2008 National League Eastern Division Champions

This year is going to be different. 

Last year, the Phillies won an emotional pennant race with the Mets and it almost seemed as if they had accomplished their goal.  This year, they are hungry.

Last year, they ran into the hottest team to enter the playoffs in baseball history.  This year, they face a team that really stumbled down the stretch and would have missed the playoffs if they were being chased by any normal team.

Last year, the Phillies were the team that was “just happy to be there.”  This year the Phillies play the team that is “just happy to be there.”

Last year, the Phillies trotted out a young pitcher with no postseason experience in Game 1.  This year, the Phillies face a young pitcher with no postseason experience in Game 1.

Last year, the biggest question on the team was the bullpen.  This year, the biggest strength on the team is the bullpen.

Last year’s playoffs ended in the blink of Kaz Matsui grand slam.  This year is going to be different.

All that being said, I am terrified by Yovani Gallardo.  Yes, there have only been three pitchers in the history of baseball to start a playoff game with fewer regular season starts than Gallardo, but if you have ever seen him pitch (and, I have seen one of those four starts this year), you will know that he has great stuff.  The question, aside from his 22-year old nerves, will be stamina.  He has only pitched once since May 1, and he only threw 67 pitches in four innings.  But, there is something about him that terrifies me.  And, Game 1 is absolutely gigantic for the Phillies because otherwise, they are staring at having to beat CC Sabathia to salvage one game at home.

The reason the Phillies will win Game 1 is because of Cole Hamels.  Hamels has, somewhat quietly, had maybe the best season of any Phillies pitcher in my lifetime.  He is second in the league in innings pitched (227) and LEADS THE LEAGUE in fewest baserunners allowed per inning (1.09 WHIP).  Plus, he is 6th in both strikeouts (196) and ERA (3.09).  Yes, he is only 14-10, but he has (if you can believe it) not gotten much support from this otherwise potent Phillies’ lineup and the otherwise fantastic Phillies’ bullpen.  Take all these numbers and put them in the context of having to pitch half of his games in the band-box that we call Citizens’ Bank Park, and you have yourself one hell of a season by the young lefty.  Throw in the fact that Brandon Webb struggled down the stretch while his team choked away the playoffs and the fact that the aforemetioned CC only pitched 17 games in the NL, and you can make a serious and legitimate case that Cole Hamels was the best pitcher in the National League this year.  Unfortunately, they do not have an award for such a thing…oh wait, they do?  So, he has got to be the favorite, right?  No, no one is even talking about him as a contender for the award?!?  Inconceivable.

[For the record, I intentionally left out of the discussion the pitcher who I feel should CLEARLY be NL Cy Young winner this year–Johan Santana–but we are not mentioning him out of respect for the deceased.  But, really, check out these numbers.]

Okay, I admit, I have not had much time recently for blogging my daily opinions because of planning my wedding in two weeks, but that has not stopped me from forming some.  About a month ago, I wanted to write about how clear it was that the Phillies’ MVP this season was not Chase Utley or either of the two reigning NL MVPs, Howard or Rollins.  It is clear to me that, all season long, Brad Lidge has been, without a doubt, the Phillies most valuable player.  Well, as of last week, it seems like the team agrees with me, as Lidge was named the Phillies team MVP.  The other post that I have been wanting to write was going to be on how this year might be the worst year I can ever remember for MVP races–in both leagues.  The fact that Ryan Howard and his .250 batting average is one of the two favorites to win the award is case in point (though, I very much agree with Doogan that Pujols really ought to win it–and easily).  And, the NL race is even better than the AL race.  Who is going to win it there?  You know it is bad when Carlos Quentin is in the running for the league’s MVP, but you know it is really bad when Carlos Quentin is in the running for a league’s MVP after MISSING THE LAST MONTH OF THE SEASON.  Anyway, because of all this, shouldn’t Brad Lidge get serious consideration for the award.  The Phillies were in a chase for the division through 161 games, and Lidge converted every save opportunity all year long.  He should at least be in the conversation.

