Two crucial games that will decide, or prolong, the NL playoff chase

Publish date:

The battle for the last two playoff spots in the National League has come down to the final day of the season with the Padres, Giants, and Braves all still fighting for those last two postseason berths. The Padres have kept their season alive the last two days with wins over the Giants in San Francisco, while the Braves have lost two straight at home to the NL East champion Phillies to put their hopes of giving manager Bobby Cox one last playoff berth in danger. Those two series, and the regular season, wrap up on Sunday, but two of the four possible outcomes of Sunday's action would still leave things unsettled, with the possibility that two playoff games will be required to determine the final NL playoff picture. Here, then, is a closer look at Sunday's two crucial matchups.

Philadelphia Phillies @ Altanta Braves, 1:35 p.m., ET: Cole Hamels vs. Tim Hudson

The Phillies are actually going to pitch Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt in tandem in this game, giving each just a few tune-up innings in preparation for their Division Series starts. Hamels, who is on regular rest, will start, but may only pitch two or three innings despite the fact that he threw just 84 pitches in his last turn and his Game 3 start in the NLDS won't arrive for another week. Hamels was roughed up by the Mets in that last start but held the Braves to one run over eight innings in the start before that. That start against the Braves was the fifth straight in which Hamels had allowed one or no runs. In his last 15 starts, he has posted a 2.11 ERA and struck out 105 men in 102 1/3 innings against just 24 walks. Oswalt, who hasn't pitched in relief since 2007, threw 67 pitches on Thursday and is thus likely to have a shorter stint in Sunday's game, one equivalent to a between-starts bullpen session. He tossed seven shutout innings against the Braves in his penultimate start and has a 1.31 ERA over his last 11 starts, all but one of them Phillies wins. After Oswalt, Phillies manager Charlie Manuel will turn the game over to his bullpen.

Tim Hudson has been the Braves' ace this season, but Tommy John surgery limited him to 65 2/3 innings between the minors and majors in 2009 and 142 innings in 2008. He enters Sunday having thrown 221 2/3 innings on the season and seemed to show signs of fatigue in September. Entering the month with a 2.24 ERA, 15-5 record, and just 10 home runs allowed in 27 starts, Hudson went 1-4 with a 5.35 ERA in September with seven home runs allowed in six starts. In his last two outings, the first bad the second good, Hudson walked 10 men in 11 2/3 innings against just seven strikeouts. He does have a pair of quality start against the Phillies this year, but the most recent came way back on June 1.

None of that bodes well for the Braves. Nor does the fact that their offense is ice cold right now. The Braves were shutout on three hits on Saturday in a game started by Phillies rookie Vance Worley, and on Friday night they managed just two runs through the first eight innings before pushing across three runs in the ninth against September call-up Mike Zagurski, who had pitched just once since his recall. The Braves have averaged exactly three runs per game over their last 18 contests, including those games against Hamels and Oswalt in Philadelphia two weeks ago in which they scored a total of one run in two games. Jason Heyward has now gone 13 games without an extra-base hit or multi-hit game, going 7-for-48 (.146) over that span. Only Derrek Lee seems to be swinging a hot bat right now. He went 4-for-9 with three doubles and five RBIs in the first two games of this series, though most of that came on Friday night. The Phillies, meanwhile, scored 18 runs in the first two games of this series and have averaged 5.52 runs per game since the beginning of September.

Everything points to the Phillies completing a sweep of the Braves on Sunday, which means the Braves will need the Giants to beat the Padres to keep their postseason hopes alive via a one-game playoff for the Wild Card on Monday.

San Diego Padres @ San Francisco Giants, 4:05 p.m., ET: Mat Latos vs. Jonathan Sanchez

The Giants entered this series having clinched a tie for first place in the NL West and needing just one win to clinch the division outright. Entering the final game of the regular season, they're still looking for that win and will have to beat the Padres' ace to get it.

Mat Latos, like Hudson, appears to have tired down the stretch. Having never thrown more than 123 innings in a professional season, Latos has thrown 178 2/3 already in 2010 and has gone 0-4 with a 10.13 ERA over his last four starts, that after going 14-5 with a 2.21 ERA in his first 26. Still, there are positive signs for Latos even within those four starts. To begin with, he struck out 15 men in 16 innings and allowed just two home runs in those four starts. Perhaps more importantly, he suffered from some awful luck on balls in play. Despite a roughly average line-drive rate, opponents hit a staggering .458 on balls in play off Latos over those four starts. What's more, it was really just the first two of those last four starts that were disastrous. Though he failed to complete the sixth inning of either and allowed two unearned runs in the last, he didn't allow more than three earned runs in either of his last two starts and lost both primarily due to poor run support (three runs combined in those two starts). Still, his September struggles started when he allowed five runs in four innings against the Giants on September 12, and no matter how you slice it, he's not been the same pitcher in those last four starts.

Jonathan Sanchez, meanwhile, has been very sharp coming down the stretch, going 3-1 with a 1.16 ERA in his last six starts while striking out 43 men in 38 2/3 innings. Sanchez did walk seven men in five innings the last time he faced the Padres, on September 10, but he still managed to keep San Diego from scoring, in large part by allowing just one hit over those five frames. Thus, despite the fact that the Padres are throwing their ace, the advantage in the starting pitching matchup would seem to go to the Giants.

That's huge as it has been the Giants starters who have been largely responsible for coughing up the first two games of this series. Matt Cain and Barry Zito combined to allow 10 runs (nine earned) in seven innings on Friday and Saturday, while the Giants' bullpen has thrown 11 scoreless innings in the series (though it has allow a pair of inherited runners to score). The Padres bullpen, meanwhile, has been worked hard over the last week. Luke Gregerson and Heath Bell have each pitched in four straight games, with the latter allowing a run in two of his last three outings, while Mike Adams has pitched in five straight games in as many days, throwing at least 13 pitches in each appearance.

On the other side of the ball, the Padres' two-through-four hitters, David Eckstein, Miguel Tejada, and Adrian Gonzalez, each have three hits in this series (the first two in eight at-bats, Gonzalez in seven), third baseman Chase Headley has gone 4-for-8, and the Pads' starting pitchers have gone 2-for-4 with a walk. Meanwhile, the Giants' three-through-five hitters, Aubrey Huff, Buster Posey, and Pat Burrell, are a combined 3-for-23, two of those three hits being doubles by Burrell while Posey has gone 0-for-9 without so much as a walk.

If the Phillies are the clear favorite in the early game, the finale in San Francisco could easily go either way. The only sure thing heading into this game is that the Giants' will survive to play another day, though if the Padres and Braves win on Sunday, there's still a chance that the Giants could be eliminated before the Division Series begin on Wednesday.