By John Donovan
September 27, 2008

We all have issues. Some of us, clearly, have more than others. But before I get started on everybody's problems -- especially those challenge-challenged sad sacks from New York, the Mets -- here's where we stand with the postseason contenders before what could be a long, wet final regular-season weekend:

ALREADY IN: Rays (American League East champs), Red Sox (AL wild card), Angels (AL West champs), Cubs (National League Central champs), Dodgers (NL West champs).

STILL TRYING TO GET IN: Twins, White Sox, Phillies, Mets, Brewers.

WHAT'S STILL TO BE DECIDED: In the AL, the Central title (Twins, White Sox). In the NL, the East title (Phillies, Mets) and the wild card (Phillies, Mets, Brewers).

The next few days could be white-knucklers. We might even roll into Monday and, possibly, Tuesday with makeup games and tiebreakers before everything is decided. Or, if things fall just right and they're not building arks in New York and Philadelphia, we could be done with this thing by Sunday and start the postseason on Wednesday, as scheduled.

Here are the issues facing those teams that still matter:

The Mets: Johan Santana is going to start Saturday's game against the Marlins with just three days of rest since his last outing, when he threw a career-high 125 pitches in a win over the Cubs. Santana has never had to pitch on short rest in the regular season. That's how desperate the Mets, who fell a game behind the Brewers (and two games behind the Phils in the NL East) with an ugly loss to Florida on Friday night, are right now.

They have no choice, really. The Mets have to win their final two games, and even that may not be enough.

"I would have to say I'm concerned, no doubt about that. We really, really put ourselves in a tough spot," manager Jerry Manuel said after the Mets' listless 6-1 loss to the Marlins. "And we're the only ones to blame for that. We had opportunities, and didn't get it done."

If the Mets win behind Santana, they will turn to enigmatic lefty Oliver Perez.

Whatever, if the Brewers and Phillies win Saturday, but Santana and the Mets lose, that Shea Stadium finale on Sunday will mean absolutely nothing.

The Brewers: Friday night's win over the Cubs was huge for Milwaukee. It was the Brewers' fifth straight win -- after a 4-15 start to September, remember -- giving them that one-game lead over the Mets in the wild card. But it's not as if they can coast now. New manager Dale Sveum is rolling the dice and going with Ben Sheets to start Saturday's game against Chicago. Sheets lasted only two innings in his previous start because of elbow pain.

And if the Brewers need another big win Sunday -- say, if they lose Saturday or the Mets win, or both -- they'll go with CC Sabathia for the third straight time on short rest. That's almost crazy talk for the big fella, who already has thrown 244 innings this season -- on top of 244 last year, plus some in the postseason. Will this guy ever wear down?

The Phillies: They're sitting relatively pretty, two games up in the East. They can lock up a postseason spot with a win this weekend against the Nationals, or a Mets' loss. If the Phils get in Saturday, they could bypass Sunday's starter, ace Cole Hamels, and have him ready for Game 1 of the division series.

"We have everything in our own hands right now," Ryan Howard, who slugged his baseball-best 48th home run and drove in two more runs (RBIs No. 145 and 146) Friday night in a win over Washington.

Jamie Moyer, 5-0 with a 3.78 ERA in his last nine starts, is scheduled to start Saturday.

The Cubs: Since they're already in, and they already have homefield advantage throughout the NL playoffs, the Cubs are spending their weekend in Wisconsin getting loose for the postseason and healing up. Manager Lou Piniella let a couple of more regulars into the lineup Friday against the Brewers, though he didn't play do-it-all Mark DeRosa (sore calf) and the skipper wasted zero time pulling catcher Geovany Soto when he tweaked his sore hand on a swing in the sixth inning of the 5-1 loss.

Piniella has announced his postseason rotation -- Ryan Dempster, Carlos Zambrano, Rich Harden and Ted Lilly -- with Jason Marquis heading to the bullpen and a couple of bullpen arms still to be decided. What that means for this weekend is Lilly on Saturday, Marquis in probably his last start of the year on Sunday ... and then, as far as the Cubs see it, a hopefully healthy bid to end that 100-year drought thing that everybody is talking about.

Both NL division series will begin on Thursday.

The Dodgers: Joe Torre's group is in, too, and has no say on where it's going (the Dodgers will have the worst record of any postseason player), so the manager's lineup card Friday in a loss in San Francisco was as long as a typical New York fan's face these days.

Torre, after 13 straight postseason appearances with the Dodgers, knows how to get ready for October. He still has to see how healthy shortstop Rafael Furcal and second baseman Jeff Kent might be. Kent made a case to make the postseason roster with a home run against the Giants, barely three weeks after undergoing knee surgery.

Derek Lowe, who started Friday but was pulled after three innings, is scheduled to start Game 1 of the division series on Thursday.

The Rays: With Boston's late loss to the Yankees on a rainy Friday in New England, the Rays captured the AL East -- still a little hard to believe, eh? -- and now will face whoever wins the Central, either the Twins or White Sox, starting Thursday in Tampa Bay. That means against the Tigers this weekend, manager Joe Maddon will be much more concerned with finding out who's healthy than giving the good people of Detroit a decent show.

The Rays have activated outfielder Carl Crawford, recovering from hand surgery, though he'll be used only as a defensive replacement or pinch-runner right now. A spot on the postseason roster for the team's longest-tenured player seems far-fetched at this point. Maddon also has to test the health of closer Troy Percival over the next couple of days, and set up his rotation for the team's first postseason ever. With Matt Garza pitching Saturday, James Shields is expected to get the call to start Game 1 of the ALDS.

