By Jerry Crasnick
No offense to the fans in Cincinnati, Denver, Phoenix and the National League's other wild-card hot spots, but it would be a mistake to characterize their teams' little competition as a "race.''
The Indy 500, Iditarod and Kentucky Derby are races. The NL wild-card scrum more closely resembles something you'd see at a company picnic. The winner is guaranteed a playoff spot and some hurt feelings in the Division Series when the press starts asking, "Do you really think you deserve to be here?''
Remember the grief the San Diego Padres took last year when they won the NL West with an 82-80 record? That same sort of treatment awaits this year's wild-card survivor, which might have to close with a rush to win 85 games.
So what are the chances for the flawed yet scrappy group? Here's an August snapshot of the seven teams still separated by five games (sorry, Marlins, Braves and Brewers):
Why they can win it: The lineup isn't as deep now that Austin Kearns and Felipe Lopez are in Washington, but the Reds still lead the league in homers and walks. Adam Dunn and Ken Griffey Jr. provide big-strike capability, and they've gotten some nice support from Scott Hatteberg, Brandon Phillips and catcher David Ross, who has 14 homers in 146 at-bats.
Why they won't: How comfortable can a wild-card contender feel with Elizardo Ramirez and Kyle Lohse at the back end of the rotation and Ryan Franklin as the principal backup option? The Reds rank 22nd in the majors in ERA and 27th in fielding percentage. That's not exactly a classic combination for a postseason aspirant.
The injury picture: Starter Brandon Claussen is out for the year with a shoulder injury, and the revamped bullpen is a little dinged up. Just as Kent Mercker came off the disabled list Tuesday, the newly acquired Gary Majewski went on it with a tired arm. And how sound is closer Eddie Guardado's left elbow?
The Reds play 28 of their final 47 games on the road, but they'll go the final two weeks without playing a team with a winning record. They have two series with the Cubs and one each against Houston, Florida and Pittsburgh in late September.
X Factor: All-Star Bronson Arroyo, winless since June 19, was a fast finisher in Boston. He has a 9-3 record with a 3.83 ERA in September.
Outlook: General manager Wayne Krivsky worked like crazy to upgrade the bullpen, and his efforts have injected the clubhouse and the Great American Ball Park stands with a sense of excitement. The Reds have a chance to catch St. Louis in the Central or benefit from the West clubs beating each other up in September. But too many ineffective arms and unreliable gloves could doom this team in the end.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Why they can win it: The Dodgers are an industrious bunch. They lead the National League with a .289 batting average with runners in scoring position. Now that Jeff Kent and Nomar Garciaparra are off the disabled list and Wilson Betemit and Julio Lugo have arrived in trades, rookies Andre Ethier and Russell Martin can relax a little bit.
Why they won't: The bullpen was terrific during the Dodgers' 11-game win streak. But closer Takashi Saito and setup man Jonathan Broxton aren't exactly well-versed in September pressure. The Dodgers are 29th in the majors in homers, and it remains to be seen how much help Brad Penny and Derek Lowe will get from Greg Maddux, rookie Chad Billingsley and Mark Hendrickson down the stretch.
The injury picture: Closer Eric Gagne and third baseman Bill Mueller are done for the season, and reliever Elmer Dessens is on the disabled list with a sprained ankle. Garciaparra is back in the lineup, but he continues to feel soreness in his right knee.
FurcalSchedule: When the Dodgers' current homestand ends, they hit the road for nine games in San Francisco, San Diego and Arizona. That's a big trip.
X Factor: Leadoff man Rafael Furcal might be overpaid at $13 million a year, but he's still capable of having a major impact. Furcal ranks among the league's top 10 in runs scored and stolen bases, and he's batting .358 with runners in scoring position. Furcal is also hitting .357 in August.
Outlook: The Dodgers' 577-527 run differential is second-best in the National League behind the Mets. They can make the playoffs through two avenues -- by winning the West or by nabbing the wild card. Now that they're healthy and general manager Ned Colletti has done his part, they have no excuse to be home in October.
Why they can win it: The Diamondbacks showed character in weathering the post-Jason Grimsley 3-20 fiasco. Prospects Stephen Drew and Carlos Quentin gave the team a dose of energy after arriving from the minors, and somebody forgot to tell Luis Gonzalez that he's nearing the end of the line. Gonzo has hit .354 since the start of July.
Why they won't: The rotation is still iffy after staff ace Brandon Webb, and the bullpen has begun showing signs of wear. The Diamondbacks are a good contact-hitting club, but they lack power and speed.
The injury picture: Craig Counsell (broken rib) has begun taking batting practice. Chad Tracy has been bothered by back spasms and Jeff DaVanon has a sprained ankle, but nothing comes close to Webb's elbow issues on the concern-meter. If Webb is even the slightest bit off, the Diamondbacks might be done.
HernandezSchedule: The Diamondbacks had the best record of NL West teams within the division last year (41-32), and they're doing it again this season at 25-18. That bodes well for Bob Melvin's team, as the final 15 games this season come within the division.
X factor: Arizona has 12 games left against San Diego. That's good news for the newest Diamondback, Livan Hernandez, who is 8-1 with a 3.24 ERA in 15 career appearances against the Padres.
