How screwy is the NL? Barry matters again

Give the Astros, Cardinals, Dodgers and Padres credit: They've already accomplished something that almost no one thought possible over the past several weeks.

They've made Barry Bonds relevant to the postseason.

Bear with me. It's going to come down to Bonds -- either a little or a lot -- to settle not one, but two division races and potentially three playoff spots. Bonds won't see a day of postseason action himself, but why quibble over details? The man is going to matter in October, in games that matter, too.

Thoroughly odd. And sort of perversely entertaining.

It lays out fairly easily. Because Los Angeles is still trying to chase down the Padres in the NL West or, at the very least, prevent the Phillies from overtaking it in the wild-card chase, each one of the Dodgers' three games in San Francisco this weekend is freighted with meaning. Los Angeles basically needs to win out to be sure of anything.

That's a Bonds moment, of course, wanting to bash the Dodgers for sport. But it might be nothing compared to Monday, when the Cardinals now almost certainly will need to play their "if needed" makeup game against the Giants -- game No. 162, a makeup of an earlier rainout -- to determine what the hell is going on in the NL Central, a division St. Louis has seemed utterly intent on giving away for the past two weeks.

In the 2002 LCS, Bonds had six RBI and 10 walks in five games against the Cardinals, and the Giants won it to go to the World Series, where Bonds batted .471 and bashed four homers in seven games. You could say a few things have changed since then. The spoiler effect, however, remains in force.

Blame the Cards for their choke-ocity, or congratulate Houston for its tenacity. It all lays out the same: The Astros' run of nine straight wins, coupled with the Cards' eight losses in nine games, helps set up this weekend as one of the great wide-open permutations of possibility in recent baseball memory.

And, shoot, we're just warming up. Consider this: a potential three-way tie for the Central lead among St. Louis, Houston and Cincinnati, which mathematically is still in the hunt. Such a tie could be created only after the Cardinals play the Giants on Monday, meaning the playoffs proper could not begin until the division were settled, meaning ... well, meaning baseball in November, once you start pushing all the other schedules back to accommodate.

Bud Selig and the boys over at Unintentional Good Result Central must be laughing in their suds. They've accomplished this current intrigue almost (but not completely) independent of the wild card, an idea hooted in many corners when it was introduced but one that has played out very nicely since its inauguration.

At this point, the wild card is a Dodgers-Phillies deal, which means the San Francisco series is worth more to L.A. than merely a chance to steal the division back from the Padres (San Diego is in Arizona for the weekend). If the Dodgers lose more than once to the Giants, they aren't just risking the West; it's their playoff berth at stake, provided the Phillies can right themselves in time to beat the Marlins a couple of times.

I'm still amazed L.A. didn't run off and hide from the West, but after seeing Brad Penny flame out (and fight tightness in his back) against the Rockies on Thursday, it's easy to understand that most teams are usually one starter -- good or bad -- away from either wildly succeeding or underachieving. L.A. sends Greg Maddux on Saturday and Derek Lowe on Sunday, against Matt Cain and Jason Schmidt, respectively, so no one can blame the outcome on the junior varsity.

Beyond that, both the Dodgers and Padres are playing winning baseball lately, which is the way you want your playoff races to go. St. Louis' losing streak may constitute grand theater, but inspiring it's not. It's got shock value, but no heart.

Roger Clemens goes for the Astros on Friday night in Atlanta, but the real drama comes Saturday, when the Cardinals play a day game against Milwaukee and the Astros go at night, and on Sunday afternoon, when the two teams start within 75 minutes of each other. Scoreboard watching, anyone?

St. Louis plays at home, where it's 47-30, and against a terrible road team in the Brewers. But Houston catches a slight break, too: The Braves are 38-40 at home this year.

Hardly invincible. Then again, uncertainty is the byword of the weekend. The only thing undisputed is this: Barry Bonds, of all people, matters again, whether the world wants him to or not.

Mark Kreidler's book, "Four Days to Glory: Wrestling With the Soul of the American Heartland," is available from HarperCollins and may be preordered on amazon.com. A writer for the Sacramento Bee, he can be reached at mkreidler@sacbee.com.