NL Wild Card race shows why fall baseball is best |

NL Wild Card race shows why fall baseball is best

Wild cards are not supposed to be predictable.This is why baseball’s postseason version is such a perfect fit.Ever since it was introduced to enhance the game’s pennant races, in 1995, the Wild Card has thrilled us all. Three World Series winners – the ’97 Marlins, ’02 Angels and last year’s Marlins – began the postseason as wild cards.In 2000, the Mets made the second season as the National League Wild Card, enabling their memorable, six-game battle with the Yankees in the Subway Series.Were it not for Aaron Boone’s Game 7 homer in last year’s ALCS, the Red Sox – not the Yankees – would’ve gone on to face Florida, giving us the second straight all-wild card World Series. (Anaheim met San Francisco the year before.)This year’s NL Wild Card race has been as good as any that came before it. Going into Thursday night’s games, no fewer than five teams were within three games of earning the league’s fourth playoff slot.

Those five teams – San Francisco, Chicago, Florida, Houston and San Diego – had between 16 and 18 games remaining, a period of roughly two and a half weeks to take that first step toward living the world championship dream.It’s hard to believe the excitement actually grows after that, but it does (the playoffs begin Oct. 5, two days after the regular season ends).So who’s going to win? Which of the five will be this year’s Wild Card?From worst chance to best, what follows is the reasons each could do it, or the reasons each might fall short.San Diego – Perhaps the biggest surprise of the five teams fighting for the final playoff slot, the Padres were three games back of leader San Francisco going into Thursday. Although San Diego finishes up with 10 games at first-year PETCO Park (crazy, right?), it’s not as favorable as it might seem: The Padres are the only team in baseball with a winning overall record but mark of .500 or below at home (36-36).X Factor – Mark Loretta. Very quietly he has put together one of the best offensive seasons for an NL second baseman in recent memory (.344, 46 doubles, fewer strikeouts than walks). He’ll need to be an extra reliable table-setter for the Pads to have a chance down the stretch.

Houston – You might recall that the Astros (two games back of the Giants) were struggling to stay afloat before a recent stretch pulled them into the Wild Card lead, if only for a few days. Where’d the turnaround come from? Well, in the past three weeks they’ve played exactly one opponent with a winning record – that could be part of it. Their final 16 games include three apiece against San Francisco and St. Louis, but also six against Milwaukee, which is in the middle of its 12th straight losing season. Having one manager through the season’s entirety would’ve been a nice bit of continuity for Houston, one that most playoff teams usually enjoy.X Factor – Carlos Beltran. Yes, the Astros have their share of proven veteran leaders who have been there before – Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell, and to a lesser extent, Jeff Kent and Lance Berkman. But Houston’s best bet to carry the team through the final weeks is Beltran. His overall numbers this year are staggering – 38 homers and 36 stolen bases, making him almost a sure thing to become baseball’s fourth-ever 40-40 member (joining Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez and Jose Canseco). To boot, Beltran is 22-for-22 in steals since he was traded from Kansas City earlier this year.Florida – The Marlins have something on their side that nobody else does: They’re the defending world champs. Say what you will, that goes pretty far this time of year. They played through the pressure last fall, and although they were 3 1/2 games back entering Thursday, they could easily shock us again. Their remaining schedule is one of the toughest around; they play six games against Atlanta and seven against Philadelphia, and finish up with a 10-game road trip. (I’m sure all 15,000 Marlins fans are crushed …) Another hurdle: Only one hitter put up big numbers this year – Miguel Cabrera was at .308 with 29 homers and 100 RBIs. But he strikes out so often (129 times in 595 plate appearances) that it’s tough to ride him at a time of year when good pitching almost always beats good hitting.X Factor – Armando Benitez, without a doubt. The combustible ex-Met has made hitters seem blindfolded this year, saving 41 of 44 chances and giving up just eight earned runs all season for a miniscule 1.16 ERA. But he has a history of melting down at crucial moments, and the Marlins will have zero room for error if they’re to pull through.

San Francisco – Lost in the craze of Bonds’ chase for 700 home runs has been the fact that the Giants won’t stop winning. How? They have just two 10-game winners, Jason Schmidt and Brett Tomko, and no truly big bats aside from Bonds. Their lineup, though, is made up of veterans who know how to play at this time of year. Marquis Grissom, Edgardo Alfonzo, AJ Pierzynski, Michael Tucker, Ray Durham and JT Snow – they’d have no shot without Bonds, true, but surrounding him they’re more than adequate complements.X Factor – Bonds. Anyone who says different is stupid.Chicago – More than the Cubs’ four 30-homer guys (Sammy Sosa, Moises Alou, Derek Lee and Aramis Ramirez), they’ll win or lose the Wild Card because of their pitching. It’s that simple. Chicago (1/2 game back) has plenty of veterans, and a city of fans that would gladly give up their wacky accents if the Cubs would just WIN! FOR ONCE!X Factor – Kerry Wood and Mark Prior. It seems like they’ve been hurt all year, because they haven’t been themselves. Yet both are still alive, and the talent is still there for Wood and Prior to be the difference down the stretch. Injuries or not, they need to step up and earn their billing if Chicago is to pull it out.I’m betting they will.Devon O’Neil can be contacted at (970) 668-3998, ext. 231, or at

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