Wild race heating up in National League

Wild race heating up in National League

SAN FRANCISCO -- It might seem like the National League Wild Card race has been revving its engine for weeks now -- and that's because it has, injecting more drama into this September than any other postseason quest.

But, in reality, this is a race that's just now peeling out and getting off the starting line, with the car in purple and black leading the pack, the car in orange and black drafting right behind and a couple of entries from the East staying on the lead lap.

While the frontrunning Rockies and the pursuing Giants have been tussling at the top of the Wild Card standings for the better part of the second half of the regular season, they've seen the last of each other now, with the Rockies holding on for dear life and a 4-3 victory at AT&T Park on Wednesday in their final meeting of the season.

All things considered, Rockies manager Jim Tracy stopped himself from calling it a must-win. Barely.

"Any time you're ahead and you know you're still going to have a lead, I wouldn't call that a must-win," Tracy said. "As far as I'm concerned, as we're going forward, that's the closest thing you can get to a must-win."

And now the race is both closer to its conclusion but still very much up in the air, and at least it's an actual race in a September that's lacking a whole lot of thunder otherwise. While every other race in baseball has a separation of at least 4 1/2 games, the Wild Card race has four teams within five games, including the Marlins and Braves from the NL East.

The main number and the only one that matters, however, is the 3 1/2-game lead the Rockies now hold, which is a lot better than the alternative if the Giants had rallied all the way back in the ninth Wednesday.

"Oh, 3 1/2 definitely sounds better in your head than 1 1/2 does," said Todd Helton, the Rockies' veteran first baseman.

Certainly, the Rockies know a little something about making the Wild Card race exciting. Remember, they concluded the 2007 season by winning 14 of their last 15, including a tiebreaker game over the Padres by Matt Holliday's fingernail across home plate.

But Helton's not reminiscing back to that run these days. He's not poring over the schedule ahead, either.

"You have to look at the small picture, not the big picture," Helton said. "You need to focus on that game and don't get caught up in looking at scoreboards or anything like that."

Here is how the rest of the Wild Card race shapes up for the top five teams in contention, with number of home and road games and the cumulative winning percentage of each team's opponents:
Remaining games
COL (15): at ARI, vs. SD, vs. STL, vs. MIL, at LAD
SF (16): at LAD, at ARI, vs. CHC (4), vs. ARI, at SD
FLA (16): at CIN, vs. PHI, vs. NYM, at ATL, at PHI
ATL (17): vs. NYM (1), vs. PHI, at NYM, vs. FLA, vs. WAS
CHC (18): vs. MIL (1), at STL, at MIL, at SF (4), vs. PIT, vs. ARI
While San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy knows human nature is what it is, he hopes the same for his club as the Giants head to Los Angeles to take on their rivals this weekend. Bochy knows the scoreboard, the standings and everything else is secondary to how his team is playing.

"It won't matter unless we win ballgames," Bochy said. "There are a couple of other teams right there, too, so it's just up to us to win ballgames."

The Rockies do not have an easy road ahead as they try to maintain this cushion, following a couple of series with NL West also-rans Arizona and San Diego before finishing with St. Louis, Milwaukee and the Dodgers. Their opponents' cumulative winning percentage is .509, with only the Marlins' schedule -- which includes two meetings with the Phillies and one with the Braves -- tougher, at .517.

Despite the win Wednesday, the Rockies still lost the season series to the Giants, 10-8, which would give the Giants a home tiebreaker, now that head-to-head matchup is the determining factor.

Overall, the 2009 schedule plays out favorably for the race to thrill right down to the finish line. (No guarantees on a play at the plate to decide it.)

There will be some games between Wild Card contenders, even if the NL West rivals won't meet again. The Marlins and Braves will square off in Atlanta to start the final week of the season, Sept. 28-30, and the Giants host the Cubs for four games starting Sept. 24.

All three division leaders also will have a say in the race, with the Dodgers hosting the Giants for three starting Friday, the Cardinals playing the Cubs this weekend and Rockies the following weekend, and the Phillies taking on the Braves this weekend, the Marlins next week and again in the final series of the regular season.

Even before Wednesday's game, Bochy was feeling confident about how his Giants are playing, and how they're set up for this stretch run.

"I feel great about how we've rebounded, how resilient we've been," Bochy said.

The Giants are going to have to be again, having lost a little momentum gained in victories the previous two nights.

Such is life in the Wild Card race, when one opportunity lost for the Giants turned into another day on the calendar gained for the Rockies.

"You run out of time. You run out of games," Bochy said. "It's a big swing."

But, then, it's not something either team has to dwell upon very long, or can.

Said Tracy: "There are still 15 games left to play. We have 15 games left and a 3 1/2-game lead. That's what I think about it, period."

John Schlegel is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.