I have yet to see the official Phillies’ postseason roster, but we already know that it will not include Kyle Kendrick.  But, in a very intelligent roster move, probably orchestrated by either Pat Gillick or Jimy Williams, Kendrick is heading to the Florida Instructional League to stay fresh, in case he is needed in an upcoming series.  Apparently, it did not sit too well with Mr. Kendrick, but that is probably simply because he wants to be with the team in their playoff run.  And, who can blame him?

Yes, Lidge is the most valuable Phillie.  Hamels is, quite possibly, the best starting pitcher in the National League.  This offense is fueled by the three superstars in Rollins, Utley, and Howard.  And, there is no doubt that the Phillies would not be in this position without all of these key pieces,  but they also could not have done it alone, and I strongly believe that, over 162 games, the best teams are those with the most productive complementary players.  This is what wins championships, and this is why the Phillies have a real shot at winning a championship this year.  Look back at the great teams of the recent past.  The Yankees of the late-90’s were led by Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, and Mariano Rivera, but they won with guys like Scott Brosius, Jim Leyritz, and Aaron Boone.  The recent Red Sox had Manny, Ortiz and Beckett, but probably would not have won titles without the likes of a Dave Roberts, an Orlando Cabrera, or a Jason Varitek.  And, we, as Phillie fans, have been treated all year long to incredible production from just these types of players.  Guys like Jayson Werth, Greg Dobbs, and Shane Victorino do not have jump-off-the-page numbers, but they, as a collective group, have been just as valuable, if not more, than any of the big-name superstars.  So, I would not be surprised at all if the big playoff hit came from Eric Bruntlett or Carlos Ruiz because this Phillies team really is a TEAM.

So, I agree with Doogan that the Phillies should earn a split at home and then go to Milwaukee and take both Games 3 and 4, so as to avoid CC in Game 5.  But, I am envisioning a loss to Gallardo in Game 1, followed by a win over Sabathia in Game 2, a shellacking of Suppan or fellow Central Leaguer Dave Bush in Game 3, and a figuring-out of Gallardo in Game 4.  Phillies win 3 games to 1, and move on to host Game 1 of the NLCS against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

On a personal and interesting note:  there are only three players in Major League baseball that I know personally and two of them are on the Brewers.  One is the aforementioned Bush, with whom I played a couple times and against whom I played many times (he was the best throwing catcher I have ever seen), and the other is Brewers relief pitcher Mark DiFelice (who may not be on the postseason roster, I am not sure), a fellow Haverford High grad, who I watched pitch many times in high school and actually faced several times in summer ball.  He was very, very good.

Phillies NLDS Preview

philsSo, the Phillies are playoff-bound for the second consecutive year and for just the third time in the last 25 years.  The question now is: will this year’s trip resemble 1993, when the team thrilled the whole city and came within spitting distance of a title, or last year’s version, when they went down in a ball of flames without winning a single game?  Or will it be somewhere in between?

Obviously, this team isn’t all that different from last year’s, but there’s plenty of reason to believe the outcome will be different and they can make a push for the pennant.  The main difference is the first-round opponent.  Last year, the Rockies claimed the wild-card spot in a one-game playoff and came into the NLDS having won something like 20 of 21 games.  They went on to sweep the NLCS before finally being subdued by the Red Sox in the World Series.  It was a classic case of a team being on a hot streak at the right time, and the Phillies just happened to be in their path.  That is not the case this year.

The ups and downs of this Brewers team have been well-documented, culminating in the dismissal of manager Ned Yost just two weeks ago.  It was the quintessential example of a franchise hitting the panic button, and apparently it paid off, as the Brewers outlasted those Amazin’ Mets in an epic choke-off (the Mets specialty, of course).  The Phillies, as opposed to last year, got a huge break when the Brewers won the wild-card, because the Dodgers have been the hot team in the NL this September, and they would’ve been a much more imposing opponent.

