Editor's Note -- ESPN baseball analyst Joe Morgan is slated for an ESPN.com chat Friday at 10:30 a.m ET.
I'm amused when players on teams in the playoff hunt say they're not fighting for the wild card but for their division instead. In some cases, they're in denial. Winning the division is unrealistic, yet they try to be politically correct, so they say they're chasing the division leader.
I believe in the wild card -- it's great for baseball and it's a great addition to the playoffs. This year, if there were no wild card, there would be virtually no chance for the second-place team in at least two divisions to make the playoffs.
The Boston Red Sox won't catch the New York Yankees in the AL East, and the Chicago Cubs won't catch the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Central. It appears those two pennant races are over. But the Red Sox and Cubs are still in the race for the wild card.
The wild card ensures that the two best teams in each league will be in the playoffs. Before the wild-card era began in 1995, that wasn't always the case. The Red Sox could get hot and end up with the second-best record in the American League behind the Yankees -- but without the wild card, they'd miss the playoffs.
One classic example is the 1993 NL West race: The San Francisco Giants won 103 games but were left out of the postseason. The Giants finished second to the Atlanta Braves (who won 104 games) and had the second-best record in all of baseball. With the wild card, deserving teams like the '93 Giants get to play in October.
From the vantage point of mid-August, let's take a look at the division and wild-card races, with a focus on the NL East...
NL East: Phillies Seek to Stay in Race
After the offseason acquisition of closer Billy Wagner, many observers expected the Philadelphia Phillies to win the NL East. But they find themselves in second place, chasing the Atlanta Braves again. The Phillies are 6 games behind the Braves and 3½ games back in the wild-card race.
The Phillies are fourth in the NL in runs (569), but they've scored lots of runs by simply hitting the ball out of the park (154 home runs, third best in the NL). Their dependence on the home run will catch up with them. They also strike out a lot (813, tied for fourth most in the NL). Philadelphia's biggest problem has been a lack of consistency, both at the plate and on the mound.
Manager Larry Bowa has been on the hot seat this season as the Phillies have struggled to stay in the race.
It reminds me of 1983, the year I played for the Phillies. Pat Corrales was our manager and we were in first place, as I recall, but he was still fired about 85 games into the season. That's the only time I can recall that one of my managers was under fire when we were in the thick of a division race.
Why was Corrales fired? I don't really know why, and I never was able to find out. Maybe the owners thought we should have had a better record based on our talent.
I do know that we were on a road trip and we weren't playing well, and I said to the media, "Look, it isn't the manager's fault -- it's up to us to play better." Then we won some games, and Corrales wasn't fired while we were on the road. Somebody said that I saved his job, but that wasn't my intention -- my intention was just to be honest, because a number of us hadn't produced the way we should have.
We continued playing well, but after we lost a couple more games, Corrales was fired. GM Paul Owens, who had managed the Phillies in 1972, came out of the front office to manage us.
We went on to win the NL East, but it wasn't because of the managerial change. We were a veteran team and we simply started playing better. Then we beat the Dodgers to win the pennant. In the World Series, we lost to the Baltimore Orioles in five games.
A manager has a much bigger influence with a young team than with a veteran team in a playoff race. Look at the veterans on those '83 Phillies: Pete Rose, Tony Perez, Mike Schmidt, Steve Carlton, Gary Matthews, Gary Maddox. All of us had been in pennant races before -- in fact, we'd all played in the World Series before.
A good example on the other side is the positive influence manager Jack McKeon had last year on the young Florida Marlins as they marched to their world championship.
Speaking of the Marlins, I expected them to be closer to first, but the loss of clubhouse leader Ivan Rodriguez has really hurt. The Marlins miss the production of Rodriguez, Derrek Lee and Juan Encarnacion -- and offense is where they're struggling the most.
NL East: Braves Lead Way (Again)
The Braves are aiming for their 13th consecutive division title. Many experts were predicting that they wouldn't even be in the race. But at the beginning of the season, I said they were still the division champs until someone proved they could beat them. The Braves know how to win, and manager Bobby Cox and his coaching staff know how to get the most out of their players.
