Monday September 13th, 2010

NEW YORK -- Placido Polanco reckons that his left elbow hurts when he hits, when he dives for a ball and really anytime he has to extend it. The Phillies third baseman has bone chips that will require offseason surgery and, he hopes, lessen the pain that he says "has been there for awhile."

Yet even that discomfort didn't prevent Polanco from chasing Mets catcher Josh Thole down the third-base line Friday night before diving -- with his injured left arm fully extended -- to tag Thole just before he reached the plate. Polanco landed on his left side and aggravated his sore elbow, but he got the out and the Phillies got the win, one that helped keep them in first place with a slim one-game lead over the Braves. It was the sort of play that demonstrates just what it takes to reach October and was made all the more impressive because it was made by a player who isn't sure he'd still be playing if the Phillies weren't in playoff contention.

"I don't know," he said. "That's another conversation I'd probably have with the trainers because it's no fun. It's no fun to be hurt and playing. When we're winning, it's fun to be playing for something, but it's no fun being hurt."

With Polanco in the lineup in place of departed third baseman Pedro Feliz, the Phillies are a better team on paper this year than either their 2008 World Series championship club or their '09 runner-up team, making it difficult to figure out if Polanco keeps playing because the Phillies keep winning -- or the Phillies keep winning because Polanco keeps playing.

Increasingly the two-time defending NL champion Phillies are looking like the league's best again, as they're streaking at the right time and masking quite a bit of pain.

"Everyone in this locker room is a fighter," left fielder Raul Ibañez said. "That's the way we play the game. That's what we've come to expect in here."

No individual exemplifies the team's resiliency like Polanco, who served a D.L. stint in early July because of the elbow. He is leading the team with a .303 average, 148 hits and, defensively, with a 9.3 Ultimate Zone Rating, indicating he has saved more than nine runs for the team.

Polanco is one of six starting position players to have spent time on the disabled list (only Ibañez and right fielder Jayson Werth have escaped relatively unscathed) and the Phillies have endured 18 disabled list stays in all. They still aren't completely healthy -- shortstop Jimmy Rollins missed the weekend series against the Mets and will receive an MRI on his injured hamstring Monday -- yet they have gone 35-15 since July 22, a full five games better than any other National League team.

The Phillies open a three-game series with the Marlins tonight in Miami but they are far from the only team for whom a 162-game marathon has become a three-week sprint to the playoffs. There are 12 teams within six games of a postseason spot and this week alone features three series with playoff implications. The White Sox get what may be their last chance to catch the first-place Twins as they host Minnesota for three games; the Rays and Yankees square off in a possible ALCS preview; and, most notably, the Padres and Rockies have a showdown in Colorado in the ever-changing NL West. With three teams jockeying for up to two playoff spots, it is that last division race that will be the most interesting of the five key things to watch as the pennant races heat up.

1. The NL West is as wild as ever

The division that has produced half the NL playoff field three of the past four years could do it again. The Giants have whittled away the Padres' onetime 6 1/2-game lead to nothing. San Diego has gone 4-13 in its last 17 games, which includes San Francisco taking three out of four games from them this weekend.

After the Giants and Padres split a pair of 1-0 games on Friday and Saturday, Sunday's matinee featured both teams' aces, Mat Latos and Tim Lincecum, in what felt like Game 1 of an intra-divisional playoff. But the Giants, who aren't known for their plate discipline, made Latos work early and scored five runs in four innings to knock him out of the game and end his major-league record streak of 15 straights starts with at least five innings and no more than two runs allowed.

That lead effectively ended the game. The Padres haven't scored more than five runs in a game since Aug. 25, the day before their recent 4-13 skid began. San Diego even got its leadoff runner on base in six of nine innings but lacked the power to drive them in. They only scored in one of those six frames, after Will Venable hit a triple. In the five innings the Padres' leadoff batter reached first base, that runner never even reached third base.

But the Giants suffered a blow when Andres Torres was admitted to the hospital with appendicitis. He had surgery to remove it and will be okay, but he and his 64 extra-base hits -- tied with the Reds' Joey Votto for sixth in the NL -- are lost for up to two weeks.

These two teams will meet again in a three-game series on the last weekend of the season but there's a chance neither of them will still be in line for a playoff spot by then given the latest September surge by a formerly buried division rival.

2. The Rockies are more than just Carlos Gonzalez

It was just six weeks ago that the Rockies were debating whether to be sellers at the trade deadline and look toward next year. Good thing they didn't. Since Aug. 22, a day they began 11 games our of first in the NL West, the Rockies are 16-4, including an active 10-game winning streak to pull with 1 1/2 games of the Giants and Padres.

This is nothing new for the Rockies, who rallied from 12 games under .500 to make the playoffs in 2009 and won 14 of their final 15 to capture the wild card in 2007.

