Mad Dash To The Finish The A's and the Cubs are SI's picks to win the wild cards

September 07, 2003

On Labor Day 17 major league teams were either leading their
divisions or were no more than four games out of a spot in the
postseason. According to the Elias Sports Bureau you have to go
back to 1995--the first year of the wild-card era--to find a
Sept. 1 when there were more contenders.

In the National League, there was order and chaos. Two races were
all but clinched: The Atlanta Braves led the NL East by 13 games;
the San Francisco Giants led the West by 11 1/2. But with the
Central Division and wild-card races wide open, eight NL teams,
separated by no more than four games, were scrambling for the
remaining two slots.

NL CENTRAL The Chicago Cubs, with the easiest schedule, would
have the inside track if righthander Kerry Wood could regain top
form after having been bothered by a strained back. The Houston
Astros haven't been the same since ace righty Roy Oswalt went
down in July with a groin injury. The St. Louis Cardinals have a
lineup chock-full of premier players in their prime, got a boost
from the return of ace Matt Morris and have another righty who
loves big games in Woody Williams. Best of all, the Cards, who
had 14 games remaining with the Cubs and the Astros, don't need
help. A winning record in those games will give St. Louis the

NL WILD CARD Among the contenders, the Montreal Expos, with the
worst road record (25-45) and worst schedule, are a long shot. On
paper the Philadelphia Phillies are the best of this bunch, but
they've been hurt by poor situational hitting and the heavy hand
of manager Larry Bowa. The Florida Marlins are loaded with
attitude, especially with righthander Carl Pavano blossoming, but
they suffered a devastating blow when slugging third baseman Mike
Lowell was lost for the season. Now that aces Randy Johnson and
Curt Schilling are back from the disabled list, you can't count
the Arizona Diamondbacks out. Likewise, the pitching-rich Los
Angeles Dodgers remain a threat, assuming their anemic offense
can scratch out a lead for closer Eric Gagne to hold. Don't
expect this wild ride to end, however, without at least one extra
game. The Cubs are the only team among the eight potential
wild-card contenders with a winning road record (36-32), and they
have the best pitcher in baseball right now, righthander Mark
Prior. Chicago wins a tiebreaker.

In the American League, the New York Yankees held a 4 1/2 game
lead over the Boston Red Sox in the East. In the Central, the
Minnesota Twins, the Chicago White Sox and the Kansas City Royals
were separated by two games, with the losers unlikely to qualify
for the wild card--leaving three teams (Boston, the Oakland A's
and the Seattle Mariners) battling for two remaining playoff

AL CENTRAL As gritty as the Royals have been, it's difficult to
believe they can win the division while being outscored by 23
runs. The White Sox are a brutal road team (30-41) with a killer
schedule (22 games left against winning teams). That leaves the
door open for the Twins, an underachieving club all season but
one that can take advantage of a soft schedule. They have seven
games left with the White Sox, but the rest are against teams
with losing records. Give Minnesota the edge, especially with
lefty Johan Santana (5-0, 1.07 ERA in August) leading the staff.

AL WEST The division will likely be decided by the six games
between Seattle and Oakland on Sept. 19-21 at Network Associates
Coliseum and on Sept. 26-28 at Safeco Field. Both play cupcake
schedules outside of those head-to-head matchups. The A's would
get the edge if their Big Three starters were healthy, but ace
lefthander Mark Mulder is out for the regular season with a
fractured hip, leaving lefty Barry Zito and righthander Tim
Hudson to carry an offensively challenged lineup. The Mariners
are better balanced, and assuming their starting pitchers emerge
from an August funk, they should win the division.

AL WILD CARD The Red Sox face a more difficult schedule than
Seattle or Oakland; they play eight games against the Yankees and
the White Sox. And they've been a so-so team on the road (33-34).
Oakland should take advantage of its schedule and its recent
history as a strong finisher to edge the Red Sox. --Tom Verducci

COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO ACE IN THE HOLE In a tight race for the playoffs, Prior givesChicago an edge.