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Phillies and Brewers back in wild-card playoff hunt after rocky times

By Phil Rogers, Chicago Tribune –

When the trade deadline rolled around at the end of July, the Phillies were 46-57, which put them only 21/2 games better than the Cubs in the National League’s wild-card playoff standings.

They were in ninth place, 13 games behind the Braves for the second of the NL’s two spots. They had just signed Cole Hamels to a $144 million contract while trading Hunter Pence and Shane Victorino, and it took a lot of imagination to see how they could hit enough to compete in 2013 and beyond no matter how strong their starting rotation.

But crazy things still happen in baseball, as the 2011 Cardinals showed us.

Entering the weekend, the Phillies were only four games back in the wild-card race. And the Brewers, who were 12 back at the July 31 deadline, were 31/2 back. They started providing solid backing for the reigning MVP, Ryan Braun, just after they dealt their ace, Zack Greinke, to the Angels.

“Honestly, it didn’t look good,” said Travis Ishikawa, who helped the Giants win a World Series in 2010. “As far out as we’ve been and as bad as we played earlier, we found a way to play the ball we knew we were capable of playing out of spring. That’s the way this game is. You never know what can happen.”

As you know, you can’t get anywhere in life without a little help. The Phillies and Brewers would like to thank the Pirates (especially), Dodgers, Diamondbacks, Mets and Marlins.

Those five teams have squandered chances to join the Braves in having all but secured one of the wild-card spots. They were a combined 62-79 in August and entered the weekend 37 games below .500 since the trade deadline.

Oh, as Ishikawa points out, they owe another vote of thanks to Commissioner Bud Selig and the owners who proposed expanding the postseason field to 10 teams, with a second wild card in the two leagues.

“You add that one extra spot and everybody seems like they’re in it now,” Ishikawa told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “We have a little ways to go but it’s definitely going to be a fun few weeks.”

Entering the weekend, 18 of baseball’s 30 teams were still within 51/2 games of a playoff spot. That number would have been 13 under the old format, including only five of the 16 teams in the NL.

The Phillies would seem to have a better shot to hang in than the Brewers, as they have been winning with their strong starting pitching and improved play from shortstop Jimmy Rollins.

Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay, Kyle Kendrick and Hamels were 21-8 with a 2.96 ERA in 286 second-half innings entering the weekend, and rookie Tyler Cloyd had thrown well at times since replacing Vance Worley. Rollins hit .314 with four homers and a .931 OPS in the first 12 games after Charlie Manuel benched him for not running out a pop-up.

Braun and the Brewers were pounding teams into submission. They averaged 5.4 runs in a 40-game stretch, out-homering their opponents 56-31.

It’s not going to be easy for either team to complete their journey back from the playoff grave. While the Brewers leave Monday for a tough 10-game trip that takes them to Pittsburgh, Washington and Cincinnati — and with Braun (wrist) and Corey Hart (foot) hurting — the Phillies have nine games left against the Nationals and the Braves.

The heaviest lifting starts now.


Buck stops here: Seven of the 10 biggest spenders missed the playoffs a year ago, with only the Yankees, Tigers and Phillies getting into October. It’s possible that all five of the biggest spenders could miss this year. The Yankees, Tigers, Angels and Phillies need strong finishes to get there, and the Red Sox already are dead.

From this year’s top 10, the Rangers (sixth in Opening Day payroll) and Giants (eighth) are the only teams pretty well assured of playoff spots. The others that can coast in are the Braves (16th), Reds (17th) and Nationals (20th).


Looking human: Is Superman losing his cape? Mike Trout batted .324 in May, .372 in June, .392 in July but only .288 in August and .298 for the first 12 games of September. There’s not a bad month in this bunch, but the trend shows the wear and tear of his first extended season.

“Mike is incredibly energetic,” Angels GM Jerry Dipoto told the Orange County Register. “He brings such a high level of energy to the game every day. But he has entered that zone where this is going to be the longest season he has had to play. They call these the dog days for a reason.”

Dipoto isn’t complaining.

“The bar was set so high that we’re talking about a month where he hit .290 as a lull,” he said. “If his accomplishments to date have created a standard where simply being really good can be considered a lull, we’re going to be OK.”


