Friday September 17th, 2010

With just 17 days left in the regular season, Major League Baseball's playoff picture is coming into focus. Though home-field advantage still has to be settled, the Rays, Yankees, Twins, and Rangers will be the American League entrants barring something shocking. In the National League, the upstart Reds seem to have the Central sewn up, and the Phillies, healthy after an injury-riddled season, are surging toward a fourth straight title in the East. Yet, while the rest of the league seems to be sorting itself out, the wild, wild NL West has only gotten tighter and more compelling in recent days.

The NL West has been upside down all season due to a Padres team that was expected to finish dead last but took over first place with sweeps of the Diamondbacks and Giants in mid-April and has had at least a share of first place for all but five days since. The Rockies were 11 games out in third place as recently as August 22, but since that day have gone 18-6 to pull within 2 1/2 games of both the division and wild card leaders. The Giants spent most of the last two months sandwiched between the improbable performances of the Padres and Rockies, but an 11-4 run, including three wins in a four game set in San Diego last weekend, has pushed San Francisco into a playoff spot. Indeed, as of last night, it is the Giants who sit in first place, the first time since June 16 that the Padres are not the division leaders. San Diego is in second, a half-game back, and the Rockies are in third.

The three-team race is now the most and perhaps only intriguing division battle remaining (all three of these clubs are also in contention for the wild card, which is currently led by the Braves by a mere half-game over the Padres). Here is a point/counter-point look at the three contenders in the NL West and their postseason chances.

Why they'll make the playoffs

The Giants have a favorable schedule down the stretch. Though they have three games remaining against both the Rockies and Padres, the former in Coors Field, the latter at home on the season's final weekend, their other nine games come against losing teams (the Brewers, Cubs, and Diamondbacks, against whom they are 17-6 on the season). In addition, nine of their remaining 15 games are at home, where the Giants have a .611 winning percentage. Better yet, Tim Lincecum has turned his season around. The two-time defending NL Cy Young winner went 0-5 with a 7.82 ERA in five August starts, but has gone 3-0 with a 2.08 ERA and 29 strikeouts in 21 2/3 innings against just two walks in three September outings. With The Freak back in the lead, the Giants' pitching staff has been impossibly stingy over the past two weeks. In their last 16 games, the Giants have allowed an average of, and this is not a typo, 1.75 runs per game. Jonathan Sanchez has allowed three runs (one of them unearned) in his last four starts (27 IP, 0.67 ERA) and Madison Bumgarner has allowed two runs in his last three starts (20 1/3 IP, 0.89 ERA).

Why they won't

Those head-to-head games are dangerous. The Giants are just 2-4 in Denver this season and are just 5-10 against the Padres including a pathetic 1-4 performance against their rivals in San Francisco, where those final three games will take place. Also, as good as their pitching has been, it a) won't last because no team can sustain that level of run suppression, and b) has had to be that good because, over that 16-game stretch, the Giants' offense has scored just 3.31 runs per game, and in the 15 games prior to Thursday night's 10-run outburst against the Dodgers the figure was 2.87 runs per game. It's amazing to think that the Giants allowed just 1.75 runs per game over a 16 game stretch and still managed to lose five times (by scores of 4-2, 3-1, 2-1, and twice 1-0). Check those scores again. The Giants scored four runs in those five losses. That's why the Padres have owned them this year. The Giants offense contains just three dangerous bats. Andres Torres ran out of magic beans a month ago (he has hit .182/.221/.374 since August 14). Juan Uribe has hit .216/.281/.398 since August 15. That leaves Aubrey Huff, Pat Burrell, and Buster Posey to do not just the heavy lifting, but nearly all of it, and no team can win consistently with just a third of a lineup.

Why they'll make the playoffs

The Giants can't keep preventing runs to that degree, and the Rockies can't keep up their insane winning pace. Once those two teams cool off and the smoke clears, the Padres, who continue to hold their opponents to fewer than four runs per game on average, will be back on top. Particularly because their final three games come against the Giants, whom they have owned to a 10-5 tune this season including a 4-1 mark in AT&T Park, where those final four games will be played.

