the worst offenses in the league, and that's including players like Brad Wilkerson, who is third in the Majors with 125 strikeouts, Vinny Castilla, Jose Guillen, and Jose Vidro. It seems like they depended on Nick Johnson for offense, because once Johnson went down with an injury, the Nationals did likewise, who lost two games both before and after the All-Star break, and then lost 6 straight from July 24-30. Livan Hernandez is really the only starter they can rely on, and if they can get a lead by the 9th inning, they can confidently hand the ball to lights-out closer Chad Cordero. While their bullpen isn't one of their strengths, they'll usually win if Chad Cordero is in the game with a lead. They were, after all, almost undefeated in one-run games leading into the All-Star break. Their schedule favors them less than any other NL East team, because they only play one series out of 11 against a team with a sub-.500 record: the San Francisco Giants. For them to stay afloat, they need to keep Cordero fresh, and the offense needs to start producing consistently.
The Marlins probably have one of the few lineups that would thrive down the stretch in September. Their starting rotation has clearly been what has kept the Marlins alive in a hunt for a playoff spot. They wisely decided to hold on to starter A.J. Burnett and it has paid off, as he has won every start since July 19, when the trade talks started swirling. More impressive is the fact that he has pitched into the 7th inning in his last six starts, and didn't allow a run in four of them. Not to be forgotten is Cy Young candidate Dontrelle Willis, who has deflated since the second-half began. Willis will be integral in Florida's run at the postseason; if he can return to his Cy Young candidate form, the postseason door is open for the Marlins. Aside from pulling off the hidden ball trick, Mike Lowell has just had an ugly year for Florida, hitting a minuscule .233 with 6 HR and 52 RBI. Carlos Delgado and Miguel Cabrera are already potent bats in the lineup, but they can't be depended on all the time, so Mike Lowell is going to need to turn it on before they fall out. The Marlins play only one series against a sub-.500 team, and that is the Chicago Cubs, so their schedule isn't conducive to a playoff push.
How the Mets have hung around is beyond explanation. They've lost Mike Cameron after an ugly mid-air collision with Carlos Beltran, and now their bullpen is unwinding. Beltran hasn't performed well all year - they didn't pay him upwards of $100 million to hit .267 with 13 HR, 59 RBI, and 14 SB. Their entire offense is inconsistent, led by left fielder Cliff Floyd, who has regressed offensively in July and August. Also a death knell is their bullpen, led by Cincinatti outcast Danny Graves, who has a 5.89 ERA in 18.1 innings. Closer Braden Looper has more saves (25) than strikeouts (24) and that is not necessarily a good thing. Roberto Hernandez has essentially been the only bright spot in New York's 'pen, and even he has been spotty at times. While they don't necessarily have a favorable lineup heading down the stretch, the Phillies, Marlins, and Nationals would all switch schedules with them. They finish off the season against Colorado. In contrast, the Phillies and Nationals end the season against each other, and the Marlins finish off against the Braves. For the Mets to be serious contenders, they're going to need to play like contenders, meaning their bullpen needs to shape up, and their offense needs to be better, especially when runners are in scoring position. Their starting rotation is fine, as long as no one goes into a month-long slump.
Phil Garner 13 6-6
Charlie Manuel 4 2-3
Jack McKeon 15 11-6
Frank Robinson 15 N/A
Willie Randolph 1 N/A

I see the Wild Card panning out with the Astros in 1st, Phillies in 2nd, Marlins in 3rd, Nationals in 4th, and the Mets in 5th. However, no team is dead in the water, including in the quest for the NL East title. The Braves certainly aren't locks to win it. If you look at the managers of each team, the experience will play a key factor.

Of the teams primed for a late-September push, the top three are teams with managers with managerial postseason experience. Phil Garner was one game away from getting the Astros into the World Series in a season in which he was the interim manager for Jimy Williams. Charlie Manuel has seen the Cleveland Indians to the postseason once, and Jack McKeon led the 2003 Marlins to a World Series championship. Willie Randolph is a rookie manager, and Frank Robinson is in the first season with his team in a permanent home. Experience does play a role, and this season, it will play a bigger role than ever. The preparation of these teams, how and how often the players are used, and the late-inning decisions will be intensified with each passing game in September. It's likely that the manager who performed the best will be seeing his team live past October 2.