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NL wild-card picture becoming jumbled mass

By Rick Hummel, St. Louis Post-Dispatch –

ST. LOUIS — The wild-card races are heating up. Well, in the American League anyway. The word “race,” as applied lately to the National League challengers, more accurately should be modified to “stumble.”

After the Dodgers lost to Arizona on Wednesday, the four top National League wild-card contenders — Atlanta, the Cardinals, Los Angeles and Pittsburgh — had lost a collective 15 consecutive games, with Pittsburgh leading the way at six. Their pace was so slow that 2011 division champions Philadelphia and Milwaukee forged into contention on Tuesday, the day they both finally reached the .500 level — for the first time in three months in the Phillies’ case and the first time in nearly five months for the Brewers.

But for the addition of the second wild-card team in the playoffs for the first time this season, there would be no race at all in the National League. San Francisco has the smallest division lead at seven games in the West, with Washington and Cincinnati ahead by 8½ and 11½ games, respectively, in the East and Central. Even Atlanta has a 5½-game lead over the Cardinals as the No. 1 wild card.

The Cardinals finally ran down the fast-sliding Braves for the one NL wild-card berth available last year and, without the second wild-card possibility in 2012, their reign as World Series champions could have been much shorter than it might be.

As it is, the Cardinals have held a scant advantage or been tied in the second wild-card derby for the past three weeks. And that playoff game former manager Tony La Russa was sure would happen last September when he thought the Cardinals and Braves would be tied for the wild-card spot well could materialize this year at Atlanta, where the two wild-card teams would have a one-game duel to determine who would meet the team with the best record in the next round.

“Wouldn’t that be something?” said La Russa, referring to a delayed Cardinals-Atlanta matchup. “I’d bet a dollar that that’s what it will be.”

La Russa, traveling the circuit as a commissioner’s office envoy this year after leading the Cardinals to the World Series title and then retiring, is a member of Commissioner Bud Selig’s special committee who signed off on the extra wild card in each league for the playoffs.

In his sojourns, La Russa said he could feel the excitement in more cities than there ordinarily would be but that the import of winning the division titles hadn’t been compromised.

“I definitely think it’s accomplished what it was supposed to,” said La Russa. “It’s making everybody want to win the divisions. I know being out in the (San Francisco) Bay area that the Giants don’t want to mess around. They want to win the division and avoid the wild card.”

For the last 17 years of postseason play, wild-card teams haven’t had as much of a playoff schedule disadvantage as many felt they should have had and, in five of those years, including last year, a wild card has won the World Series crown.

La Russa said that before this year, “There were cases at the end of seasons where two teams in the same division were getting themselves ready for the playoffs and it really wasn’t as important whether a team won the division or won the wild card. In the discussions our committee had, we thought it merited putting a priority on finishing first in the division, at being good enough over six months.

“The wild-card (team) shouldn’t be as even as the division winner.”

La Russa made it clear he didn’t want to disrespect the Dodgers, whom the Cardinals engage tonight in the first game of a four-game series in Los Angeles, or the Pirates, “who have been a great story.” He thought the Phillies and Brewers still had too many teams over which to climb. He was convinced the Cardinals somehow would hold on to the other wild-card berth “because I believe what they have in that uniform will get it done.

“Somebody said it sounds a little bit like putting pressure on them but I just have a lot of confidence in the guys in that uniform for the St. Louis Cardinals.”

The Cardinals would seem to have the break in the schedule after this weekend. They have nine games remaining against Houston (six) and Chicago (three), which have the two worst records in the league.

Cincinnati and Washington, both division leaders, will come to St. Louis while the Dodgers have a nine-game trip beginning Tuesday to Washington, Cincinnati and San Diego, besides three more games with division leader San Francisco.

But, unless the Cardinals or some other club streaks to the finish line, the second National League wild-card team almost surely will have under 90 victories, which has happened to an NL wild-card entrant only in 2005 and 2006 when Houston and Los Angeles won 89 and 88, respectively.

The Cardinals would have to go 15-4 over their last 19 games to reach 90 wins, and that is a clip they haven’t even suggested they could play at since the first month of the season.

Yet, they still have a chance to defend their World Series title and, without the second wild-card spot, that would have depended almost entirely on another Braves collapse.

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