I’ve watched the Brewers a lot this season, and they’re really just not that impressive.  They have three great players: C.C. Sabathia, Ryan Braun, and Prince Fielder.  With Ben Sheets injured, there’s really not much else on the team that scares you.  Their bullpen is horrible, and they are not deep in position players or starting pitching.  That being said, Sabathia figures to pitch two games in this series (Game 2 on three days rest, and Game 5, if necessary, next Tuesday), and that makes the series anything but a foregone conclusion.  On the other hand, the Brewers starters in the other three games will be question marks.  They will pick from among Jeff Suppan (a hero of the 2006 Cardinals team, but he’s been unimpressive since then), Dave Bush (a Conestoga High grad and acquaintance of Bry’s), Yovani Gallardo (a very talented 22-year-old that pitched last week for the first time in almost five months), Manny Parra (a lefty that really struggled over the past month), and Seth McClung (who was just put into the rotation when Dale Sveum took over as manager).  Honestly, all of those guys are decent, but they’re also guys that this Phillies line-up should score some runs against.

The other main reason for optimism is the improved situation of the Phillies pitching myersstaff.  The bullpen is deeper than it was last year, and it has one of the premier closers in baseball in Brad Lidge, who didn’t blow a save all season.  If there’s one key player for the Phillies in this postseason, I think it’s Brett Myers.  He was lights-out for almost the entire second-half of the season, but his last two starts were ugly.  If he can resemble the pitcher he was in July and August, the Phillies have what it takes to win a series against any team in baseball.  Along with a legitimate ace in Cole Hamels and the dependable Jamie Moyer (who has been much better this year than last), the starting pitching could be more than enough to pick up wins, especially if Ryan Howard keeps mashing home runs.  Also, I think the Phillies should go with Myers in Game 2, mainly because he has pitched much better this season at home, while Moyer has been better on the road.

So, for my prediction, I’ll go with the Phillies in four games.  I’ll give the Brewers a win in the Game 2 Sabathia-Myers matchup, then the Phils take both in Milwaukee, and Hamels is ready again for a Game 1 start in the NLCS.  Look for the Phils to go with Joe Blanton in Game 4 if they’re up 2-1, but it will probably be Hamels if they’re facing elimination.  I’ll be rooting for the Dodgers in the other series, because, as hot as they’ve been, I still would love to see the Cubs out of the way because they are definitely the class of the league.

The Final Weekend and an MVP Pick

–Well, I went into tonight just looking for a loss from the Mets or the Brewers.  I would have been ecstatic if just one of them had lost but, alas, they both pulled out walk-off wins and the Phillies find themselves clinging to just a one-game lead in both the division and the wild card race.  This is not where I thought they would be as of one week ago but, on the other hand, if you had offered me this scenario at the beginning of the season, or even two weeks ago, I would’ve signed up.  Now the Phils (and the Mets) will have to deal with the rains all weekend, which could have them playing meaningful games into Monday.  Ideally, they’ll have the division won going into the final game and can save Cole Hamels for a Game 1 playoff start, but that’s getting ahead of ourselves at this point.  But, really, are we going to see this Mets team and this Brewers team step up and handle the pressure this weekend?  Well, let’s hope not.

–Ryan Howard has gotten all the buzz for NL MVP over the last week or two, and rightfully so.  He’s certainly carried the pujolsteam to the division lead and has been clutch all season long, as mentioned in a New York Times article today.  But if I look at it objectively, I have to go with Albert Pujols for MVP.  Most pundits this year seem to be ruling him out because the Cardinals won’t be in the playoffs, but I’m not sure when that became a prerequisite for winning an MVP award.  Obviously, a team’s success enhances the MVP resume of any candidate, but the Cardinals have had a solid season and over-achieved by a lot, largely thanks to his .353 BA, 35 HR, and a ridiculous .458 OBP, which is more what you expect from Barry Bonds after a ‘roid binge.  I know, I know, it’s the most valuable player, not the best.  But hey, this is a team game, and just because the Phillies are better than the Cardinals doesn’t mean Pujols is less valuable than Howard.  In the end, I just don’t see how a guy that hits .248 and brings nothing to the table defensively can be the MVP.  Although, I will be hoping Howard gets it!

–I mentioned in my post a couple weeks ago that the division could come down to Pedro Martinez and Joe Blanton.  The Mets managed a win tonight despite another unimpressive outing from Pedro.  Blanton will take the ball tomorrow in a big spot for the Phils.  Here’s hoping the Nationals act like the Nationals.