The Red Sox: Boston pulled starter Daisuke Matsuzaka when rain delayed the start of Friday's game, and then scratched David Ortiz (scheduled to start at first base), and later manager Terry Francona yanked a gimpy third baseman Mike Lowell from the game, just to be on the safe side. All of them were good calls considering the team's long-shot chance at the AL East title. After the Sox lost any shot at it with the 19-8 clobbering by the Yankees, the moves looked downright brilliant.

In doing so -- pulling their best players and losing -- the Sox settled for the wild card and a weekend of tuning up for their division series against the Angels, which begins Wednesday. Josh Beckett is selected to start Game 1 against the Angels. He'll probably be followed by Jon Lester and Matsuzaka.

The Sox also have to see how healthy Lowell, J.D. Drew and others are this weekend.

The Twins: A horrible loss to the Royals on Friday, 8-1, could have been much more horrible had the White Sox not lost, too. So the Twins remain a half-game up in the Central with two games to play.

The team's biggest concern has to be winning Saturday. They'll send Glen Perkins (12-4, 4.50 ERA) to start. But Minnesota has to be a little concerned with the outing Friday night by Francisco Liriano, too. The young lefty was 6-0 in his first 10 starts since returning from his minor-league rehabilitation start, with a 2.05 ERA. The Royals slammed him for 11 hits in 4 1/3 innings Friday.

That won't matter, though, if the Twins falter in the next couple of days.

The White Sox: Almost as bad as the Twins' loss was Chicago's, their fourth straight, this one to the Indians, 11-8. The Sox, swept by the Twins earlier this week to fall that half-game back, now will turn to the battered Javier Vazquez to keep their hopes alive. Vazquez, remember, responded to some prodding from manager Ozzie Guillen last week in Minnesota by lasting all of four innings.

If the ChiSox lose Saturday and the Twins win to take a 1½-game lead, the Sox would have to win Sunday, hope for a Twins' loss Sunday and then win a makeup game Monday against the Tigers, in Chicago. That would force a one-game playoff with the Twins on Tuesday.

The Angels: After snagging the best record in the league with Tampa Bay's loss, Angels manager Mike Scioscia opted for the division series that starts on Wednesday, enabling him to possibly throw John Lackey and Ervin Santana twice each in the best-of-five series. Lackey was shelled by the Rangers in probably the worst outing of his career Friday. He'll be fine when Game 1 rolls around Wednesday.

Where has this Seth McClung guy been? The Brewers' big right-hander might have saved his team's season on Friday by pitching four scoreless innings and giving up just one hit against the Cubs in the Brewers' 5-1 win.

McClung, gunning for a spot on the postseason roster, used a biting mid-90s fastball to confound the Cubs, striking out six and walking just one. It was the 37th appearance of the year for McClung, by far his longest in relief (he's also started 12 games) and, by far, the most important. What's more, he coaxed a catcher's interference call on the Cubs' Koyie Hill that started off the Brewers' three-run rally in the seventh that sealed the win.

The Mets need their leadoff guy to lead. Jose Reyes went 0-for-5 in Friday's loss to the Marlins, topping it all off by grounding into a 3-6 double play to end the game. In his last seven games, Reyes is hitting .188 with a .257 on-base percentage.

"We didn't blink and then all of the sudden, we're a game back in the wild card. We've done this to ourselves. We dug ourselves a hole. Now it's up to us to dig ourselves out of that hole." -- Mets manager Jerry Manuel

• Is Ryan Howard the NL's MVP for a fantastic September in which he's pushed the Phillies to the brink of the NL East title? Howard is hitting .349 this month, with 11 homers and 32 RBIs in 23 games. The man who's known for his whiffs has struck out only 20 times in that stretch. He has more homers and more RBIs -- 48 and 146 -- than anyone in the game. It'd be difficult for me to overlook St. Louis' Albert Pujols for MVP. But you have to see what Howard has done, especially lately, and think long and hard about it.

• The Mets used four pitchers to get three outs in the sixth inning of Friday's loss to the Marlins. That kind of says a lot, doesn't it?

• Jeff Samardzija still makes Piniella nervous, you can tell. I think the Cubs' skipper wants the hard-throwing rookie in his bullpen for the postseason. But I don't think Piniella clearly trusts him yet.

• Think Piniella has been taking it easy this week with, for the Cubs, largely meaningless games against the Mets and Brewers? Did you see him chew out first base coach Matt Sinatro for sending rookie Matt Hoffpauir to second on a throw home on Friday? (Hoffpauir was thrown out.) It wasn't clear whether Hoffpauir went on his own or whether Sinatro sent him. But Sinatro was hearing about it from Piniella, one way or the other.

• And, finally, a quick side note: Before the season began, thinking Pujols' elbow would finally blow up and the Cardinals' pitching would be as bad as everybody thought it might be, I foolishly predicted St. Louis would have the worst record in the NL. It was a bold prediction, sure, as most silly predictions of that sort should be. I thought it had at least an outside chance to be close.

Well, as we know now, it wasn't. Pujols has lasted all year long and might well be the league's MVP. The Cards got unexpectedly good years from pitchers Kyle Lohse, Todd Wellemeyer, outfielders Skip Schumaker and, especially, Ryan Ludwick. They won't make the postseason, but they could finish with as many as 86 wins. It was another brilliant coach-up job by manager Tony La Russa and his staff.

Some people never let you forget your stupid predictions, though. So, to TUCK! over at The Hardball Times, who has pounded me all year long with e-mails (in a nice way); you were right, bub. I was wrong.

• After a two-dinger game against the Rays on Friday, Gary Sheffield of the Tigers needs one more to become the 25th player with 500 career home runs.

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