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Playoff pulse: Balanced Mets creating a buzz

Jeff Passan
Yahoo Sports

NEW YORK – Before he signed with the New York Mets four years ago, Tom Glavine called two of his friends, Al Leiter and John Franco, and asked them what it felt like to win in New York.

Though a simple question, it was also one of poignancy to Glavine. He had spent the first 16 years of his career in Atlanta, a city spoiled with division championships yet struggling, some years, to sell out playoff games. If there was a buzz with the Braves, it sounded like it was emanating from a dying bee.

Finally, last week, Glavine could fathom what Leiter and Franco told him: The excitement for a winning team in New York is palpable, the feeling genuine, the sentiment electric. The Mets are the chic – and understandable – choice of the masses to advance to the World Series from the National League, though Glavine, who won just one World Series despite 11 postseason appearances with the Braves, is understandably wary.

"We are the favorites," he said, "but we're beatable. I've been in this position so many times, and the bottom line is, you're a hot pitcher away from getting knocked out in the first round. You just don't know."

Starting pitching happens to be the Mets' vulnerability, of course, with Pedro Martinez and Glavine still not at 100 percent. Behind them stand Orlando Hernandez, Steve Trachsel and John Maine, not exactly anyone's idea of a scary troika, and certainly not a rotation that would match San Diego or Philadelphia's.

Certainly the Mets make up for it elsewhere. The first five hitters in their lineup – Jose Reyes, Paul Lo Duca, Carlos Beltran, Carlos Delgado and David Wright – are unparalleled in the NL and matched perhaps only by the New York Yankees. Their bullpen, with right-handers Aaron Heilman and Chad Bradford, lefties Darren Oliver and Pedro Feliciano and closer Billy Wagner, is legitimately deep and legitimately good.

"We've got experience, we've got young players, we've got power, we've got speed," second baseman Jose Valentin said. "What we've got is something very special."

"We have all the pieces to the puzzle," Glavine said. "The question is, do they fit?"

Much of it depends on their matchup. The Mets struggle mightily against left-handed pitching, with an on-base-plus-slugging almost 40 points lower. The only left-handed starter among the teams they could play in the first round is San Diego's David Wells, unless Los Angeles were to start Hong-Chih Kuo or Mark Hendrickson or St. Louis fails to win the Central Division.

The real problem would come with an NL Championship Series matchup against Philadelphia, which starts Jamie Moyer and Cole Hamels. Though that would not be for another two weeks. The Mets are concerned with here and now.

They know that buzz can die awfully fast.

"This is about momentum, and if we play the wild-card team, they're going to have that," Mets GM Omar Minaya said. "So we're going to have to grab it back."

THREE UP

Philadelphia Phillies: Ryan Howard isn't the only one who pitchers should intentionally walk. How about Chase Utley, who last week hit .538 with three home runs and eight RBI? Or Abraham Nuñez, who has emerged from a vicious early-season slump and got on base last week at a .583 clip. With Howard, who drew eight walks and hit another homer, the Phillies had three of the top eight in on-base percentage throughout the game last week. No surprise they outscored opponents 39-29 and went 5-1. Another week like that and they're not just in the playoffs – they're a scary team.

Roger Clemens, Houston: One final tip of the cap to the Rocket. Because the Astros have struggled, the recognition for what he's doing has lagged accordingly. Here's a clue: If he qualified, Clemens' ERA of 2.35 would be the best in the big leagues. Only Johan Santana and Chris Carpenter have better ratios of walks and hits per inning pitched. Batters hit .214 against him. He should pass 4,600 strikeouts his next start. On and on we could go, and the Astros won both games he started this week, the latter on three days' rest.

Houston Astros: Nice of Phil Garner to take his team out of those mummy wraps. Lance Berkman, the lone Astros hitter having any kind of a season, scored 11 runs last week, and rookie Luke Scott drove in a major-league-best 13 runs. And with Chad Qualls pitching five scoreless innings in five appearances and Trever Miller doing his spotless left-handed relief, the Astros have found some bullpen pieces to complement the rotation that should have led them to a better record than their current 77-78.

