But that lead has dwindled a bit this past week as the Braves dropped four of six to Washington and Philadelphia with three of those four losses complimentary of a Phillies sweep. As it stands, the Braves are five games up on the Marlins and the Phillies. Washington is all but mathematically finished in the divisional race at eight games back. And as for the Mets, well, they just fell apart the past couple weeks sinking to the cellar and 11.5 games off the Atlanta pace.
Besides Jones, a big part of Atlanta's ability to maintain on top the division the past few weeks has been Kyle Farnsworth. The fireballer with a nasty slider hasn't given up a single run since August 7 and has added six saves to his name. Just when you thought the Dan Kolb project was an indication that Leo Mazzone might be losing his touch, the Kyle Farnsworth project began. The results so far are off the chart, but this is still Kyle Farnsworth. As the pressure builds down the stretch and possibly into the playoffs, we will all get a front row view of Farnsworth as he attempts to keep his head and exorcise the demons from past struggles.
In the Wild Card race, the tension continues to build. Each team competing continues to play .500-esc baseball without one team standing out. There has been plenty of head-to-head competition, but the teams have just been beating up on each other. Florida did manage to take the first two games of a three game series against the Astros at Minute Maid Park. Behind strong pitching from Dontrelle Willis (21-8) and Josh Beckett (14-8), the fish from Florida leapfrogged the Astros and perched themselves atop the NL Wild Card race. But the Astros did bounce back to salvage the final game of the series and pull within a half game of the lead. With their three consecutive wins against the Braves, the Phillies pulled even with the Marlins and leapfrogged the Astros as well. But the Nationals and Mets have been fading into the September sunset. The Nats have dropped five of their last eight contests. As for the Mets, well, they have just collapsed. They are 2-11 in September, highlighted by a six-game skid where they were swept by the Braves and lost the first three of four to the St. Louis Cardinals.
Without one team emerging as the club to catch in the Wild Card race, the Milwaukee Brewers have managed to keep themselves within striking distance with a 72-72 record. Chris Capuano has been the staff ace for the Brewers this season; not Ben Sheets. With three more victories in as many starts, Capuano sits with an impressive 17-9 record and a 3.55 ERA. And despite the Cubs' disappointing season, they continue to hang around giving their fans hope. Just this past week they took two of three from the Cardinals at Busch Stadium and then traveled to San Francisco to take three of four from the resurgent Giants. And all this without Kerry Wood and Aramis Ramirez. Go figure. Aside from playing fundamental baseball, the Cubs have learned that a reliable closer is key to victories in close games. Ryan Dempster is coming into his own with his new closer role. He's had some shaky moments but hasn't given up a run in a month, and courtesy of five more saves this past week, he now rests with 27. Not bad for a guy who was in the starting rotation early in the season. After dropping two of three to the Reds at home, the Cubbies might not find a way to pass all the teams in front of them, but with seven games against Houston in their final nine of the season, you can be guaranteed they'll have something to say about who will be the NL Wild Card champion.
About this time last week out west, it looked like the Giants had a great chance to catch the Padres. But a tough week arrived as they dropped two games to the Los Angeles Dodgers and prior to their three losses against Chicago. During the six-game stretch, they only won a one game - a brilliant two-hit performance by rookie Matt Cain against the Cubs. But Barry Bonds arrived on the scene Monday, at the same time the Padres were coming to town. New hope was born, and the first two games went the way of the home team (4-3 and 5-4). With Cain pitching the final game, the Giants were thinking about sweeping their way back into the race. The young pitcher left the game down 2-1 after six strong innings, but his teammates, Pedro Feliz and Mike Matheny, picked him up by driving in three runs in the bottom of the eighth inning. Poised for the sweep, Armando Benitez entered the game for the save. Sean Burroughs had other things in mind, and he devastated Giants' fans with a two-run game-tying double. LaTroy Hawkins would eventually surrender the game winning single to Brian Giles in the tenth inning.
With less than three weeks to go, the ups and downs and surprises will continue. It won't end with the Giants and Padres, Benitez and Burroughs. Magic numbers will dwindle to zero, as will elimination numbers. Heroes will be born, as will goats and spoilers. And nobody knows how it will unfold.
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