Magic Number = 4

The red-hot Phillies’ magic number is cut to just 4, to clinch the division.  It is 3 to clinch a playoff spot, which means that if they win tonight and Milwaukee loses, they assure themselves that their season will not end on Sunday.

And, you know what?  I am starting to believe…

Spitballin’ about Week 2

The reasons that the National Football League is so incredibly popular are numerous and wide-ranging, but I have to say that one of the main reasons has to be the plethora of fascinating storylines that come out of each and every week for 22 weeks every year.  Because of this, I believe in the theory that it does not take a trained sportwriter to pick out some very interesting tidbits from one week in the NFL.  To prove this theory, here is my list of observations that I found interesting from just another week in National Football League.  And, I am not even going to include Monday night’s game because that could be a post of its own (plus the fact that I am not really emotionally-prepared to deal with it quite yet).

  • There was an amazing number of come-from-behind victories:  I actually started writing this post before I heard a stat that confirmed the first, most glaring observation that I made from my couch:  in this week alone, 8 teams came back from 4th quarter deficits to win games.  I noticed the beginnings of this as I watched the endings of the two nationally-televised early games and remembered being somewhat bored at halftime of the 1:00 games because the Vikings and Saints were dominating.  Both the Redskins and the Colts made furious 4th-quarter comebacks to win their games.  I then thought about the ticker that had been running across the screen had, at one point, shown substantial 4th quarter leads for Jacksonville over Buffalo and Chicago over Carolina, only to lose them late.  Honestly, even Green Bay trailed in the 4th quarter–and they won by more than 3 touchdowns!  So, 5 early games were 4th-quarter comeback wins.  It continued into the later games as well, as Seattle blew a big lead late (more on that later) and Denver had an incredibly improbable, bizarre comeback against San Diego (a lot more on that one still to come).  The 8th game of the week was last night, but, as I said in the opening, I am not ready to talk about that one just yet.
  • Why does Dick Jauron not get any credit for his coaching ability?  Is it just me or did this guy deserve a second chance more than Wade Phillips, Herman Edwards, and Norv Turner, combined?  And, he is proving that in Buffalo.  Isn’t Jauron the guy that led a talent-less Bears team to 13-3 in 2001?  Then, he got fired, what two years later because, well, they had NO talent.  Then, he had to take coordinator a job with Detroit before they passed over him, in favor or Rod Marinelli, for the head coaching position?  So, he is finally hired by Buffalo in 2006 and, not surprisingly, takes that somewhat talent-less team into contention?  Yeah, the guy can coach.
  • Jeff Garcia must be the most annoying person in football.  I have nothing against Garcia, and I am not personally annoyed by him, but this is the only explanation I can think of as to why no one can seem to stand him.  There is no football explanation as to why Jon Gruden is about to release him in favor of Brian Griese.  The guy is one of only 7 NFL quarterbacks to have back-to-back 30 TD seasons.  He is a five-time Pro Bowler, including the last two seasons–with two different teams.  He has even won the Grey Cup.  But, for some reason, he wears out his welcome very quickly.  Yes, Gruden is famously tough on quarterbacks, but he just seems annoyed by Garcia–as were many of his Eagle teammates.
  • Speaking of annoying, is anyone else thoroughly annoyed with Steve Young?  Is it just me or is Steve Young the cockiest NFL broadcaster in the business?  And, yes, I am including Michael Irvin, Deion Sanders, Keyshawn Johnson, Tony Siragusa, and even the formerly incomparable Skip Bayless.  Steve Young is simply awful.  I cannot even listen to him anymore.  He makes me feel feel bad for EMMITT SMITH!  Are you kidding?!?  I did not think there was anything in the world that would make me take Emmitt Smith’s side.  But, Young is so cocky, so condescending, so completely dismissive of any other opinion, particularly the live-broadcast-fearing Emmitt’s, that it makes me sick.
  • In a round-robin format, who would win:  college teams from the state of Alabama or professional teams from the state of Missouri?  The Show-Me State has to have the worst collection of professional football talent ever seen between two teams in the same state.  I don’t know if you could make a .500 team by forming a 53-man roster from BOTH the Rams and Chiefs.  They are dreadful.
  • What the hell happened to the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday?  Yes, I am a little more upset about this than simply reflection upon a beat-up team that used to be good because they cost me both my suicide pools in Week 2, but come on.  How can you lose AT HOME to San Francisco.  And, maybe the worst part about it is that I probably just lost a few past arguments because I have always argued that Seattle and Kansas City have the two best home-field advantages in football.  How did the Chiefs look at home on Sunday?