Feeling good: While the media continues to dissect the Stephen Strasburg shutdown, the Nationals feel great riding toward the playoffs with a lineup that now finds Ryan Zimmerman, the original cornerstone, looking like himself.

Zimmerman looked like an imposter in the first 21/2 months of the season. Bothered by a bad right shoulder, he was hitting .218 with three homers, 22 RBIs and a .590 OPS on June 24, but found relief after a cortisone shot and hasn’t looked back.

“I’m OK with the slow starts, but not being able to swing the bat and do the things health-wise, I was worried about that,” Zimmerman said. “Because I know my body pretty well. Everyone in this room plays hurt. Everyone in every locker room. Nobody’s healthy. And I’ve played hurt a lot just like everyone else. But it was a different kind of feeling. It made me nervous.”

In his first 72 games after the injection, Zimmerman hit .339 with 19 homers, 62 RBI and a 1.021 OPS. He entered the weekend with a 16-game hitting streak, including at least one RBI in a franchise record nine straight games.

“We’re riding him,” manager Davey Johnson said. “Zim’s swinging the bat good and playing good.”


The last word: “Man, I don’t know. The third person would probably win.” — 2002 MVP Jeff Kent, who is appearing on “Survivor,” when asked who would win if he and Barry Bonds were on the same island.


The Whispers: Carpenter could give Cardinals big lift

Chris Carpenter could return to the Cardinals rotation this week, which would be a huge emotional lift. He historically has been one of the biggest difference-makers of his era. … Jason Hammel’s knee injury is a major concern for the Orioles. He had made only two starts since coming off the disabled list but was showing signs of being a No. 1 starter on a staff that needs one. It’s amazing what manager Buck Showalter is doing with such a low-profile rotation. … The Tigers quietly have had minor league hitting coordinator Toby Harrah in Detroit working with struggling young hitters such as Brennan Boesch and Mike Avila for a couple of months, helping out hitting coach Lloyd McClendon. … Don’t leave out Rangers third baseman Adrian Beltre when you discuss MVP candidates in the American League. He might be the best two-way player in the game, but Josh Hamilton gets more traction as the Rangers’ candidate. … While Davey Johnson seems like the leading candidate for NL Manager of the Year, the Detroit Free Press’ John Lowe asks a good question — has Bruce Bochy done the best job of managing a bullpen without a full-time closer since Whitey Herzog in 1985 (when Jeff Lahti and Ken Dayley took over after Bruce Sutter signed with the Braves)? … Mark Buehrle should need only two or three more starts to become the 23rd big-leaguer to have 12 consecutive seasons with 200-plus innings. … Derek Jeter has 190-plus hits in 11 seasons; the only other big-leaguers who did that were Pete Rose (13 seasons) and Ty Cobb (12 seasons). … Chase Utley continues to take grounders at third base and could wind up playing there at some point for the Phillies with Placido Polanco out and Kevin Frandsen limited. … While Chris Archer took a 14th-inning loss for the Rays on Thursday, the guy who was the centerpiece in the Cubs’ Matt Garza trade looks ready to move into the rotation in 2013. The Rays finally may trade some pitching for a run-producing bat in the off-season. … Paco Rodriguez, who took Thursday’s loss for the Dodgers, pitched in the College World Series for Florida in June. He was the 82nd player drafted. … Mike Zunino, who caught Rodriguez at Florida, was playing a key role in the Southern League playoffs and could take over as the Mariners’ regular catcher at some point in 2013, if not straight out of spring training. Don’t be surprised if Jesus Montero and John Jaso wind up catching some but getting most of their future at-bats as first basemen and DHs. Justin Smoak looks a lot like a future Astro or Pirate. … With the Rangers hitting the 3 million mark in attendance for the first time, only seven franchises never have reached that level — the White Sox, Rays, A’s, Royals, Reds, Pirates and Nationals. The Dodgers are on track to reach it for the 25th time, the most in the majors. … Reports of the Red Sox being for sale appear unfounded, although you wonder how much fun it can be to own the team these days.

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