Why they won't

Though they made considerable effort to improve their offense on the fly, and not without some success, the Padres bats are cooling off once again. After scoring just 4.22 runs per game in the seasons's first three months, the Padres scored 4.62 runs per game in July and August, a significant change that pushed them above the league average for those months. In September, however, they've scored just 3.07 runs per game. In fact, the Padres haven't scored more than four runs in a game outside of Coors Field since August 26. That's a 17 game stretch without one big day at the plate, a span that includes the last nine games from their 10-game losing streak as August turned to September. To make matters worse, the pitching that San Diego's surprising season has been built upon is starting to give out as their rotation is in flux at exactly the worst time. After struggling in August, Kevin Correia and Wade LeBlanc were shifted to the bullpen when rosters expanded, and righty Tim Stauffer and rookie lefty Cory Luebke were charged with solidifying their spots. Now, after making just one quality start in three turns, Luebke is getting the boot in favor of Chris Young, the former All-Star who has made just one start since June 14, 2009, that coming in early April, and just 33 over the last three years due to a seemingly endless array of injuries. Expecting the 6-foot-10 Young to rediscover his 2007 form in the final throws of the pennant race smacks of desperation.

Why they'll make the playoffs: They're red hot. It took the Rockies just 15 games to make up eight games in the standings, going from 10 1/2 games out on August 25 to 2 1/2 games out on September 10, and they now have 15 games left to make up those last 2 1/2. Troy Tulowitzki is on an almost unprecedented stretch-run tear. In his last 14 games, he become just the second player in major league history to hit at least 10 homers and drive in at least 25 runs in a 14-game stretch after August. (Hank Greenberg hit 12 home runs with 31 RBIs over a 14 game stretch in September 1940, leading the Tigers to the pennant by just one game.) Tulowitzki has hit .386 in that time with 22 hits, half of which have gone for home runs, and 27 RBIs.

Carlos Gonzalez has been nearly as hot for far longer. Gonzalez has hit .474/.524/.737 in September and .389/.434/.750 with 20 home runs and 60 RBIs since July 1, though his quest for the Triple Crown now seems unlikely due to Albert Pujols' seven homer advantage in the only category Gonzalez doesn't lead. Todd Helton has reached base at a .396 clip since returning from the disabled list in early August. Further down the depth chart, Ryan Spillborghs is 13-for-25 (.520) on an active 10-game hitting streak that includes four games in which he has gotten a hit in his only plate appearances (three of them as a pinch-hitter).

On the mound, Ubaldo Jimenez is pitching like an ace against after struggling at mid-season. He has a 2.76 ERA and 66 strikeouts in 62 innings over his last nine turns, eight of which were quality starts. Jorge de la Rosa has eight quality starts in his last 11 outings and has posted a 3.42 ERA with 71 strikeouts in as many innings over that stretch. Huston Street has converted 10 straight save opportunities and has allowed a run in just one of his last 14 appearances and in none of his last 10. Rafael Betancourt hasn't allowed an inherited runner to score since July and in 17 innings since then has struck out 33 men while allowing just 11 to reach base.

Why they won't: Despite making up eight games in 15 days they never got out of third place. Given a chance to knock the Padres from their perch at home earlier this week, they dropped the first two games, giving up 13 runs in those two contests. Although Gonzalez seems like he just might keep up his torrid pace, he and Tulowitzki can't keep hitting like this forever, and when they cool off, the Rockies will too. They are just 5-4 in those nine Jimenez starts. Groundballer Aaron Cook, who was in the process of making a strong return from the disabled list, broke his leg in his last start and is out for the season. Six of their remaining games are against the Dodgers, a team that they have gone just 5-7 against thus far this season.

Most importantly, 10 of their final 16 games are on the road. The Rockies are a .680 team at home and a .408 team on the road. During their recent 18-6 run, they played 17 of 24 games at home. They finish the season with four games on the road against the Cardinals, a team that is relishing the role of spoiler having not lost a series to a remaining contender since early July. Of course, that series loss was a sweep at the hands of the Rockies, but it also took place in Coors Field.

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