Monday September 27th, 2010

It has been 25 weeks since Opening Day and 2,330 games have been played. There is just one week and 100 games remaining but several questions still have yet to be answered. These are the most pressing:

Remaining Schedules

Giants: vs. Diamondbacks (9/28-30); vs. Padres (10/1-10/3)

Padres: vs. Cubs (9/27-30); at Giants (10/1-10/3)

Rockies: vs. Dodgers (9/27-29); at Cardinals (9/30-10/3)

The Giants enter Monday with a half-game lead on the Padres and a 4 1/2 game edge on the Rockies in the NL West. Barring a miracle, the Rockies won't win the division. The only way for Colorado to win it outright is for each of the following to happen: 1) It has to win all seven of its remaining games; 2) The Cubs (.452 winning percentage) have to sweep four games from the Padres; 3) The Diamondbacks (.410) have to sweep three games from the Giants; 4) The Padres have to win two out of three games from the Giants. The Rockies possible path to forcing a one-game tiebreaker is similarly unlikely. They have an elimination number of just three behind the Giants and four behind the Padres, meaning any combination of Colorado losses and wins by the teams they're chasing that equal those numbers will eliminate the Rockies for good.

The Giants and Padres are tied in the loss column and, given their series next weekend in San Francisco, each controls their own destiny. San Diego holds the advantage in the weekly starting pitching schedule as its best pitcher this season, Mat Latos (14-8 and 2.91 ERA), and its best starter in September, Tim Stauffer (2-1 and 2.57 ERA in four starts) each get two starts.

San Francisco is tentatively slated to start Jonathan Sanchez twice this week, including on the season's final day. But thanks to an off day on Monday, manager Bruce Bochy could easily meddle with his rotation to throw Tim Lincecum on normal rest on Wednesday -- bumping Madison Bumgarner back to Thursday -- and start Lincecum again on Sunday on three days' rest.

Though the Giants have the advantage of hosting the Padres for the final three-game set, they've struggled against their Southern California rivals, as San Diego has won 10 of 15 meetings thus far, including four of six in AT&T Park.

Remaining Schedules

Braves: vs. Marlins (9/27-29); vs. Phillies (10/1-3)

Padres: vs. Cubs (9/27-30); at Giants (10/1-10/3)

Giants: vs. D-backs (9/28-30); vs. Padres (10/1-10/3)

Rockies: vs. Dodgers (9/27-29); at Cardinals (9/30-10/3)

Whoever finishes as the runner-up in the NL West has the upper hand on the Braves for the wild card. At the moment, the Padres lead the Braves by one half-game while the Rockies are four games out. Atlanta's curious inability to beat the Nationals -- an 8-10 record in the season series, including a 2-4 mark in September -- has left them a game behind both the Giants and Padres in the loss column.

Braves starter Jair Jurrjens hasn't pitched since Sept. 14 because of a small tear of the meniscus in his right knee. He will be re-evaluated Monday but said he has only a 50-50 chance of pitching, which would mean another start from rookie Mike Minor, who has a 9.37 ERA in last four outings. Manager Bobby Cox, for whom a playoff berth in his last season seemed all but assured at the start of the month, will then turn to Tim Hudson and Derek Lowe on Tuesday and Wednesday. Both of those starts would be on three days' rest but would set that duo up to pitch on normal rest in the season's final two games at home against the Phillies.

Each of the past three seasons have featured a one-game tiebreaker to determine the final postseason entrant. This year it may not be as simple as two teams playing for one spot, the way it was in 2007 (Rockies beat Padres to win NL wild card), 2008 (White Sox defeat Twins to win AL Central) or 2009 (Twins top Tigers to win AL Central). To wit:

• If two NL West teams are tied for first and both are guaranteed of a postseason spot, the division champion will be the team with the better head-to-head record and the other team will be the wild card.

• If two teams are tied atop the NL West and the Braves also have the same record: the two NL West teams would play a tiebreaker with the team with the better head-to-head record having home-field advantage. The winner claims the division title while the loser would then play the Braves in a one-game tiebreaker for the wild card.

• If three teams finish tied for first in the NL West, each club would be grouped as A, B or C. Again, head-to-head record is used to determine who slots where, but with a catch: teams get to choose their own slot based on head-to-head record. Team A would host team B on Monday and the winner of that game would host Team C on Tuesday to decide the division champion.

