Friday October 1st, 2010

The Giants clinched a tie for first place in the National League West on Thursday, but there's still a way that the second-place Padres could win the division outright without having to play a one-game playoff. That is just one of a number of scenarios that are in play heading into the final weekend as the Padres travel to San Francisco for a three-game set against the Giants while the wild card-leading Braves, who are also within the Padres' reach, host the Phillies.

With just three games left in the season, the Giants lead the Padres in the West by three games while the Braves lead San Diego by two games in the wild card race. That puts the Giants' magic number at one and the Braves' magic number at two, but it also leaves open the possibility of the following:

• If the Padres sweep the Giants, and the Phillies sweep the Braves, the Braves will be eliminated, the Padres will win the NL West by virtue of their head-to-head record against the Giants (which would be 13-5), and the Giants will claim the NL wild card.

• If the Padres sweep the Giants, and the Braves win just one game against the Phillies, all three teams will finish with identical 91-71 records and two playoff games will be required to determine the postseason field. The Giants and Padres would play on Monday in San Diego to determine the NL West winner, and the loser would travel to Atlanta to play the Braves on Tuesday to decide the wild card.

• If the Padres sweep the Giants, and the Braves win two or more games against the Phillies, the Braves will win the wild card, and the Padres and Giants will play a one-game playoff on Monday to decide the NL West.

• If the Phillies sweep the Braves, and the Padres win two games against the Giants, the Braves and Padres will have to play a one-game playoff on Monday to determine the winner of the Wild Card.

Any other outcome will result in the Giants winning the West and the Braves winning the wild card. That is, of course, the most likely scenario. The onus is thus on the Padres, who have to win at least two games in San Francisco to avoid being eliminated, and even then will likely need help from the Phillies to keep their postseason hopes alive. Here, then, is a quick look at the only two series that really matter on the final weekend of the 2010 regular season.

Friday, 10:15 p.m. ET: Clayton Richard vs. Matt Cain

Saturday, 4:10 p.m. ET: Tim Stauffer vs. Barry Zito

Sunday, 4:05 p.m. ET: Mat Latos vs. Jonathan Sanchez

The Padres are 10-5 against the Giants this season including a 5-1 record at AT&T Park. The concern for the Padres is the fact that their biggest weakness and the Giants' biggest strength compound each other. The Padres are on the verge of elimination this weekend because they scored just 2.89 runs per game in September, and that includes a three-game set in Colorado in which they scored 19 runs. Take that away, and the Padres scored just 2.48 runs at sea-level last month. Not helping has been the fact that their one truly productive hitter, Adrian Gonzalez, has gone hitless in seven of their last eight games including the last four. Meanwhile, Giants pitchers have now allowed two or fewer runs in 16 of their last 18 games. The two exceptions during that streak saw them allow three runs at home and 10 in, you guessed it, Colorado.

The only Giants starter to allow more than two runs in the team's last 18 games was Zito, who gave up four in that outlier in Colorado. The Padres face him Saturday, but they could be eliminated by then. Friday's starter for San Francisco is Cain, who has gone 12-2 with a 2.48 ERA in the second half. That includes eight strong innings against the Padres at Petco Park on September 9 (8 IP, 5 H, 3 R, 1 BB, 8 Ks), though he did allow five runs in his one home start against San Diego back in May.

Still, the pressure is not on the Giants' pitching -- which could also include Tim Lincecum on short rest on Sunday or on full rest for a Monday playoff if necessary -- but rather on the Padres', which will have to carry the load for their anemic offense. Fortunately for San Diego, the Giants' offense is itself far from impressive, scoring just 3.73 runs per game in September, and the Padres have a pair of Giant-slayers to try and keep them alive on Friday and Saturday.

Richard has struggled of late, allowing six runs or more in two of his last three starts. He has, however, dominated the Giants this year, posting a 1.95 ERA in five starts without allowing a home run in 32 1/3 innings. Stauffer threw six shutout innings against the Giants in his only start against them this year, has a 1.29 ERA against San Francisco in three appearances this season and has posted a 2.25 ERA in five starts since moving from the bullpen into the rotation at the beginning of September.

If the Padres remain alive on Sunday, they'll have ace Mat Latos on the hill. The problem there is that Latos is a 22-year-old in just his first full big league season. He had never thrown more than 123 innings in a professional season prior to 2010, but he'll enter Sunday's start with 178 2/3 under his belt already this year. All of those innings seem to be taking a toll on him this month as he has gone 0-4 with a 10.13 ERA over his last four starts. That rough stretch started with a September 12 outing in which he allowed five runs in four innings to the Giants at Petco. Still, Latos has been comparatively sharper in his last two outings (4.22 ERA, 10 Ks in 10 2/3 IP) and might just have enough left in the tank to empty it with a gem on Sunday. That might not bode well for the Padres chances in the Division Series, but they'll worry about that if they get there.

