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Crazy eights in NL wild-card race

The wild-card race in the National League should be just that: wild. Eight teams are within four games of one another with less than six weeks to play in the regular season. It will be thrilling down the stretch, but it might not be the most noble of races; chances are, the wild-card team won't win 90 games.

Here are the eight wild-card contenders, in order of which teams have the best shot.

Phillies
Philadelphia's chances will be determined by their current road trip: four cities in 13 days. The Phillies are off to a terrible start after getting swept in a three-game series by the Brewers, giving the Phils 11 losses in their last 13 road games.

This trip begins a stretch of 27 games in 27 days, which is brutal at any time of the year, but especially in September. Still, the Phillies are starting to hit -- Jim Thome is in home run mode -- and their starting pitching is pretty good.

Diamondbacks
This 13-game homestand -- the D-Backs' longest of the season -- could determine their playoff chances. Never discount a team that has Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson at the top of the rotation.

Schilling has been very good since coming off the disabled list -- 64 strikeouts in 56 innings. Johnson clearly hasn't been himself since he came off the DL, but was clocked at 97 mph in his last start.

The Diamondbacks will need dominant starting pitching to make it to the playoffs because their offense is weak as they're scoring 4.35 runs per game.

Marlins
They just got swept in Colorado, their first three-game losing streak since May. But their belief in themselves, their enthusiasm and their pitching make them a solid contender, which seemed unfathomable in April.

The Marlins' season likely will come down to Sept. 12-25 -- they play the Braves and Phillies for 13 straight games. They've pounded Philadelphia this year (9-4), and they may have to keep that up if they're going to make the playoffs.

Cubs
The recent struggles of the Phillies and Marlins have put the NL Central teams back in the wild-card race. The Cubs have potentially dominant starting pitching (even though Kerry Wood has lost in each of his last three starts, allowing 10 runs in 6 2/3 innings in his last two).

They've also added enough useful pieces (Aramis Ramirez, Randall Simon, Doug Glanville, etc.) in the last month to improve their lineup and their depth. Plus, they play their final 16 games against teams with a losing record -- Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and the Mets.

Cardinals
The Cards' schedule is tougher than Chicago's. Their starting pitching is far less settled than any wild-card contender, especially with the health of Matt Morris. He hasn't started a game since July 21 when he left the game in the first inning; he hasn't made a real start since July 10. It's unlikely he'll be 100 percent down the stretch.

But the Cardinals, with their power and defense, have made it this far without good starting pitching.

Astros
Their ace, Roy Oswalt, is even more of a question mark than Morris. Oswalt has a groin strain, and though he probably won't have surgery, it's the third time he has injured that groin. The chances are remote that he'll be close to 100 percent in September. The Astros do have a favorable schedule: six games left with San Diego, eight with Milwaukee.

Dodgers
They're in it only because their pitching has been so good. But they still can't hit -- recently, they ended a streak of 102 games without scoring 10 runs, the longest streak by any team since the 1992 Dodgers went 146 in a row.

The Dodgers are still last in the league in runs scored: no team has made the playoffs being last in its league in runs scored. Also, 14 of the Dodgers' final 21 games are against the Diamondbacks and Giants.

Expos
They've played well lately, led by their starting pitching. But one of the starters, Livan Hernandez, could be traded before the playoff rosters have to be set by Sept. 1. The Expos have 18 games left against the teams ahead of them in the division, Atlanta, Philadelphia and Florida. Plus, they have another trip to Puerto Rico, which won't be a restful time for anyone on the roster.

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to Baseball Tonight. E-mail tim.kurkjian@espnmag.com.