  • When you talk about snake-bitten, you have to start with the San Diego Chargers.  They are 0-2, both at home–and the had the lead in BOTH games with less than 30 seconds left.  Both of the game-winning touchdowns against them were scored on 4th down plays.  Unbelievable.  But, let me comment on the “call” that everyone is complaining about.  First of all, it was a bad call, but it was not atrocious.  I applaud Ed Hochuli for coming out and saying “I blew it.”  He easily could have said “I saw an incomplete pass, and it isn’t reviewable because the whistle was blown” and left it at that.  But, he did not.  He saw the replay, saw that he missed the call, and stood up, like a man and said “I blew it.”  Good for him.  Integrity is more important than image.  And speaking of integrity (or lack thereof), why is no one jumping on Norv Turner for his ingracious press conference.  He said, “Ed came up to me and said, ‘I blew it.’  To me, that is unacceptable.”  No, Norv, you know what is unacceptable?  Blowing two leads in the final 30 seconds.  You know what else?  Having the most talented team in football not be able to stop two mediocre offenses on 4th down, with the game on the line.  And, what else?  Giving up a two-point conversion to a rookie wide receiver, at home, to lose the game.  Come on, Norv, I know that your attack on the NFL’s best referee is just a well-played smokescreen to cover up two incredibly poorly coached games.  The good news is that these will not be last two poorly coached games by Mr. Turner, and chances are the others will not have a good ref on which to place the blame.
  • Speaking of that San Diego-Denver game, there is a fine line between “gutsy” and “inanely stupid.”  What the hell was Mike Shanahan thinking–going for two, at home.  I would not even condone this call if it was on the road.  In my view, there is only one time you EVER go for two, instead of tying the game with no time left, and that is if you have lost one of your key players to an injury and you don’t think you have the horses to win in OT.  Otherwise, kick the damn ball.  I hate these coaches trying to look like geniuses–JUST WIN, BABY!  The argument made on the air was, “Why not?  After that blown call, he’s playing with house money.”  Ok, great argument.  You know next time I’m at the casino and I win $2,000, I’m going to put it all down on 13 on the roulette wheel–I am sure that when it comes up 28, I will just say, “ah, it was house money, anyway.”  Simply awful.  Fortunately, for my fellow Delta Sigma Phi brother, Shanahan has the ultimate job security (for some reason).
  • Did you know that there are only 6 wide receivers in the history of the NFL with more passing yards than…Mushin Muhammed???  Uh, what?!?  I heard this on a telecast–someone please correct this, it MUST be a mistake.  I don’t really have anything more to say about this…
  • Call me crazy, but I could probably make the argument that the three best teams in football are all in the same division.  And the Washington Redskins aren’t terrible.  The NFC East is ridiculous this year.  The shame of it is that two of these teams will have to settle for wild cards, but honestly, I think that the Cowboys, Eagles, and Giants would all be division winners if they weren’t in the same division.
  • Furthermore, has the balance of power between conferences shifted?  The NFC East is clearly the best division in football.  Throw in the Panthers and the Packers, who both look very good, and I would say that the NFC’s elite are better (perhaps, significantly better) than the AFC’s elite.  The Colts lost at home to an NFC team, and then struggled to beat the Vikings.  Tom Brady is hurt.  The Chargers are 0-2, including a home loss to an NFC team.  The Jets were 4-12 last year.  I think the NFC is better.  Both of the last two points will be addressed on Sunday, as the Eagles visit the Pittsburgh Steelers, who I believe are clearly the class of the AFC, at this point.
  • Is anyone not happy for Aaron Rodgers?  Unless you’re a fan of the Vikings or Bears (or the Lions, I guess, but there are so few of them, I’m willing to bet that no Lions fan is ever going to read this post), you have to root for Aaron Rodgers, right?  I don’t know if anyone has heard his story this offseason, but he went through a lot.  You see, there was this guy named Brett Favre, who used to be the Packers quarterback, but he isn’t anymore.  And, then this guy, Aaron Rodgers, had to step in and replace him, but this Favre guy wanted to come back……Oh, you’ve heard the story?  Well, Aaron Rodgers has put up 72 points in two games.  Good for him.
  • Speaking of that Brett guy, I hope everyone made a boatload on the Patriots this weekend.  I sure did.  Underdogs?  Really?!?  Parlayed with the fact that the Titans were underdogs against the lowly Bengals, and life is good.  No, really, one QB had made more NFL starts (277) than the QB had NFL passing yards (253), and is ANYONE surprised by which one threw the crucial interception late in the game leading to a defeat?  ANYONE?
  • Let us be careful with Vince Young.  Yes, it is hard to believe that the guy who “has it all” can possibly be upset be a little booing, but this story just reminds us that these are real human beings under intense pressure, despite the fact that they are “playing a game” for “ungodly amounts of money.”  Now I am not saying that this behavior ought to be ignored if you are a Titans fan, from the standpoint of does this guy have what it takes to win a Super Bowl, but let us move slowly on this one.  Remember, he has played for two years, and his team has been in the playoffs for two years.  He also won a national championship in college.  Let us be consistent on how we judge quarterbacks.  If you are one who says (about anyone), “yeah, he might be a great quarterback,  but he didn’t win the big one” then you cannot, at the same time, say something to the effect of “yeah, he won, but it was his defense.”  Either Dan Marino and Donovan McNabb are absolutely elite quarterbacks OR Vince Young, Eli Manning, and Trent Dilfer are not guys whose defenses carried them.  It cannot be both ways.