Friday, 7:35 p.m. ET: Kyle Kendrick vs. Brandon Beachy

Saturday, 4:10 p.m. ET: Cole Hamels vs. Tommy Hanson

Sunday, 1:35 p.m. ET: Vance Worley vs. Tim Hudson

With the Phillies having clinched both the NL East and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs (including the World Series thanks to the NL's All-Star Game win), the biggest question entering this series might be just how seriously they are going to take it. Phillies manager Charlie Manuel will likely do his best to honor the pennant race by trying to beat the Braves, but he can't take risks with his own ballclub to do so. Indeed, the Phillies starters on regular rest for this weekend's games would have been Cole Hamels (Friday), Roy Halladay (Saturday) and Roy Oswalt (Sunday), the same trio that started the Phillies sweep of the Braves last week, but only Hamels will start in this series, doing so on Saturday to set up a Game 2 or 3 start in the Division Series. Hamels will also likely be limited to two or three innings in that start, in part because he has already thrown 206 2/3 innings this year and the Phillies, for good reason, expect to go deep into the postseason.

Beyond the rotation, shortstop Jimmy Rollins returned to the lineup on Tuesday after missing 16 games due to a sore hamstring, but has yet to play a full game since his return. If he needs continued rest to be able to play nine innings in the Division Series, he'll get it. Also, outfielder Shane Victorino was on unofficial paternity leave on Thursday and could miss, or at the very least not start, Friday's game.

All of this means the Braves don't have as tough a task heading into this weekend as it might otherwise seem. Certainly their hitters won't be facing pitching representative of the team with the best record in the majors. Kyle Kendrick, who starts for Philadelphia on Friday, is 5-7 with a 5.23 ERA and just 4.1 strikeouts per nine innings in the second half. Righty Vance Worley, who starts Sunday, is a 23-year-old rookie whose only previous major league start came back on September 6. He acquitted himself well in that and his three surrounding major league relief appearances, but was merely good, not great, in a minor league season spent largely in Double-A. Saturday, meanwhile, will effectively be a bullpen game for the Phillies, with a parade of relievers likely to follow Hamels, each getting what might be a final tune-up before the playoffs.

Missing the Phillies' H2O (Halladay, Hamels and Oswalt) at their best could be huge, as the Braves' offense sputtered in September, scoring just 3.40 runs per game, and lost Martin Prado for the season following a hip pointer and torn oblique suffered in Monday's game. Brooks Conrad has gone 3-for-9 with a double, a triple and four walks in Prado's stead over the last two and a half games, but Jason Heyward is coughing up his Rookie of the Year trophy with yet another prolonged slump. Over his last 11 games, Heyward has gone just 6-for-40 (.150) without an extra-base hit.

That shifts the onus to the Braves' pitchers, who will have to contend with a Phillies offense that, with Ryan Howard (.278/.407/.588 with 8 homers and 24 RBIs since August 31) and Chase Utley (.323/.436/.531 with 5 homers and 22 RBIs in September) back at full strength, scored 5.26 runs per game in September. The Braves have ace Tim Hudson lined up for Sunday's finale, but ideally they'd like to win the first two games and save Hudson for Game 1 of the Division Series, though it's also worth noting that Hudson has slumped of late, going 2-4 with a 4.86 ERA over his last eight starts.

Twenty-four-year-old rookie right-hander Brandon Beachy takes the hill for the Braves in Friday night's opener. His major league debut came at Citizens Bank Park, um, last week. He gave up three runs in 4 1/3 innings in that start (though only two were earned) and struck out just one man against three walks. He was better his last time out against the Nationals (5 IP, 2 R, 9 K), but has yet to see the sixth inning in the majors and spent most of the season pitching in relief in the minors, albeit with an exceptional strikeout rate (11.2 K/9 in 13 starts and 22 relief appearances between Double- and Triple-A). Sophomore Tommy Hanson, also 24, gets the ball on Saturday. He has handled the Phillies well in three previous starts this season, posting a 1.56 ERA in 17 1/3 innings without allowing a home run and most recently tossing six shutout innings in Philadelphia last Wednesday. Hanson had a 2.04 ERA in six September starts and has allowed just one run in his last 13 2/3 innings pitched.

The reality of this series is that the Braves likely only need to take one game to clinch the wild card as a Padres sweep in San Francisco is extremely unlikely. The reality of the Padres season is that if neither of these two series ends in a sweep, they will be eliminated. Indeed, this could all be over Friday night with wins by the Giants and Braves, leaving us with only the battle over home-field advantage in the AL to tide us over for the season's final two days.

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