The Rangers (AL West) and Twins (AL Central) have clinched their divisions while the Rays (seven games up on the Red Sox with seven games remaining) and Yankees (six and a half up on Boston with seven remaining) are all but in. Now what?

Tampa Bay is a half-game ahead of New York in the AL East and Minnesota for the best record in the AL. Because teams can not face a division rival in the first round, the AL East winner will likely draw the Rangers, who are 87-68, at least four games worse than the other AL playoff teams; the wild card will face the Twins.

The Yankees seem almost hesitant to pass the Rays in the division -- manager Joe Girardi has given his starting pitchers extra rest, spread out his bullpen work and been quick to replace his position players in late innings, even against rivals Boston and Tampa Bay. Perhaps that's because the Yankees are 4-4 against the Rangers this year -- including getting swept in a recent three-game series in Texas -- and 14-2 against Minnesota dating to the start of 2009. That includes a 4-2 record this year, a 7-0 mark in the 2009 regular season and a three-game sweep in last year's AL Division Series, making New York vs. Minnesota the most favorable matchup of any two teams.

The Rays have a light remaining schedule -- three vs. the Orioles; four at the Royals -- and the tiebreaker over the Yankees, given their 10-8 record against them this season. (New York travels to Toronto for three and then to Boston for three.) If Tampa Bay holds on, it'll likely play the Rangers, against whom the Rays are 4-2 this year.

The Phillies clinched a playoff berth Sunday and both teams have a magic number of one to wrap up their respective division titles, but whom will they face? The Braves, Giants and Padres -- the three teams fighting for two playoff spots -- and the Reds are all separated by just one game. The Phillies, who at 93-63 are five games better than any other NL team, would have to suffer an epic collapse not to lock up the league's best record. That means they will start the playoffs at home, facing the wild card if it comes from the NL West or, if the Braves claim the wild card, then whoever has the worst record of the Reds or the West winner.

One thing is sure: Everyone is hoping to draw the Reds. Cincinnati has a losing record against all possible NL playoff participants. It is 1-4 vs. the Padres; 2-5 vs. the Phillies; 2-3 vs. the Braves; 3-4 vs. the Giants.

The worst record in the majors and the No. 1 overall pick in next year's draft, has yet to be clinched. The Pirates (55-100) have a four-game "lead" over the Mariners (59-96). Seattle was involved in an unfortunate late-season surge two years ago, when it won its final three games to pass the Nationals -- costing the M's their chance to pick Stephen Strasburg in the 2009 draft.

While the races for the batting titles and home run crowns are just about assured -- the AL leaders are Texas' Josh Hamilton with a .361 average and Toronto's Jose Bautista with 52 home runs; in the NL the runaway leaders are Colorado's Carlos Gonzalez with a .341 average and St. Louis' Albert Pujols with 42 home runs -- several major statistical categories remain up for grabs.

The RBI leader in both leagues remains up for grabs, though Miguel Cabrera's big weekend (three home runs and six RBIs against the Twins) has pushed his lead to eight over Bautista, 126 to 118. In the NL Pujols' 116 RBIs are only two more than Colorado's Gonzalez and five more than Cincinnati's Joey Votto.

The title of strikeout king for pitchers in the AL and NL will be decided this week. In the AL the Angels' Jered Weaver leads the Mariners' Felix Hernandez 229 to 227. In the NL Lincecum has 220 and is trailed by the Phillies' Roy Halladay and the Cardinals' Adam Wainwright with 213 apiece and the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw with 212. Halladay and Lincecum each could make two starts this week.

Though the value of pitching wins has been openly disparaged in recent conversations about the Cy Young award, they remain one of the most highly recognizable stats. The Yankees' CC Sabathia has already won 20 games in the AL; Halladay and Wainwright have already reached that threshold in the NL. The Rockies' Ubaldo Jimenez and Boston's Jon Lester both have 19 wins, while the Rays' David Price and the Tigers' Justin Verlander each have 18. Jimenez will make two starts this week, while Halladay and Price will do so only if their teams need them on the season's final day.

The Rays' Rafael Soriano has a probably insurmountable three-save lead over the Royals' Joakim Soria, 44 to 41, but the NL saves race is a tight one. The Giants' Brian Wilson has 45 to the 44 of Padres closer Heath Bell -- that one could be decided in a division-clinching victory against each other this weekend.

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