By Andy Sadler, WSOE Sports
Historically, there has always been drama to the NL Wild Card race. Last year, we saw the New York Mess implode down the stretch and lose their spot to the Milwaukee Brewers. The year before, coupled with another Mess implosion, the Colorado Rockies beat the San Diego Padres in a controversial tiebreaker game in which Matt Holliday still has not touched home plate with the game-winning run from Jamey Carroll’s sacrifice fly. In 2006, the Los Angeles Dodgers won their final seven games to clinch the last spot. In 2005, the Houston Astros won their final two games to win the wild-card by one game over a surging Philadelphia Phillies team. In 2004, the Astros won their final seven to overtake the San Francisco Giants by one game. This year figures to be no less drama.
As it currently stands, the Rockies hold a one-game lead over the Giants, with the Florida Marlins two games back, and the Chicago Cubs and Atlanta Braves lurking three games back. Each of these five teams figures to be in the picture the last week of September. The Rockies have been on a tear under new manager Jim Tracy, recording a 44-23 record since he took over. With a rotation that has recorded more quality starts than any other (in Coors Field, mind you) and a lineup bolstered by Todd Helton, Brad Hawpe, and Troy “I Hit for the Cycle Without Truly Tripling” Tulowitzki, they weigh in as the favorites at this point. The Giants have one of the two best rotations in the National League (we’ll talk about the other one later). Also, the acquisitions of Ryan Garko and Freddy Sanchez went under the radar in late July, but could be enough to put the Giants over the top.
The Marlins have arguably both the best and most underrated player in all of baseball. Hanley Ramirez leads the NL in hitting, and has shown some pop as well. He’s the best five-tool player in the game today. Staff ace Josh Johnson is sitting at 11-2 with a 2.92 ERA. He also has the fifth best WHIP in the league. In the last two years, he’s 18-3. Now he has your attention.
The Cubs, although in the middle of the standings, will likely not be hanging around this race as long as the other clubs. While everyone else is surging, the Cubs are seeing their club become depleted through injuries. The latest loss, Carlos Zambrano, leaves the club in such disarray that Tom Gorzelanny and Jeff Samardzija must come out of the bullpen into the rotation. If Samardzija can’t be Zambrano-like, say goodbye to the Cubbies chances of ending the curse this year.
But let’s not forget about the Atlanta Braves. With a pitching staff that resembles the 1990s more than the last three years, this is the first year the club has closely contended since its 14-year division title streak was snapped. With Omar Infante coming back from an injury that kept him out 2 ½ months (he was hitting .349 before he went out) and Tim Hudson coming back from Tommy John surgery, this team will only get better. And these guys can beat the top competition. They just took 3 of 4 from the Dodgers out west and have compiled a 7-2 record against the division-leading Phillies this year.
So who wins it? It would be foolish to even guess right now. The only safe bet is that the race comes down to the final weekend, and likely the final game. Anyone else down for a four-team playoff?