Thursday, September 07, 2006

My Take on the NL Wild-Card Race

by Scott Silversten

If you are reading this column, you are probably a fan of a particular team: The New York Yankees or Mets, the Philadelphia Phillies, the Chicago White Sox, the Oakland Athletics, the Cincinnati Reds.

However, if you are reading this column, chances are you are also a fan of the sport of baseball. Not just your particular team, but everything the word “baseball” encompasses.

Count me as someone who definitely falls into that second category, a lover of everything the sport has to offer, from the dusty fields of the minor leagues to the cathedrals that are major league ballparks, from the first tosses of spring training to the chill of postseason October action.

All this brings me to the National League wild card race. Since I love everything about baseball, I have always had a hard time rooting against any particular team. Sure, I have my allegiances, but for the most part, I root for great stories, longer series and more intrigue.

However, when it comes to the NL wild card race, I don’t know how to really root. There are so many great stories and so many teams that I would like to see reach October, that even now, with just 3 ½ weeks remaining in the regular season, I’m unable to decide which NL teams I’d like to see reach the postseason.

I do know which team I’m not rooting for to reach October (more on that later), but trust me, it’s nothing personal.

There are currently six teams (and that is being very kind to Atlanta) looking up at the top of the NL wild card chase, which still have a reasonable chance of catching the San Diego Padres, and all of them present an intriguing storyline for October:

Philadelphia Phillies – It appeared the Phillies had given up with the trade of outfielder Bobby Abreu and starting pitcher Cory Lidle prior at the July 31st deadline. But the Phillies have gotten hot since dealing the duo and are being led by probable-NL Most Valuable Player Ryan Howard, who could reach the 60-homer mark.

Florida Marlins – This would be the best story of them all. Many were predicting back in March that the Marlins would be hard-pressed to surpass the 50-victory plateau. Now in early September they find themselves hovering around the break-even mark. With every win, manager Joe Girardi is adding zeros to his future paychecks.

Cincinnati Reds – Much like the Marlins, the Reds were a hot pick to finish last in their division prior to the season. Their pitching staff was supposed to be horrendous. But despite recent struggles, Cincinnati is well within striking distance of the Padres, who they will host for three games next week. In addition, who wouldn’t welcome the chance to see center fielder Ken Griffey Jr. perform in October for the first time since 1997?

San Francisco Giants – I must admit, there are just two words that can sum up why we should root for the Giants to reach the postseason … Barry Bonds. Even those who despise BALCO’s favorite son must admit that it’s hard to take their eyes off of him. Bonds has started to hit with more power in the last two weeks, and it would be fun to watch opposing managers finagle their way around him in crucial October situations.

Houston Astros – Although they wouldn’t admit it, the Astros are definitely the team that likely scares other possible NL opponents the most. If Houston does find its way into the playoffs, the trio of starting pitchers (Roy Oswalt, Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte) will make it a real tough out, especially in the short five-game Division Series.

Atlanta Braves – While the Braves run of regular season success was bound to come to a conclusion sooner of later, it doesn’t make what they have accomplished over the last decade and a half any less remarkable. It’s impossible not to root for the organization, even if most non-baseball fans who only embrace the sport come October would be bored by another year of postseason competition in front of a less-than-enthusiastic Turner Field crowd.

As for the one team I seem to be rooting against, that would be the Padres. As stated, it really isn’t anything personal. Having Mike Piazza in the postseason would be nice, and San Diego features an intriguing young rotation of Jake Peavy, Clay Hensley and Chris Young. Maybe I’d feel differently about the Padres if they would have put up more of a fight in last year’s NLDS, but they didn’t- so at least for now, they are the ire of my eye.

Scott Silversten's column, "Age of Reason", appears every Thursday

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"I've had a pretty good success facing Stan (Musial) by throwing him my best pitch and backing up third base."
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