Padres playoff scuttlebutt

The four teams in the National League are set. The Padres and Dodgers hit overdrive in their push for the postseason while the Cardinals and Mets stumbled down the stretch. But the postseason is a different beast - and this Padres team is a different one than last year.

The Padres' quick visit to the National League playoffs last season was something of an embarrassment.

Going in, the Padres were denigrated for their 82-80 record and their position atop the weak National League West.

And they quickly came out the other end, swept in three straight by the Cardinals.

A year later, the Padres return to the playoffs to face the Cardinals as co-champions of the National League West. And the Padres believe the situation is a lot different.

The Padres were 61-62 on Aug. 19 and had lost five of six games opening a 10-game homestand when they abruptly turned their season around. San Diego closed out the homestand with four straight wins, a run that ignited a 27-12 run down the stretch, capped by a 9-2 sprint to the finish.

"I don't think we were a real good team last year," said right-handed pitcher Woody Williams, who picked up his team-high 12th win Sunday afternoon as the Padres held off an Arizona rally to defeat the Diamondbacks 7-6 and claim a share of the division title.

The Padres and Dodgers tied at 88-74, but the Padres claimed the NL West's seed in the playoffs thanks to their 13-5 edge over Los Angeles during the regular season.

That means the Padres will have the home-field advantage over the Cardinals in the series that starts Tuesday afternoon at Petco Park while the Dodgers are traveling to New York.

The Padres believe they have a strong shot at winning the franchise's third National League pennant this season. The edge, they believe, can be found in a pitching staff that posted the lowest ERA in the National League (3.88) and a lineup that includes players with postseason experience (Mike Piazza, Mike Cameron, Dave Roberts and Geoff Blum).

Before the playoff matchups were set, Dodgers manager Grady Little was asked if he had a preference for which team to face in the playoffs. Surprisingly, he had an answer.

"You know which team I'd really like to play?" Little said. "I'd like to play San Diego in the NLCS. I think that would be exciting." The Padres dominated the Dodgers during the regular season, beating them 13 times in 18 meetings this year. "It's a new season," Little said of the playoffs. "When we get to that point, there won't be any looking back. We'll only be looking forward." The Dodgers and Padres had made the playoffs in the same season just once previously. They were both swept in the first round in 1996 (the Dodgers by the Braves, the Padres by the Cardinals).

Cardinals:

The Cardinals backed into their third consecutive National League Central title Sunday when, even though they lost 5-3 to the Brewers, the pursuing Astros fell 3-1 at Atlanta.

In defeat, the Cardinals got away with a calculated gamble by manager Tony La Russa, who pulled staff ace Chris Carpenter from his scheduled outing and opened with rookie right-hander Anthony Reyes instead. Reyes was knocked out in a four-run first inning, but, with the Astros' loss, Carpenter, who would have had to pitch a makeup game with San Francisco on Monday, will be able to start Tuesday's National League playoff series opener at San Diego. He will be able to pitch twice in the five-game series instead of once.

Given that the Cardinals have lost nine of their last 12 games, it was imperative that they have him available for two starts in the series, even though Carpenter has suffered two of the team's nine recent defeats.

Right-hander Jeff Suppan, who has been the Cardinals' (and one of the league's) best pitchers since the All-Star break, figures to get the Game 2 start, although it might go to right-hander Jeff Weaver, who has won four games on the road and just one at home since joining the Cardinals before the All-Star break.

Right-hander Jason Marquis will be jettisoned from the rotation, and Reyes might be the fourth starter, although Sunday's outing wasn't much of an endorsement.

Dodgers:

Back in late July, the Dodgers looked nothing like a playoff team. They came out of the All-Star break and lost 13 of their first 14 games in the second half.

But the Dodgers immediately turned things around by winning 17 of their next 18 games and finished the season Sunday with a 4-3 victory over the Giants. It was their 41st victory in 60 games since that extended slump, and the Dodgers will go into the playoffs with as much momentum as any team, having won seven consecutive games and nine of their last 10.

"I don't know how you could go (into the playoffs) any better," Dodgers manager Grady Little said. "We're playing very well right now.

"Right now if I were anyone else, I wouldn't want to be playing the Dodgers."

The Dodgers' 88-74 record was matched by the Padres. The two will share the National League West title, but the Padres' 13-5 record against the Dodgers this year means they will host the Cardinals in the first-round of the playoffs. The Dodgers will take the wild-card spot and head to New York to face the Mets beginning Wednesday.

"One benefit we've had -- and I'm sure they (the Mets) feel this way to -- is we faced them just a little while ago," outfielder J.D. Drew said of the early September series in New York (a four-game split).

Mets:

The Mets were glad to see the season end Sunday so they could get back to the business that's been on their mind since late June when they opened a double-digit division lead for the first time.

The Mets went into a funk after becoming the first team to clinch but righted themselves heading into their NL Division Series against the Dodgers, which begins Wednesday at Shea Stadium. They finished the season with four consecutive wins after a 1-7 stretch.

"It's nice to finish up strong and get a nice little streak over the weekend," Mets manager Willie Randolph said of beating Washington on Sunday. "We're going into the real season. I'm excited about it and looking forward to it. It's what you play for."

With the victory, the Mets finished at 97-65, the best record in the National League and tied with the Yankees for best in the game.

With the record comes an expectation that can't be compromised.

"It will just be nice to get the playoffs started," third baseman David Wright said. "I'm excited. This is what we play for.

"If we play the way we are capable of playing and take care of our own business, we'll be all right. It's all about the World Series now.

"It would be disappointing if we didn't win it. After the year we've had, there's nothing else that would satisfy us."


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