Playoff race set for close finish

Astros in hunt to catch Cardinals

NL wild card tight

September 29, 2006|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN REPORTER

The eyes of the baseball world will fall on Atlanta and St. Louis this weekend as the Houston Astros try to continue their remarkable resurgence against the Braves and the St. Louis Cardinals cling to a once-comfortable lead against the Milwaukee Brewers.

The unexpectedly hot race for the National League Central and the showdowns for the NL West and wild card are the only unsettled team matters as the baseball season enters its final three days. But both Most Valuable Players and the NL Cy Young Award are up for grabs in individual affairs.

In the American League, the four playoff teams are battling only for positioning and home-field advantage.

Wednesday night featured the most nail-biting turns yet in the suddenly fierce competition between the Cardinals and Astros, who were 8 1/2 games out and seemingly done for the season at the beginning of last week.

The Astros rallied from a five-run deficit to win in 15 innings against the Pittsburgh Pirates for their eighth straight victory.

The Cardinals, who had lost seven straight to let the Astros back in the race, posted a dramatic win of their own when MVP candidate Albert Pujols hit a three-run, go-ahead homer in the eighth inning against the San Diego Padres.

"We don't need to play a catch-up game here, somebody had to catch us," Pujols said after his clutch home run. "It's tough with that seven-game losing streak, but it stops here."

Manager Tony La Russa called the blast, which kept the Cardinals' division lead at 1 1/2 games, his star's biggest hit of the season.

If the Cardinals blow their lead, which was seven games with 12 left to play but yesterday fell to a half game, it would be a nearly unprecedented collapse. The 1964 Philadelphia Phillies famously dropped 10 in a row to lose a 6 1/2 -game lead with 12 to play.

Pujols' quest for a second consecutive MVP award is among the intriguing subplots of the weekend. The first baseman has reached career highs with 47 homers and 133 RBIs and is tied for third in the NL in batting at .331.

But he faces strong competition from first baseman Ryan Howard of the Philadelphia Phillies. Entering last night, Howard led the NL in homers with 58 and RBIs with 146. He has a chance to become the first player since 2001 and only the sixth in baseball history to pass 60 home runs. Along with second baseman Chase Utley and shortstop Jimmy Rollins, he has carried a Phillies team that seemed out of contention at the July trading deadline into the thick of the playoff race.

Howard has the edge in power. Pujols gets on base at a higher rate, plays better defense and runs the bases more adroitly. Any further dramatics this weekend could leave a strong final impression on voters.

The Cardinals face Milwaukee's two best starters in Chris Capuano and Ben Sheets the next two nights.

But if the race goes down to Sunday, Pujols' teammate, Chris Carpenter, would have a shot to tighten his grip on the NL Cy Young with a clutch victory. Carpenter's 15 wins are low for a Cy Young contender, but his main rivals, Brandon Webb of the Arizona Diamondbacks and Roy Oswalt of the Astros, had only 16 and 15, respectively. Webb leads in ERA at 2.88, but his team fell out of contention weeks ago.

To add to the spectacle on the Houston side, Roger Clemens is expected to start tonight in what could be the final outing of his career. After two faux retirements, baseball fans have learned to be skeptical of Clemens' supposed endings. But he did fly his brother from overseas to watch him pitch in Houston on Sunday night, and he did salute the crowd after an emotional ovation.

Clemens, 44, continues to be an amazing story. After sitting out well past Opening Day as he pondered retirement, he has pitched as if in his prime, going 7-5 with a 2.35 ERA. With 348 wins, he is the most accomplished pitcher of his generation and has put himself in the argument for the greatest of all time.

If the Astros survive until Sunday, Clemens' old friend and one of the sport's most-respected big-game pitchers, Andy Pettitte, would take the mound against John Smoltz and the Braves.

The NL wild-card race is just as close. The Padres entered yesterday with a one-game lead over the Dodgers in the West. The Dodgers lead the Phillies by a 1 1/2 games in the wild-card standings.

None of the three has played consistently well in recent weeks, and all are on the road.

The Padres began a four-game series at Arizona last night. The Dodgers play three in San Francisco this weekend and send veterans Greg Maddux and Derek Lowe to the mound for the final two (Barry Bonds has said he may or may not play the whole series.) The Phillies will try to catch their western foes in Florida. They are 11-5 against the Marlins this season and swept them last weekend.

In the American League, the New York Yankees, Minnesota Twins and Detroit Tigers are jockeying for the best record. The Yankees held a one-game advantage heading into yesterday at 96-62. If the standings hold, they would play the Twins in the opening round, and the Tigers would play the Oakland Athletics.

Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter (.340 average, 115 runs, 32 steals), Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz (league-leading 54 homers and 137 RBIs) and Twins first baseman Justin Morneau (.323, 34 homers, 129 RBIs) could all put statistical exclamation points on their MVP candidacies. Morneau's teammate, Joe Mauer, could become the first AL catcher to win the batting title.

Twins ace Johan Santana, who leads the league in wins, strikeouts and ERA, seems a lock for the Cy Young Award.

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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