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The best is yet to come

BASEBALL TONIGHT EXTRA

By Mark Simon, ESPN Research

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

BIRDS ON A WIRE

By JOHN KRUK, ESPN

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.