More Ridiculous Stats

1). In 738 career plate appearances with the Phillies, Jayson Werth has grounded into exactly ONE double-play.  This is amazing to me.  Yes, Werth can run.  And, yes, he is more of a fly-ball hitter.  But, one double-play in two seasons?  Wow!

2). Chris Coste is 14-26 against the Braves this year.  He’s hitting under .240 against the rest of the league.  It is a shame the Phils cannot meet the Braves in the playoffs.

3). The Phillies broke the all-time baseball record for stolen base percentage as a team last year.  Last year, they were successful on more than 87% of their stolen base attempts, which is the highest percentage in the history of baseball.  They are not too far off that this year, at 84%.  Interestingly, Sports Illustrated ran an article on stolen base efficiency this week that claimed that a team’s expected run total is increased by 0.25 runs per game with each successful stolen base, but is decreased by 0.61 runs per game with each caught stealing.  So, running is important, but not being caught is even more important.

4). Jose Reyes is the first New York baseball player to have 4 consecutive 50+ stolen base seasons.  Being the first Met to do so is impressive, but not ridiculous because the Mets have only been in existence for 66 years, but considering the overall tradition of New York baseball, this is an incredible feat.  Yes, the Yankees have been built on power for their 108 years, but what about the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers?  I mean Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese were Brooklyn Dodgers.

…And DOWN the Stretch They Come!

clinchOK, here we are, with 17 games to go and the Phillies need to start winning games immediately if they want a playoff berth.  Sound familiar?  Yes, it was at this exact point last year, with the Phillies down 7 games to the Mets, when everything suddenly went terribly wrong in Queens and triumphantly right in South Philly.  Since that final day of the regular season, when the Phillies completed the miracle comeback, conventional wisdom has been that this Mets team lacks the heart and the leadership of the Phillies and that the Phillies are the team that can handle the pressure, the team that comes to play when everything’s on the line.  Well, we’re about to find out. 

Of course, this season there are two huge differences (besides the numerous roster changes for both teams). First, the Phillies find themselves only 2.5 games back instead of 7.  Baseball people like to say that it takes a week to make up a game in a pennant race, so with the equivalent of 2.5 weeks left, no one in Philly is hitting the panic button just yet, and certainly no one in the Mets organization is pondering how sweet the champagne will taste at the end of the month.  Second, thanks to the stumbling Milwaukee Brewers, the wild card is very much in play, as the Phils find themselves just 3 games back in that race, with the Brew Crew coming to Philly for a four-game set starting tomorrow night. 

