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Reds Might Be the Best of a Bad NL Lot

By Bill Peterson · August 9th, 2006 · Sports
Jerry Dowling

The New York Mets of 1973 included Hall of Famers Tom Seaver and Willie Mays as well as Tug McGraw, a screwball reliever who coined the campaign slogan "You Gotta Believe." The Mets won 82 games and captured the National League East division.

All of that probably overstates how good the Mets were. The Willie Mays on that club was the Willie Mays people talk about when a great athlete crosses 40 and they say, "He should retire, because I'd hate to see him end his career like Willie Mays." Among National League clubs, only the dreadful San Diego Padres batted lower than the Mets' .246, and only the St. Louis Cardinals hit fewer homers than the Mets' 85.

But the Mets won the National League championship series, beating the defending NL champion Reds in five games. The Mets started Seaver and three left-handers -- Jerry Koosman, Jon Matlack and George Stone -- holding the Reds to eight runs as Tony Perez and Joe Morgan batted a combined .095. The Mets later lost to the dynastic Oakland Athletics in a seven-game World Series.

The Minnesota Twins of 1987 included Hall of Famers Kirby Puckett and Steve Carlton, plus three 30-home-run hitters in Kent Hrbek, Garry Gaetti and Tom Brunansky. The Twins took the American League West with 85 wins.

But the Twins weren't that good, either. Carlton was desperately hanging onto his career, so far past his prime that he'd begun talking with reporters. The Twins finished 11th in AL ERA at 4.63 and tied for 10th in batting at .261.

Yet the Twins crunched through a five-game AL Championship Series, beating a Detroit Tigers club exhausted from its high-tension race to win the AL East. Then St. Louis Cardinals speedster Vince Coleman rolled his knee in the tarp at the old Busch Stadium and the Twins capitalized for a seven-game World Series win.

The preceding historical perspective is a way of saying the present "mildcard" race in the National League is more important than the contestants are hinting.

Take the Philadelphia Phillies. Please! Walking up to the trade deadline, the Phillies thought they were out of it, dealing away David Bell, Bobby Abreu, Cory Lidle and Rheal Cormier. So why should anyone else believe the Phillies are in it?

But this year's National League is so lame that even the Phillies are involved. After winning eight out of 10 through Aug. 3, the Phillies were three games out of the wildcard in a tie for fifth place.

The Los Angeles Dodgers lost 13 of 14 coming out of the All-Star break. Now they've won nine straight through Aug. 6 and are right back in it, one game behind the wildcard-leading Reds, who lost six of eight.

On June 3, that Kiddie Korps down in Miami, which was supposed to be one of the worst clubs we've ever seen, gave us everything we expected with a 19-34 record. Little did we know that the NL would be so bad the Florida Marlins would rule like Julius Caesar -- 32-26 since June 3, more wins than anyone but the Mets among the NL clubs. The only other winning record in the league during the past two months is San Diego's, and just barely (29-27).

What has it cost the Dodgers to go 24-31 in the past two months? A whole game in the NL West standings, and only 1 1/2 games in the wildcard chase.

So we have 13 of 16 National League clubs within six games of a playoff spot. Only five of those clubs have winning records. Only two are five games over .500.

Is this an exciting playoff race? Is it really so thrilling to watch a dozen teams fight it out to find out, in the end, which one isn't quite as bad as the others?

It is, but for no reason having to do with the elements of the race. It's because the stakes are so high. The past four World Series have included five wildcard clubs. Three of them -- Anaheim in 2002, Florida in 2003 and Boston in 2004 -- have won it all.

But in each of those cases, the wildcard was a legitimately good club. Boston finished 2004 with the American League's second-best record, Florida finished 2003 with the NL's third-best record (91 wins) and Anaheim finished 2002 with 99 wins, behind only New York and Oakland, each with 103.

The National League wildcard winner this year will not be a legitimately good ball club. At best, it will be a hot ball club. That's assuming one of these clubs is good enough to heat up. If not, this could still be a season in which an also-ran wildcard goes to the World Series. As long as someone beats the Mets in the playoffs, the pennant is wide open.

Again, the Reds will tell you they're really gunning for the NL Central championship. After all, they started the week only 3 1/2 games behind the front-running St. Louis Cardinals, who came to town for four games this week. The buzz was so thick that the Reds offered half-price tickets.

It's sad that the Reds must resort to price slashing, but they must, and it's a good idea. Full houses will help the ball club, fans won't feel so terrible about the experience if the Reds lose and it would go down as a stroke of marketing genius if the Reds actually improve their wildcard standing.

Until the Reds handle the Cardinals, they're only a wildcard contender first. And the stakes in that race are high enough, even if no NL wildcard contender is especially worthy.

Someone has to win it. Someone will have a chance in October.



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