Certainly MVP and Triple Crown-candidate Carlos Gonzalez is driving much of their offense with an NL-leading .337 average to go with 32 home runs (tied for fourth) and 100 RBIs (third), but don't forget about Troy Tulowitzki. The shortstop has hit better after returning from his broken wrist than before he got hurt, and in the 10-game win streak, Tulo is batting .359 with eight home runs and 15 RBIs, including a pair of multi-homer games.

Colorado seems to find heroes among its bench players, too. On Sunday when neither Gonzalez nor Tulowitzki scored or drove in a run, it was Jason Giambi who delivered the pinch-hit walkoff home run in the ninth to beat the Diamondbacks. Colorado starts a crucial three-game series with San Diego Monday night, and if the Rockies' winning streak is still intact when it's over, they'll be no worse than second place in the NL West for the first time since April 18.

3. Rangers-Yankees isn't such a mismatch after all

The Yankees had won of their first five games with the Rangers this season and entered the weekend with a record 10 games better than Texas'. But the Rangers swept New York in three games in Arlington this weekend, a key test because, if the playoffs were to start today, these two clubs would be pitted against each other in the ALDS.

Despite the Rangers' comfortable division lead in the NL West, they had started to look like a team destined for a quick playoff exit. Before playing the Yankees, they were just 16-20 in August and September and three of their All-Stars -- Josh Hamilton, Cliff Lee and Elvis Andrus -- were among their injured and missing. Andrus and Lee have since returned, with Lee allowing just two hits and one run to the Yankees over eight innings on Sunday, reminiscent of his dominance over New York in last year's World Series.

Even with shortstop Derek Jeter having the worst season of his career and mired in such a bad slump (eight hits in his last 67 at bats) that he was given a day off on Saturday, New York seemed ready to pull away from the Rays and wrap up the AL East. It had a 2 1/2-game lead and wasn't far removed from having won eight straight. But now the Yankees have suddenly lost six of seven games after surprisingly losing a series to the Orioles in the Bronx before the sweep in Texas.

The week wasn't a total bust for the Yankees, however. Andy Pettitte, who has been out with a groin injury for almost two months, pitched four shutout innings during a rehab start at Double-A Trenton. After Pettitte went down with his groin injury on July 18, New York starters have gone 15-16 with a 5.57 ERA in games not started by CC Sabathia, making Pettitte about as important as any player in baseball in September and October as the Yankees don't have a reliable No. 2 starter without him.

4. The Yankees have more to lose than the Rays if they don't win the AL East crown

The Yankees open a three-game series in Tampa Bay tonight leading the Rays by just a half-game in the AL East. Whichever team fails to win the division will have to settle for the wild card, meaning in order to win the World Series they would have to win three straights postseason series without homefield advantage -- the first two because the wild card is always the league's worst playoff seed and the third because the NL won this year's All-Star Game. While the Yankees have the league's best home record at 49-25, the Rays are more balanced, going 43-26 at home and 43-30 on the road.

The Yankees' offense is especially dangerous at home because of especially the power lefty bats like Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson and righty hitters with opposite-field power like Alex Rodriguez. While the Yankees' starting pitching performs roughly the same home or away -- 4.20 ERA and .253 average against at home; 4.19 ERA and .262 average on the road -- their hitters' splits are more drastic. In the Bronx the Yankees are truly the Bombers, batting .281 and averaging 5.9 runs and 1.4 homers per game. Anywhere else the Yankees are 38-31, largely because they are batting .255 average while scoring only 4.7 runs and hitting 1.1 home runs per game.

The Rays only went 4-5 in their just-completed nine-game road trip but ought to be encouraged by the addition of outfielder Brad Hawpe, who in six games on the road trip hit two home runs and had a .400 on-base percentage, and a better performance from starter Jeff Niemann, who was not at his sharpest on Sunday but close enough to normalcy that the panic induced by his recent struggles can subside. The big righty had given up at least six runs in each of three starts since returning from the disabled list but on Sunday gave up just three runs in five innings.

5. The Braves need to feast on the leasts of the East

Atlanta's hallmark this year has been consistency against all competition. The Braves have a winning record against four of the other five serious playoff contenders -- the Phillies (7-5), Reds (3-2), Padres (4-2) and Giants (4-3) -- and a losing record against only the Rockies (2-4), while not faring all that much better against the NL's worst.

Atlanta has a .556 winning percentage against the NL's best, but its success rate against everybody else is only marginally better (.574). In their last 10 games, the Braves lost a series to both the Marlins and Pirates and split a four-game set with the Cardinals.

Of their final 18 games, the Braves face the Phillies six times, first in a three-game set from September 20-22 in Philadelphia and then in a season-ending series in Atlanta from October 1-3. Atlanta's other 12 games are with the NL East's bottom feeders, against whom the Braves are barely better than .500, going 8-7 against both the Marlins and Mets and 6-6 against the Nationals, whom the Braves will face in a pair of three-game series down the stretch. With the trio of NL West teams nipping at the Braves' heels for the wild card -- all three are within 2 1/2 games -- Bobby Cox's crew needs to dispatch of the Marlins, Mets and Nationals in order to feel secure about a playoff berth.

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