Outlook: General manager Josh Byrnes knows the Diamondbacks will be better in 2007 and 2008, when he can rid himself of some payroll deadweight and work in prospects from one of baseball's most loaded farm systems. But he took a shot this year by trading for Hernandez, and the Diamondbacks should be in the mix to the end.
Why they can win it: The starting pitching leads the league with a 4.11 ERA, and the bullpen has stabilized of late. Jason Jennings and Aaron Cook would both have better records if they didn't rank among the bottom six among NL starters in run support.
Why they won't: The Rockies just don't hit enough. Manager Clint Hurdle could use more offense from the shortstop, catcher and center field spots, and the Rockies have been downright feeble against the NL West's top starters. Jason Schmidt, Brandon Webb, Brad Penny and Chris Young are 8-1 with a 1.90 ERA against Colorado this season.
The injury picture: Colorado has no significant injuries.
HeltonSchedule: The Rockies have six games left against the Mets, and a big nine-game homestand against San Francisco, Atlanta and Los Angeles before closing out the season at Wrigley Field.
X Factors: The Rockies need more production from Todd Helton and Brad Hawpe if they want to make a serious run. Helton, who averaged 82 extra-base hits a year in his first eight seasons, is on pace for about 53 this season. Hawpe has two homers since June 30 -- both this week against the Dodgers.
Outlook: With the young pitchers asserting themselves and more talent on the way, the Rockies are finally heading in the right direction. But your gut says this team is still a year or two away.
Why they can win it: The pressure is off now that GM Pat Gillick unloaded Bobby Abreu and four other veterans before the deadline. This is now Ryan Howard and Chase Utley's team, and they've responded to the challenge.
Why they won't: Cole Hamels has been terrific. But with fellow rookie Scott Mathieson in the rotation and Randy Wolf still finding himself in his return from Tommy John surgery, the starting pitching could be a concern in September. The bullpen, which has logged a ton of innings, might not have much of a finishing kick.
Injuries: Pat Burrell's foot is giving him problems, and Aaron Rowand has been bothered by nagging injuries to his hand, back and calf.
DellucciSchedule: Unless things change, the Phillies will not face a team with a winning record once they complete a three-game series against the Mets in late August. God bless the National League.
X factor: Outfielder Dave Dellucci, welded to the bench for the first four months of the season, is taking advantage of increased playing time to make a free-agent push. He's hitting .478 in August.
Outlook: If the Phillies make the playoffs for the first time since 1993, Howard could inject himself into the Most Valuable Player race and Charlie Manuel won't have to endure those Lou Piniella rumors this winter. Our guess is that the Phillies fall short.
Why they can win it: Any starting rotation with Roger Clemens and Roy Oswalt is capable of getting hot, and the Houston offense finally found its stride on the team's last road trip. General manager Tim Purpura couldn't land Miguel Tejada at the deadline, but Luke Scott and Aubrey Huff are hitting so well that Astros fans barely noticed.
Why they won't: That lack of a deadline deal for another proven bat is going to haunt the Astros. Andy Pettitte, while better since the All-Star break, still isn't the Pettitte of old, and closer Brad Lidge is always another meltdown away from throwing the ninth inning into turmoil.
The injury picture: Morgan Ensberg, whose name popped up in trade rumors at the deadline, is back in the lineup and shaking off the rust from a shoulder injury. Lance Berkman, back from a groin injury, is playing at about 90 percent of capacity.
BerkmanSchedule: If the Astros plan on making a statement, the current nine-game homestand with Pittsburgh, San Diego and the Cubs is as good a time as any.
X Factor: The Astros were waiting for a breakout from Huff, who hit the ball hard after joining the club from Tampa Bay without enjoying much in the way of results. "He was crushing balls and nothing was dropping,'' Purpura said. "He was also leading our team in broken helmets. But that's OK. He's got a lot of passion.''
Outlook: Sure, the Astros rank last in the National League in slugging percentage. But when this team feels a run coming on, you better pay attention. Although that 3½-game wild card deficit is problematic, the Astros merit watching as a dark horse.
San Francisco Giants
Why they can win it: The starting rotation of Jason Schmidt, Matt Morris, Matt Cain, Noah Lowry and Jamey Wright is deeper and better than what most of these clubs are running out there. The defense, while range-impaired in spots, is sure-handed. And while San Francisco's old guys might have trouble staying ambulatory in September, they're not gonna choke.
Why they won't: Manager Felipe Alou is dealing with uncertainty at the back end of his bullpen as Armando Benitez threatens to implode. The Giants have to pass six teams to take the wild-card lead, and one or two Benitez momentum killers could spell the end. Sound familiar, Mets fans?
The injury picture: Moises Alou is back in the outfield, but for how long? Alou has been bothered by a series of injuries, and he and Barry Bonds have been in the starting lineup together only 39 times all season.
AlouSchedule: The Giants are in the middle of a 19-game stretch against NL West opponents. Considering where they sit in the standings, a 10-9 record isn't going to cut it.
X Factors: Veteran left-handers Mike Stanton and Steve Kline and righty Brad Hennessey could all log some save opportunities unless Alou's faith in Benitez improves in a hurry.
Outlook: When Ray Durham and Omar Vizquel are the team's most reliable offensive players, it's hard to envision the Giants getting a second wind in the final month. September might be less interesting than the offseason, when Bonds, Alou, Durham and Schmidt will be free agents and GM Brian Sabean takes the franchise in a new direction.