Down The Stretch They Come

August is known as the Dog Days. The weather gets hot and players and teams are tested to their utmost. With that as the backdrop, let's take a look at how things might look one month from now when the stretch run officially begins.

With so many teams still scrapping it out as the season enters the final stretch, the schedule plays a major role.   Those teams who have played more of 2005 at home - the Nationals for example - will see a lot of road games in August.  Other teams, like the Phillies and Braves, will play more of August at home.  This will even things out to begin the September intra-divisional showdowns.  In the final month, it all comes down to head-to-head play.  Any teams within five games at the start of September will have a chance to make the playoffs.  Here's how the NL East will stand on September 1st.

1. Atlanta Braves

The Braves have a home-heavy August, playing 16 games in Atlanta - including twelve in a row at one point - and just twelve on the road.  Down home southern cooking has done wonders for the Braves, owners of an impressive 35-14 record.  That's a .714 clip, second best home record in baseball behind the surging Houston Astros.  Barring a meltdown, the Braves will win at least 16 games in August and begin the September NL East shootout as top guns.  If they win on the road in August, the Braves will run away with the division.  That would make a tidy 14 straight seasons winning the NL East.  Somebody, please!  Break up the Braves!  With all these rookies coming out of nowhere, you get the feeling Atlanta could field two teams in the NL East and finish 1-2.

Come September, Atlanta will have a seven game showdown against the Phillies, four of which are at Citizens Bank Park.  No doubt John Smoltz will be pressed to elaborate on his recent rants against the place.  There's nothing like having a home ballpark mess with the mind of opposing pitchers.  If the Phillies can chase him early, the crowd will go bonkers and chant his name as he heads for the showers.  So far this season, the Phillies are 5-7 against Atlanta.  If the Phillies can only manage a 4-3 record against the Braves the rest of the way, they will have to watch the scoreboard and hope for help.

Bottom Line: If one team dominates the other, the last seven games between the Braves and Phillies will determine the winner of the NL East.

2. Florida Marlins

After playing their first nine August games on the road, the Marlins play thirteen in a row at home from August 9-22.   If they can stay close until then and play well on the homestand, the Marlins will close the gap against the Braves and settle into second place on September 1.  The tricky thing about August is that they play every day but one, including a double-header.  These games will be exhausting, hard-fought contests.  The Marlins might even catch up to the Braves in August, but will they have enough gas in the tank to surge past them in September?  Not likely.

The Phillies play the Marlins six more times this season, a pair of September series at each stadium. These six games will be tough for the Phillies, since they are sandwiched around a four game set with the Braves in Philly. 

Bottom Line: The Phillies-Marlins series on September 16-18 in Florida will decide who the Braves really have to fear in the NL East.

3. Philadelphia Phillies

The Phillies must gain ground in August if they hope to survive.  Fortunately, they play 16 games at home in August against just 11 on the road.  The Phillies are currently 33-22 at home, 10th best home mark in the show.  They must manage a record of 16-11 this August to keep within striking distance of the Braves.  Most likely by September they will be in third place, 4 or 5 games out.  Any August wins above 16 and the Phillies will be in a great position come September.  Their fate will be in their own hands as they fight their way to the finish.  If Jim Thome gets hot down the stretch, he may yet save a lost season and lead the Phillies to the crown.

Unless the Phils fall apart in August, the 2005 season will hinge on a crucial September stretch playing the Braves or Marlins in 13 consecutive games, the final 6 of which are on the road.  The 13 games in 14 days on September 9-22 will determine the Phillies fate.  If they need to make up more than five games, they probably won't make it through.  If they stay close and then win 9 of these 13, the Phillies will be right there at the end.

Bottom Line: For the Phillies, it all comes down to starting pitching, and unless Jon Lieber and Cory Lidle return to top form, forget about it.

4. New York Mets

The New York Mets have been lurking in the shadows, never falling back enough to be counted out.  They play 14 home games in August against 13 on the road.  If they jump on the Phillies at the end of August, they could cripple the Phillies just as the race really begins.  Superstar power is what makes the Mets a dangerous foe.  Pedro Martinez, Carlos Beltran, Cliff Floyd and Mike Piazza are proven lethal weapons.  Jose Reyes is growing into a top tablesetter.  If he gets hot and the pitching holds, the Mets will make a run.

In the September showdowns, the Mets play 12 home games and 16 on the road, so a playoff spot is unlikely.  The Phillies face the Mets 6 times down the stretch, one in each park.  The Phillies can't afford to let the Mets become spoilers.

Bottom Line: New York city has spoiled enough for Philadelphia.  It would be a tough pill to swallow for Philly if they do it again.

5. Washington Nationals

The Nationals play 12 games at home against 16 on the road in August.  The Nats will struggle to hold their ground during a difficult stretch of 13 in a row on the road, four of which are in Philly.  Many of the one-run games they used to win will turn into one-run losses.  Perhaps by August 15-18, the Phillies will be in a position to swat away the Nats with a four game sweep. 

If the Nats remain pesky until the end, the Phillies can squash them for good in the final three games of the regular season in D.C.  All told, the Phillies have 10 more games against the Nationals, 6 at RFK in the September/October stretch run.

Bottom Line: If the Phillies let down against the Nats, look out below.  Heads will roll for sure.

Wild Card

If one team in the NL East gets white hot, they could beat all the others right out of the wild card race.  The surging Houston Astros have a softer schedule than the NL East teams.  Combine that with their starting pitching, featuring the big three of Clemens-Pettitte-Oswalt, and the Astros are a lock to get in.  They play three more games in Philadelphia, giving the Phillies a chance to get a little payback for the painful sweep in Houston.  But even a Philly sweep wouldn't end their season.  Odds are, Houston will waltz in as wild card while the NL East teams take each other out down the stretch.

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