A magical finish

Well, here we go. It's the final weekend of the season, and everything is still up for grabs in the National League. There are all sorts of combinations and permutations for playoff possibilities, and the likelihood of the regular season being extended into Monday continues to grow larger by the day.

The last series are always filled with great story lines, but this season has brought some added intrigue with the way September has unfolded. A few teams have a chance to play spoiler or be spoiled since the NL races and wild-card chase remain completely up in the air.

The purist who longs for the old days of two divisions and early celebrations should turn to the American League where October is basically set. For those who like the three-division, wild-card format, this is about as good as it gets, and the chance for history-making moments is great.

Key story line: The Phillies have a chance to snatch the NL East or the wild card in the final weekend. The Nationals effectively played spoiler against the Mets, winning five of six games in a week, but they've only beaten the Phillies five times in 15 meetings this season. Washington has done a very good job of holding Jimmy Rollins in check. He's hitting just .200 in 70 at-bats against the Nationals. But Washington has had trouble with Chase Utley (.375 batting average) and Pat Burell (.302 batting average and 16 walks).
Potential pitchers: The Nationals hit 14 points worse against left-handed pitching (.261) than right-handers (.275), so the Phillies are smart to have both Cole Hamels and Jamie Moyer pitching. If it comes down to Sunday, they'll probably have to beat Jason Bergmann, who held the Phils to two runs over six innings in his last start against them. However, Washington has lost three of Bergmann's four starts against Philadelphia this season (he has four no-decisions).
Key story line: Either the North Siders will complete a fantastic comeback, considering where they were in June, or the kind of collapse their fans know all too well. The Cubs have stumbled a bit against the Reds, losing eight times in 15 meetings this season. Brandon Phillips is due to hit Chicago pitching. He's batted just .217 with no home runs against them. The Cubs should score runs in this series. They've outscored Cincinnati 75-58, but they'll have to find a way to prevail in close games.
Potential pitchers: Which Carlos Zambrano will we see on Friday night? Zambrano is 11-4 on the road but gave up four runs over 5 1/3 innings in his last start against the Reds. If the Central isn't locked up by Saturday, the Cubs need to beat Aaron Harang, who is 8-2 against the Cubs and will be going for his career-high 17th win. Sunday's matchup has the potential to be fascinating. The Reds likely will throw rookie Homer Bailey against Ted Lilly, who will be going for his career-best 16th victory.
Key story line: The Mets are on the verge of a historic collapse -- blowing a seven-game lead in the final three weeks -- but they could hold off the Phillies by reverting back to their early-season form. They also could back into the postseason as the wild card, but it would be rather odd since the Mets have been in first place in the NL East since mid-May. The Mets are 10-5 against the Marlins this season and won three of four against them last weekend. David Wright, who's trying to win the MVP with a strong finish, is batting .400 with 10 RBIs against Florida.
Potential pitchers: The Mets have Oliver Perez and John Maine pitching in the first two games. Perez is 2-0 against the Marlins this season and came up clutch with a win last Saturday. The Mets are 14-3 when Maine goes at least six innings, but that's something he's done only twice in his last 11 starts. If it comes down to Sunday, Tom Glavine will get the call (in potentially his last major league start) against Mets-killer Dontrelle Willis, who's 5-0 in his career at Shea Stadium.
Key story line: The NL West is still very much in play for three teams, and it would be something if the Rockies were the club that ended up taking the crown after a season-long race between the Padres and Diamondbacks. Colorado is 8-7 against Arizona this season and, more importantly, 48-30 at home. Matt Holliday has hit the D-backs just as well as he's hit everybody else, batting .344 with 10 RBIs in 15 games.
Potential pitchers: Brandon Webb's recent history against Colorado (0-3 this season) isn't very good. But the Rockies do have one pitcher who dominates the Diamondbacks: Jeff Francis. The lefty is 7-1 in his career against Arizona. After that, it's a big unknown what kind of pitching the Rockies will get from their youngsters.
Key story line: Both teams are in the midst of completely different races. Each could make the playoffs or knock the other club out. The Padres swept the Brewers in San Diego in late May, but the circumstances are a lot different now. Prince Fielder will look to make some more home run history, but keep in mind, he only hit one home run in his first 12 games against the Padres.
Potential pitchers: Greg Maddux is 14-6 against the Brewers and goes for San Diego on Friday. What kind of advice will Greg's brother, Milwaukee pitching coach Mike Maddux, have for the Brewers' hitters? Fielder has two home runs in 13 at bats against Maddux. If the season comes down to Sunday (and it could, especially if Chris Young drops his sixth straight decision this weekend), the Brewers will have Jeff Suppan on the mound. He is used to delivering under pressure and has thrived in elimination games previously (see Game 7 of the 2004 and 2006 NLCS).


Unlike the American League where all four playoff spots have been filled, everything remains up for grabs in the National League heading into the final weekend. And that's exciting.

