Waning intrigue in race for playoff spots

Eight weeks ago, it looked like it might be one of the great finishing weekends in history. The series matchups included Phillies-Braves, Padres-Giants, Rockies-Cardinals, Angels-Rangers and Yankees-Red Sox, all of which were supposed to decide something of significance, and therefore bring tremendous drama. Instead, the eight playoff teams might be decided by Friday night, meaning no playoff game Monday as there had been the last three years, and perhaps no meaningful games on the final Sunday of the season.

The race in the National League West was supposed to be the guaranteed great series, but the Padres have to sweep three games from the Giants in San Francisco just to force a tie. The Giants have taken control, in part, because they just finished one of the greatest pitching months in baseball history, posting a 1.78 team ERA in September. In the live ball era (1920-on), that is the fifth-best ERA by any team in any month. The only ones better were by the Indians in May 1969 (1.42), the Dodgers in September 1965 (1.59), the Dodgers in May 1920 (1.71) and the Yankees in September 1952 (1.76). Even in this latest Year of the Pitcher, it is almost inconceivable that a team in this era can have an ERA that low for 26 games. Opponents hit .182 against the Giants in September, the second-lowest mark in a month (1920-on).


Leading the way for the Giants has been Tim Lincecum, who rebounded from a terrible August (worst month by a Giants pitcher since Bud Black, who now is the manager of the Padres) to go 5-1 with a 1.94 ERA in September. "He has fixed his mechanics,'' one scout said of Lincecum. "No more putting his hands over his head in the delivery. And he's got his confidence back also.'' Lincecum walked eight and struck out 52 in 41 2/3 innings in September, during which he broke Dwight Gooden's record for strikeouts in the first four years of a career.

As the Giants were sweeping through the Diamondbacks this week, allowing four runs in three games, the Padres were losing three of four to the resurgent Cubs (interim manager Mike Quade has done so well, he has a chance to get the full-time gig next season), scoring five runs in four games and twice being shut out 1-0. The Padres managed only 17 hits in four games, the first time the Cubs have allowed so few hits in a four-game series since 1963 against the Mets, a team managed by Casey Stengel. It is amazing that the Padres have gotten this far with their offense, and now they have to face the hottest pitching staff in the world with their season on the line. San Diego will start Clayton Richard on Friday night against San Francisco's Matt Cain.

The Padres also lost ground in the NL wild-card race to the Braves, leaving them two games behind Atlanta entering Friday. The Braves lost infielder Martin Prado for the season after he suffered an oblique injury Monday but continued to win. Brooks Conrad, who is filling it at third base for Prado, who was filling in at third for Chipper Jones, hit his eighth home run of the season in Wednesday's 5-1 win over Florida -- it was Conrad's first home run before the seventh inning this season. Derek Lowe (16-12) got the win, the first Braves pitcher to go 5-0 in September since 1954. Wednesday marked the 90th victory of the year for the Braves, the 15th time that manager Bobby Cox has won 90 games, one short of the record held by John McGraw. This weekend, the Braves play the Phillies in Atlanta. The Phillies have little to play for, having secured home-field advantage throughout the postseason.


The Rockies' Rocktober run finally ended, and they were eliminated from the playoff race. Ace Ubaldo Jimenez, who had such a tremendous start to the season, lost his last two starts, which essentially took him out of the race for the NL Cy Young. Shortstop Troy Tulowitzki had a 6-for-37 stretch as the Rockies stumbled in the final two weeks, but he has 40 RBIs in September; only Babe Ruth (43 in 1927) had more RBIs in September than Tulowitzki.

The Reds clinched the NL Central title -- their first since 1995 -- Tuesday night in typically dramatic fashion, getting a walk-off home run by Jay Bruce, who called it "seriously surreal.'' Bruce joined a select list of players in history who hit a walk-off home run to clinch a playoff spot, joining Bobby Thomson (1951), Hank Aaron (1957), Alfonso Soriano (1999; his first major league hit) and Steve Finley (2004; it was a grand slam).

A scout who has seen the Reds many times this year said, "Their chemistry is so good. [Orlando] Cabrera, [Scott] Rolen and [Jonny] Gomes have really brought a lot to that team. They grind it out every night. And Dusty [Baker] has a lot to do with that.'' A source close to the Reds said the club is getting close on a contract extension with Baker, at least a two-year deal. Both sides, the source said, have kept it quiet so not to interfere with the playoff run. The source said, "I would be shocked if Dusty isn't managing the Reds next year.''

The Phillies clinched their fourth straight trip to the playoffs -- longest streak in club history -- with an 8-0 win over the Nationals on Monday night. Appropriately, ace Roy Halladay was the winning pitcher, firing a two-hitter that likely locked up the NL Cy Young for him. He became the first 20-game winner to throw a shutout to clinch a playoff spot since Dave Stewart and Doug Drabek did so on the same day in 1990. It was Halladay's 320th career start, most by any active pitcher without pitching in the postseason.

Tampa Bay RaysNew York Yankees

In the American League, the Yankees and Rays made the playoffs Tuesday night. The Yankees qualified with a 6-1 win over the Blue Jays behind another brilliant performance by CC Sabathia, who won his 40th game in the last two years for New York, the most by a pitcher in his first two years with the Yankees since Tommy John won 43 in 1979-80. Sabathia will likely become the first Yankee to lead the AL in wins two years in a row.

The Rays clinched behind their Cy Young candidate, David Price, who threw eight innings in a 5-0 win over the Orioles. It raised Price's record to 19-6 and lowered his ERA to 2.74. Over the last 30 seasons, only one AL pitcher (Pedro Martinez in 2002) has had 20 wins and an ERA under 3.00, and not won the Cy Young. Price has 13 victories this year against teams with winning records and has a 2.12 ERA against teams in the AL East, which is crucial given he might see the Yankees in the playoffs. But first, the Yankees and Rays have to see which team will win the division and which will win the AL wild-card spot. They are even atop the AL East entering Friday, with the Rays set to play three games in Kansas City; the Yankees will play three games in Boston. The AL East, and the battle for the best record in the league, might be all there is to play for during the final two days in the major leagues.

The Twins clinched the AL Central on Sept. 21, but not much has gone well since. Catcher Joe Mauer, the most indispensable player in the league, needed a cortisone shot in his ailing left knee. Even though the injury isn't considered serious, Mauer played Thursday night for the first time since Sept. 19. The Twins recently lost five games in a row, allowing 46 runs in those games. The Royals beat them 10-8 and 10-1, the first time Kansas City has scored double figures in consecutive games since 2006. This wouldn't matter so much except the Twins are fighting for the best record in the league, which would mean home-field advantage in the AL playoffs.

The Rangers clinched the AL West on Sept. 25, and in the process closer Neftali Feliz broke the saves record for a rookie with his 38th of the season last Saturday. The Rangers got good news that outfielder Josh Hamilton, who hasn't played since Sept. 4 due to bruised ribs, was hopeful to play this weekend against the Angels. Hamilton personifies the aggressive, intimidating, two-pronged Rangers offense: he hits for power in the middle of a stacked batting order, and he is a part of their speed game. The Rangers are the only active major league team that has never won a postseason series, but if Hamilton isn't too rusty and can return to the form that has made him a leading candidate for the AL MVP, the Rangers can be a very dangerous team in the postseason.

The playoffs begins next week. We can only hope there is some drama left for this weekend.

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback in May 2008. Click here to order a copy.