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NL a three-team fight for two spots

Steve Henson
Yahoo Sports

SAN DIEGO – Sobriety reigned Sunday in National League ballparks. Two pennant races could have ended but didn't. One team made the playoffs but declined to celebrate. Another could clinch a title Monday on its day off, with no revelry planned. And for the Colorado Rockies, the party is all but over.

Most intriguing is the possibility that next weekend, the San Francisco Giants and San Diego Padres could engage in simultaneous champagne-spewing celebrations at AT&T Park, one team commemorating the NL West title, the other the wild-card berth.

Sympathies are hereby extended in advance to the clubhouse attendants in San Francisco, who might be working for days getting the stink out of two locker rooms.

Clubbies in San Diego and Philadelphia got a reprieve Sunday. Boxes of champagne were discreetly stacked in a hallway next to rolls of protective plastic at Petco Park, not for the Padres but for the visiting Cincinnati Reds. They did their part, destroying the Padres 12-2 to salvage the series finale. But they also needed a loss by the St. Louis Cardinals, who weren't as pliant as usual and held off the Cubs to keep the NL Central race from ending for another day.

The Reds are off Monday and have no plans to convene if they become champions by virtue of the Cardinals losing to the Pirates.

"It's a rest day," manager Dusty Baker said. "Guys have stuff to do, family stuff. They see each other, what, 180 days a year or more. They need their personal time."

A celebration was also dashed in Philadelphia, where the Phillies were unable to clinch the NL East at home because they lost to the Mets. They did clinch a playoff berth, but that wasn't enough to pop corks. As with the Reds, however, their jubilation is a foregone conclusion.

That leaves two races up for grabs, with the Giants a half-game ahead of the Padres in the NL West, and the Padres a half-game ahead of the reeling Atlanta Braves for the wild-card berth.

The Rockies fell behind by 4½ games in the West and four games in the wild-card race thanks to Giants right-hander Matt Cain, who held them hitless for 7 1/3 innings before settling for a complete-game, 4-2 victory Sunday. Counting out the Rockies isn't done easily given their history of miraculous comebacks, but overtaking the Braves as well as the loser of the Giants-Padres battle is exceedingly unlikely.

So let's lock in on the three teams that have a realistic chance of joining the Phillies and Reds in the NL Division Series:

Games remaining: Off Monday. Home for three games against the Diamondbacks and three games against the Padres.
Opponents' motivation: Arizona has zero reason to be focused unless impressing incoming general manager Kevin Towers is important. However, Diamondbacks manager Kirk Gibson won't give an inch. The final series against the Padres should be a tremendous battle between two very similar teams. The only way it could lose its luster is for the Braves to freefall and make the series only about home-field advantage.
Momentum: Pitching produces mo' and the Giants run a quality starter to the mound every night – witness their 18 consecutive games surrendering three or fewer runs, a streak that ended Saturday. The prospect of finishing the season at home after winning two of three at Colorado is a feel-good proposition.
Pitching matchups: The Giants have an edge in every game against the D'backs, and Tim Lincecum would pitch the series finale Thursday. The rotation for the weekend would be Barry Zito, Cain and Jonathan Sanchez.
Injuries: Center fielder and offensive catalyst Andres Torres has returned after having an appendectomy Sept. 12. Shortstop Edgar Renteria's sore right elbow will bother him the rest of the season, but Juan Uribe is a top-flight replacement.

Games remaining: Home for four games against the Cubs. On the road for three against the Giants.
Opponents' motivation: Chicago has played extremely well under interim manager Mike Quade. Carlos Zambrano is pitching well and the Cubs' offense is potent enough to give recently wobbly Padres' starters trouble.
Momentum: It comes and goes. Since letting the Giants back in the race by losing 10 in a row, the Padres are 11-9. Winning two of three this weekend against the Reds was a plus.
Pitching matchups: The Cubs have an edge Monday, sending Zambrano against Tim Stauffer. The Padres' Mat Latos will try to get untracked Tuesday against Randy Wells, and on Wednesday the Padres' Chris Young will go for his third consecutive strong outing since coming off the disabled list. Latos is scheduled to pitch the season finale against the Giants.
Injuries: The groin injury shortstop Miguel Tejada suffered Saturday wasn't enough to keep him out of the lineup a day later. He could re-aggravate it, although Tejada has a history of playing through nagging injuries.

Games remaining: Home for three against the Marlins, a day off then three more at home against the Phillies.
Opponents' motivation: Florida loves to sock it to the Braves, who Marlins' brass considers their rival. Remember, they snubbed outgoing Braves manager Bobby Cox, refusing to honor him. It's hard to imagine the Phillies would be gung-ho over the weekend. They'll probably rest veteran position players and keep starters to reasonable pitch counts regardless of the score.
Momentum: The Braves have zero, but at least they are playing their last six games at home, where they have baseball's best record: 52-23.
Injuries: The loss of starter Jair Jurrjens because of a sore knee is major. He missed his start Sunday and it is unclear when he could return. Setup reliever Takashi Saito has a sore right shoulder and might not be much help. And, of course, the loss of third baseman Chipper Jones was a blow, although the combination of Martin Prado at third and Omar Infante at second is potent.