NL Playoff race comes down to the wire

Justin DiBiase

October is coming quickly, and that can only mean one thing: the MLB playoffs are upon us. After previewing the American League postseason last week, we will take a closer look at the NL’s push to the playoffs. Though the National League is often looked upon as inferior to the American League, the senior circuit still has many clubs who have the potential to win it all. Here is a team by team preview:

New York Mets

After years of underachieving with a high payroll, Mets’ general manager Omar Minaya has finally assembled a Mets team which is living up to its potential. The Mets ended the Atlanta Braves’ streak of 14 divisional crowns last week when they clinched the NL East. The boys from Queens are led by flashy shortstop Jose Reyes and solid third baseman David Wright. The playoff inexperience of the left side of the infield is made up for by the Mets’ veteran leaders. Future Hall of Fame pitchers Pedro Martinez and Tom Glavine have extensive playoff experience. Other veterans, such as slugger Carlos Delgado, catcher Paul Lo Duca and outfielders Cliff Floyd and Shawn Green, add punch to the Mets’ line-up. Possibly the most important part of the Mets’ run to the Series will be their bullpen. Closer Billy Wagner is lights out, but the pressure will be on set-up men Chad Bradford and Aaron Heilman to hold leads for Wagner to seal the deal.

St. Louis Cardinals

The Cardinals will most likely represent the NL Central. Although the Cardinals are going to the playoffs, they have struggled at times during the 2006 season. The success of the team often relies on the broad shoulders of first baseman and MVP candidate Albert Pujols. He is protected in the order by third baseman Scott Rolen, youngster Chris Duncan and veteran outfielder Jim Edmonds. The starting rotation of the Cardinals was once the strong part of this team, however, injuries have plagued the rotation. Cy Young award winner Chris Carpenter, who holds the National League’s lowest ERA, will need to win all of his starts for the Cards to have a shot to reach the Series.

Los Angeles Dodgers

The Dodgers are in a dog-fight with the San Diego Padres for the crown in the NL West. If worse comes to worst, the Dodgers may find themselves battling the Philadelphia Phillies for the NL wild card. The Dodgers are a scrappy, win-at-all-costs ball club. They hit the second fewest homers in the league. Offensively, they are ignited by the speedy Rafael Furcal. Nomar Garciaparra, Jeff Kent, Kenny Lofton and J.D. Drew all pack a punch in the heart of the order. Like the Mets, the starting rotation is what should keep the Dodgers in the hunt for the World Series. Greg Maddux, Derrick Lowe and Brad Penny all have had above-average seasons, and they also have postseason experience under their belts. One major area of concern is the bullpen. Their inconsistency is what has led L.A. to a potential absence in the playoffs. Head coach Grady Little needs to win now, or his job may be in jeopardy.

San Diego Padres

The other team out west in the NL is the San Diego Padres. San Diego may be considered a dark horse in the race for a championship for several reasons. Their pitching staff is the best in the NL in terms of ERA. Their starting pitchers are solid, led by fireballer Jake Peavy and the venerable veteran Woody Williams. Perhaps the best aspect of the Pads’ game is their outstanding bullpen. Trevor Hoffman has been one of the best closers in the past decade, and Scott Linebrink is arguably the best set-up man in the entire Major League. The line-up for San Diego is anchored by veterans Mike Piazza, Mike Cameron, Dave Roberts and Brian Giles. The Padres are also held in tact by their top-notch defense. They rank third in the NL in fielding percentage.

Philadelphia Phillies

After a midsummer slump, the Phillies were seemingly tossed under a bus by experts, but since then the “Phightins” have clawed their way back to the top of the wild card race. Their starting rotation has been solid of late, led by late season acquisition Jamie Moyer, as well as young studs Brett Myers and Cole Hamels. The Phillies’ bullpen is shaky at times, but the glue that holds the Phillies together is the top of their order. During slugger Pat Burrell’s season-long slump, first baseman Ryan Howard and second baseman Chase Utley have been willing the team to victory. Howard set a Phillies’ franchise record for home runs in a season and is poised to break Roger Maris’ substance-free number of 61 dingers. The catalysts of the lineup are shortstop Jimmy Rollins and outfielder Shane Victorino.