All in the ‘cards

    In the National League, the race for the wild card has been drastically narrowed down in the past few weeks. Once a wide-open contest that featured seven teams, as the season comes to an end, the race is now exclusively between the upstart Philadelphia Phillies and whoever becomes the runner-up in the NL West. The San Diego Padres and Los Angeles Dodgers have traded first place in the division several times this month, and it’s still unclear who will be on top when both teams have wrapped up the season. The team from the West that loses out on taking the division title will have to hope for a wild card spot to get their playoff tickets punched.

    The NL West has been the most closely contested division in baseball all season, so it’s fitting that this race will go down to the wire. The Padres currently hold a narrow lead over the Dodgers, but face a much tougher schedule in the season’s final week. Both teams will wrap up the regular season with two road series. San Diego will play the Central leading St. Louis Cardinals, who are still fighting to clinch their own division. Then they come back west to Arizona to play the Diamondbacks in a four-game set. The Dodgers, meanwhile, face a considerably easier pair of opponents in the Colorado Rockies and San Francisco Giants, both of whom have already had their playoff hopes dismissed.

    If the NL West race stays tight enough, it may be decided on the final day of the season, and possibly beyond. In the rare event of a tie at the end of 162 regular season games, the Padres and Dodgers would play a one-game playoff in Los Angeles (already determined by coin flip) to decide the Western division. However, if both teams are already assured of playoff berths (one as a division winner, the other as the Wild Card), then the Padres would be crowned division champions due to a 13-5 advantage in head-to-head match-ups with the Dodgers this season.

    Looking to keep the wild card out of the hands of the West is the Philadelphia Phillies. The Phillies grabbed a narrow lead in the race over the weekend. At the midseason trading deadline, the Phillies shipped slugger Bobby Abreu and veteran pitcher Cory Lidle to the New York Yankees, which seemed to suggest they had thrown up the white flag on their 2006 season. Here in September, however, they find themselves in a pennant race. The change in their fortunes can be attributed to the MVP-type season of first baseman Ryan Howard, who is leading the league with 58 homeruns and 143 RBI’s. Rookie pitcher Cole Hamels has brought stability to a pitching staff that is still without a clear ace. What bodes well for the Phillies is the remainder of their schedule, wrapping up against the last place Washington Nationals and the Florida Marlins, also owners of a losing record.

    The American League will not feature much drama in the final week of the season, as the league’s four playoff teams are nearly decided. With the New York Yankees and Oakland Athletics already wrapping up the Eastern and Western divisions, respectfully, the Detroit Tigers and Minnesota Twins figure to occupy the Central and wild card spots.

    An interesting plotline to follow in the season’s final week will be the race for the AL Central crown, as the Tigers have let a commanding division lead turn into a tight pennant race. The runner up in the division race will be relegated to the wild card, the disadvantage being that the wild card winner cannot hold home-field advantage in any playoff series leading up to the World Series. The Tigers clinched a playoff berth with a victory over Kansas City on Sunday. The Twins are almost assured of a playoff berth also, barring an unbelievable run by the Chicago White Sox, who stand on the verge of elimination. The Sox were serious contenders in both the Central division and AL Wild Card races for most of the year, but stumbled in September. Still, anything can happen in baseball, and if the White Sox win out and the Twins lose, a three-game set in Minnesota between these teams to end the season could decide playoff fortunes, although it would take nothing short of a miracle.