THE WILD-CARD format has never worked better than it has this season in the National League. With three weeks remaining, five teams that otherwise would have been left in the dust of their respective divisional races hung within 21/2 games of a playoff spot, keeping World Series dreams--not to mention ticket windows and TV ratings--full of life in those places. Thanks to the wild card, 12 of the 15 major league games played on Sunday carried playoff implications. The NL scrum had the makings of the maddest dash yet, eclipsing the 1998 race when the Cubs needed a one-game playoff to beat the Giants, who finished a game ahead of the Mets.
This year's five-card monte is likely to produce a winner with a record worthy of the postseason, as the system originally intended. The 16 wild-card winners in the eight full seasons with the format won an average of 93.7 games. All but the '96 Orioles (88-74) won at least 90.
So think of 90 as the magic number for these NL wild-card contenders, listed in their predicted order of finish.
1. Cubs (76-64 through Sunday) This ham-handed, slow-footed club can play a clumsy brand of baseball, which is why it has allowed so many other teams to remain in the wild-card race. Only the lowly Diamondbacks, Expos and Mariners have lost more one-run games than Chicago, which has a free-swinging offense that's too dependent on home runs--even without the usual pop from Sammy Sosa, who batted sixth last Saturday for the first time in 10 years. The good news for the Cubs is that they've outscored their opponents by 94 runs, the greatest differential among the wild-card contenders and a useful barometer of a team's talent. Pit the best starting rotation (3.70 ERA, even with Mark Prior and Kerry Wood more hittable than last year) against a cupcake schedule (17 of their final 22 games are against the woeful Mets, Pirates and Reds), and Chicago should get to 90 wins without much trouble.
2. Marlins (74-65) No contender faces a tougher schedule. Because of South Florida's weather woes the Marlins were to play their final 30 games in 27 days, including the last 10 on the road and three other home games that were rescheduled for Chicago. (One makeup game with the Cubs was moved to Wrigley Field, and in the year's oddest scheduling wrinkle two games against the Montreal Expos were slated for the White Sox' home park, U.S. Cellular Field, on Monday and Tuesday.) With their mediocre offense the defending world champs have the worst run differential of the five contenders (+43), but starting pitchers Carl Pavano, Josh Beckett and A.J. Burnett are in peak form. Says one NL scout, "With the way their starters are throwing, and with [Guillermo] Mota giving them bullpen depth, I like Florida to sneak back in as the wild card."
3. Giants (79-65) Can a team with a worse rotation (4.41 ERA) than the Brewers' make the playoffs? That task is hard enough, but if ace Jason Schmidt continues to get hit as hard as he has since suffering a groin injury, it may be darn near impossible. Barry Bonds, the reason why San Francisco is the league's highest-scoring team, will continue to win games by himself. And the Giants' ability to play well when it counts cannot be ignored; they have won at least 90 games for four straight years. But at week's end all but three of their remaining 18 games were against winning teams: the Padres, Astros and Dodgers.
4. Astros (78-66) Houston reeled off 12 straight wins, but at the end of the run it was just a percentage point ahead of the Giants. Then the Astros dropped three of five in Pittsburgh to fall one game back. "They blew their load just to get back in it," one NL scout says. "I don't think they can continue to play as well as they have to to win it. And once you get past [Roger] Clemens and [Roy] Oswalt, their pitching is not very good." Get ready for some shootouts: The deep Houston offense may continue to roll with 12 games against the Brewers, Giants and Rockies, who rank 10th, 12th and 16th in the league in ERA.
5. Padres (76-67)Think of San Diego as having drawn a poor post position in a horse race. At week's end the Padres trailed four teams for the wild card and needed a 14--5 finish just to get to 90 wins. They don't have the dominant pitching to compensate for a mediocre offense. San Diego has been outhomered by a wide margin (50) and doesn't have a home field advantage (36-36), hardly the traits for a team that needs to pass four others on the backstretch. --Tom Verducci