So it isn't surprising to me that the Braves are leading the NL East. But the margin of their lead (six games) is surprising.
The Braves have done it without a normal Chipper Jones year (.241, 15 HRs, 53 RBI) and without a dominant rotation. The acquisition of J.D. Drew has been big -- he's been the offensive catalyst (.308, 24 HRs, 66 RBI).
Hampton, a left-handed sinkerball pitcher, underachieved for two years with the Colorado Rockies -- a tough place for any pitcher -- before coming to Atlanta last season.
Ortiz is a bulldog. I admire the way he goes about his work -- he'll walk batters and give up hits, but he'll keep you in the game. He can win 1-0 or 6-5. His thing is winning, which is why I have lots of respect for him. He'll throw pitches until he wins the ballgame.
Wright is finally bouncing back after his successful rookie year in 1997, when he was the World Series Game 7 starter for the Cleveland Indians (Wright got a no-decision and the Marlins won 3-2 in 11 innings). Since then, he's been trying to find himself.
Wright is 10-5 with a 3.04 ERA, and it appears that he is healthy now and has found a way to throw strikes (which has always been his problem). Lots of the credit for Wright's turnaround should go to pitching coach Leo Mazzone.
I've thought for a long time that Mazzone is the best pitching coach in the majors. His results have proven that, but like lots of coaches with good talent, people have said that anyone could coach Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Co.
NL Wild Card: Cubs Have Edge
The Cubs, in my opinion, will win the wild card in the National League. They currently hold the wild-card lead but trail the Cardinals in the NL Central by 12½ games.
In the NL West, the Los Angeles Dodgers have a large division lead, but I'm not sold on their ability to hold that lead due to question marks with their pitching staff. Starter Brad Penny, who was acquired from the Marlins last month, is hurt and will miss at least a start. And Kazuhisa Ishii has been taken out of the rotation and sent to the bullpen. I'm not sure the Dodgers' rotation can be counted on to hold off the San Diego Padres and San Francisco Giants.
But I'm not sure the Giants' rotation can be counted on to catch the Dodgers. The Giants feature two rookie starters now -- Noah Lowry is 2-0 with 2.43 ERA -- and ace Jason Schmidt is their only proven starter.
I believe the Padres are capable of making a run, helped by 23-year-old starter Jake Peavy (8-3, 2.16 ERA). But I thought 41-year-old David Wells would give them more wins (6-7, 3.52, ERA). It took the Padres awhile to adjust to Petco Park, their new home.
So we can't concede the NL West to the Dodgers, even though they have a 7½ game lead. L.A. has some vulnerability that the Giants and Padres could capitalize on.
AL Wild Card: Up For Grabs
In the American League, the wild card is up for grabs, which will make for an interesting September. The Boston Red Sox (who trail the Yankees by 9½ games), Texas Rangers and Anaheim Angels are gridlocked for the wild-card lead.
In the AL West, I believe that the Oakland Athletics, despite getting less production from their starting pitching (other than Mark Mulder), are a better team than in recent years. They're playing a more aggressive style of baseball, which has helped them win close games that they've lost in the past. They've been fun to watch.
Give credit to manager Ken Macha. He's being creative and making things happen. He isn't depending only on his pitching staff to win games.
My preseason pick was for the Angels to finish first and the A's second in the AL West. I won't give up on the Angels yet, because when they were healthy, the Angels were the better team.
Can the Angels catch the A's? Stay tuned -- it'll be a great race this September.
In the AL Central, the Minnesota Twins were playing great baseball -- winning 13 of 15 -- before the A's took three of four games from them this past weekend. You have to wonder what that might do to their psyches, but you also have to wonder who can catch them. The Cleveland Indians (3½ back) and Chicago White Sox (5½ back) are in the hunt. But I think the Twins will be able to hold on to win the division.
An analyst for ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball, Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan won back-to-back MVP awards with the Reds in 1975 and '76 (the Reds won the World Series both years). He contributes a weekly column to ESPN.com.