Ultimately, the Mets may have done the Phillies a huge favor by sweeping Milwaukee last week, but the real show here is not in a Phillies-Brewers fight to the finish.  The continuing psychodrama between the Phillies and the Mets should make for great theater over these last couple weeks.  I was at Shea Stadium on Sunday night and I can honestly say it was the tensest crowd I’ve ever seen at a baseball game.  There were plenty of Phillies fans on hand, and plenty of mini-brawls breaking out in the upper deck.  It’s safe to say the Mets fans are eager for some payback and the Phillies fans are in the unusual position of feeling fairly confident, even with ground to make up and not much time to do it.  Personally, I think the best finish to this story would be one of the teams taking the wild card, and then the Phillies and Mets settling this in the National League Championship Series next month. 

With time running out on the 2008 NL East pennant race, here are 5 players that could make the difference: 

1. Luis Ayala:  Surprisingly, Mets fans have become pretty happy with their new look bullpen, lately.  Just yesterday I heard a few of them talking themselves into the Ayala/Heilman/Stokes back end.  Ayala has emerged from the pile of muck that is the Mets bullpen and taken hold of the closer job, with 6 saves and a 2.46 ERA in 11 appearances.  Now, I’ve always seen Ayala as a solid relief pitcher in his days with the Expos/Nats, but there’s a reason he only had 9 career saves before coming over to the Mets, and he posted an ERA near 6 for the Nats this year.  He doesn’t have overpowering stuff and I can’t imagine anyone being shocked if he went out there tomorrow and got shelled.  But, like I said, he is solid, and when a solid guy gets hot, he can be really tough.  Maybe Ayala has gotten hot at the right time, but we will see. 

2. Pat Burrell:  This is a heady time for Mr. Burrell, with his time as a Phillie most likely coming to an end, and the size of his upcoming contract to be determined, in part, by what he does over these final weeks of the season.  He has struggled mightily in the second half (hitting .212 with 7 homers since the All-Star break), and has seen his playing time start to go to the newly acquired Matt Stairs.  With all due respect to the “professional hitting” Stairs, the Phillies really need Burrell to get back to producing runs and providing the right-handed power that is somewhat lacking in the lineup. 

3.  Jose Reyes:  Reyes has had a great year, with a .300 average and 47 steals, and is a great player.  I was never as down reyeson him as many people were after his vanishing act last September.  But the big knock on Reyes has been that he’s not a big game player, that he shrinks under the pressure.  Well, it’s September again, the pressure is on again, and Reyes will have a chance to redeem himself and silence a lot of critics if he can close out the year playing at his usual level.  The bad news for Mets fans: Reyes is hitting .167 (5-30) since the calendar flipped to September this year. Uh-ohhh. 

4.  Joe Blanton:  The Phillies have to have a lot of confidence right now in their top 3 starters, Hamels, Moyer, and Myers.  Kyle Kendrick has blown up and (hopefully) pitched his way out of the rotation for the remainder of the year, but the Phillies will probably attempt to get by with a 4-man rotation the rest of the way (with Moyer pitching on Thursday after three days rest).  That means Blanton, the 4th starter, will have to step up and pitch better than he has in his last two outings.  He’s shown flashes of quality since coming over at the trade deadline, but he hasn’t found consistency and the team is left to hope that he can give them some strong outings down the stretch. 

5.  Pedro Martinez:  The best I ever saw when he was in his prime, he’s well past it now and he has admitted that he’s still trying to figure out how to get it done the way Jamie Moyer does.  Like the Phillies, the Mets will probably attempt to get by with four starters the rest of the way, especially considering John Maine will most likely not return before the end of the regular season.  That leaves Pedro as the #4 guy, after Santana, Pelfrey, and Oliver Perez.  Both the Phillies and Mets came into the season with question marks at the back of the rotation, and, in the form of Blanton and Pedro, that could be what determines the division title.