NL Central
Milwaukee Brewers Chicago Cubs Expect the Cubs to hold off the Brewers, although Milwaukee deserves a lot of credit for the way it's played this season. Chicago manager Lou Piniella has done a remarkable job and should be the manager of the year, hands down. He's gotten the most out of two pitchers (Ted Lilly and Jason Marquis) any team could have had last offseason, and he has made all the right moves, putting some pieces in the right place. A month ago, I said Carlos Zambrano needed to win three of his final four starts. Well, Zambrano is 2-1, and he starts Friday at Cincinnati. He sets the tone for that rotation.

NL East
New York Mets I still think the Mets are the best team in the National League, but they are not playing like it right now. Something is missing, other than pitching problems with the bullpen and rotation. The Mets' lineup is dangerous, and they are scoring runs, but it's a surprise this team isn't playing well.

Philadelphia Phillies I picked the Phillies to win the NL East in spring training, and they still could take the division. Despite all the injuries that have plagued their starting rotation, GM Pat Gillick has done a great job making sure the club starts a quality pitcher every night.

NL West
Arizona Diamondbacks Arizona is the team to beat. The Diamondbacks pushed back Brandon Webb's start, so he will now pitch on Friday at Colorado, which remains alive in both the division and wild-card race.

Colorado Rockies The Rockies are the hottest team in the majors, and they are making other teams look bad. It seems as if Clint Hurdle's team is playing harder -- just look at what they've done on the road at San Diego and Los Angeles. Last season, St. Louis reminded us it's not how you start but how you finish, and Colorado is playing the best baseball right now.

San Diego Padres San Diego won't have Jake Peavy to start any of its final four games, but he would be available to pitch Monday if there is a playoff game.

And with seven teams still alive in the National League, it wouldn't surprise me to see not one, but two games played on Monday to decide who makes the postseason.

Phillies pull even in NL East with win.
Micah Owings Micah Owings delivered with his arm and bat in the Diamondbacks' 8-0 win over the Pirates. Owings went 4-for-4 with three doubles and three RBIs while pitching 6 1/3 shutout innings to help snap Arizona's three-game losing streak.
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
Where's the Lama with some hitting tips? Even after a pep talk from Bill Murray, the Cubs got swept by the last-place Marlins.
Brad Hawpe Brad Hawpe had three hits and four RBIs as the Rockies beat the Dodgers 10-4 to sweep the three-game series and extend their franchise-record winning streak to 11 games -- the longest winning streak in the majors this season.
Kansas City Royals The Royals got shut out for the second straight game and managed only three hits in a 10-0 loss to the White Sox. Kansas City, which has been blanked 11 times this season, has finished last in the AL Central for three straight years and is threatening to make it four in a row.
Ryan Braun Third baseman Ryan Braun had a rough night on defense in the Brewers' 9-5 loss to the Padres. Braun committed three of Milwaukee's five errors (its most in eight years), and the team failed to take advantage of a Cubs loss for the second straight day. The Brewers remain two back in the NL Central with three games to play.
Beano Cook wants to see more parity in MLB.
Tim Kurkjian thinks the Yankees and Red Sox will end up in the ALCS this October. Listen Insider
"There's two choices: Roll over and start making vacation plans for the offseason, or battle like hell and win this thing. We still feel like this is our division."
-- Mets 3B David Wright
• Mariners GM Bill Bavasi and manager John McLaren are keeping their jobs for next season. "Did we get everything we expected for $113 million? No," M's CEO Howard Lincoln said. "But we did get a lot. We got a winning season." Bavasi's current contract will remain in effect. McLaren's deal to manage was set to end after Sunday's season finale. Bavasi and McLaren will soon begin negotiating a new deal for the manager, though neither man nor Lincoln would reveal if McLaren's new contract will reach past 2008.

• Brewers ace Ben Sheets will not start Friday against the Padres and Chris Capuano will take his place. Sheets (12-5, 3.82 ERA) threw a 35-pitch bullpen session on Tuesday, but he still had discomfort in his left hamstring after straining it against Houston on Sept. 18. The right-hander will be available to pitch an inning from the bullpen.
Mike Mussina • Yankees at Orioles, 7:05 p.m. ET With New York's playoff ticket already punched, Mike Mussina (11-10, 4.96) looks to stay sharp for October. Moose has been money since returning to the rotation, winning three straight starts and allowing only three runs over 19 2/3 innings. Jon Leicester (2-3, 6.51) is 0-1 with a 13.50 ERA in his lone start against the Yankees this season.

Daisuke Matsuzaka • Twins at Red Sox, 7:05 p.m. ET Boston hopes to wrap up its first AL East title since 1995 this weekend. Daisuke Matsuzaka (14-12, 4.48) has been inconsistent down the stretch. After going 10-6 with a 3.84 ERA in the first half, he is just 4-6 with a 5.49 ERA since the All-Star break. Kevin Slowey (4-0, 4.57) has pitched well in September, posting a 2.63 ERA in 24 innings.

C.C. Sabathia • Indians at Royals, 8:10 p.m. ET: C.C. Sabathia (18-7, 3.19) gets one more chance to strengthen his Cy Young case and help Cleveland secure homefield advantage throughout the postseason. Sabathia hasn't lost since Aug. 24, going 4-0 with a 2.19 ERA in his last five starts. Kyle Davies (7-14, 5.92) is 1-2 with a 6.75 ERA in his last three appearances.

• Friday's complete list of probable starters



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