THREE DOWN

St. Louis Cardinals: Sterling effort by the bullpen this week. Closer candidate No. 1, Adam Wainwright: 7.71 ERA. Closer candidate No. 2, Braden Looper: 13.50. Other relievers include Tyler Johnson (27.00), Randy Flores (20.25) and Josh Hancock (9.00). Even though he makes nerves dance, Jason Isringhausen is missed. And if the Cardinals don't watch out, after getting swept by Houston for their fifth consecutive loss, they could blow the division, too.

Dan Uggla, Florida: For a guy pushing for the Rookie of the Year award in a league teeming with great candidates, Uggla, the Rule 5 pick-turned-All-Star second baseman, did not make the greatest case last week. He went 2 for 31 with one walk and nine strikeouts as the Marlins faded from contention. Whether he fades from the voters' favor – his 26 home runs are an all-time rookie high for his position – could depend on the final week of Ryan Zimmerman (101 RBI) and Hanley Ramirez (51 SB).

Chicago White Sox: All season, the White Sox seem to have been waiting for the right time to spring back toward the top of the American League Central standings. And now it's too late. While catching the Detroit Tigers and Minnesota Twins was a long shot, Chicago stumbled badly all week, from Joe Crede hitting into four double plays to Mark Buehrle getting lit for 19 hits and 11 runs in 11 2/3 innings. With Jose Contreras hurt, the White Sox should be glad they didn't make the playoffs. They might have embarrassed themselves.

MATCHUPS OF THE WEEK

Here is a daily breakdown of the starting pitchers for each of the three National League teams vying for two playoff spots.

Tuesday

• Philadelphia at Washington
Brett Myers vs. Ramon Ortiz
Breakdown: Myers' ERA in September is 2.40. Ortiz's is 5.76, and he's struck out only 10 in 25 innings.
Advantage: Phillies

• San Diego at St. Louis
Woody Williams vs. Chris Carpenter
Breakdown: While Williams has been almost untouchable in September, it's tough to bet against the pitcher deserving of the NL Cy Young.
Advantage: Cardinals

• Los Angeles at Colorado
Greg Maddux vs. Jason Jennings
Breakdown: A scorching Colorado offense – one that hits particularly well against finesse pitchers – is a bad sign for Maddux. Jennings' recent control problems are a good one.
Advantage: Dodgers

Wednesday

• Philadelphia at Washington
Cole Hamels vs. Pedro Astacio
Breakdown: Cole Hamels Fact No. 366: Pedro Astacio is Spanish for "I wish I were Cole Hamels."
Advantage: Phillies

• San Diego at St. Louis
Chris Young vs. Jason Marquis
Breakdown: Young's last time out, he almost threw a no-hitter. Marquis' last time out, he threw a nine-hitter (over 5 1/3 innings, and the Cardinals lost). Advantage: Padres

• Los Angeles at Colorado
Derek Lowe vs. Aaron Cook
Breakdown: The Battle of the Sinker seems to suit pitching in Colorado, so the best way to break the tie is with the hot hand, and that's Lowe, whose September ERA is half of Cook's.
Advantage: Dodgers

Thursday

• Philadelphia at Washington
Jon Lieber vs. Mike O'Connor
Breakdown: O'Connor hasn't gone more than 5 1/3 innings since June, and if the Phillies take pitches like they have been, they should be in good shape.
Advantage: Phillies

• San Diego at Arizona
Jake Peavy vs. Miguel Batista
Breakdown: Peavy looks like his old self – lots of swings and misses, broken bats and tremendous control. The Yankees' lineup would have trouble with him.
Advantage: Padres

• Los Angeles at Colorado
Brad Penny vs. Byung-Hyun Kim
Breakdown: After an atrocious start to September, Penny has leveled off. Kim is the same as always – solid, nothing spectacular and very unlikely to give up one home run, let alone four straight.
Advantage: Dodgers

Friday

• Philadelphia at Florida
Jamie Moyer vs. Brian Moehler
Breakdown: Moyer is 2-0 against the Marlins since coming over from Seattle, and his slow, slower and slowest off-speed stuff has confused Florida's young lineup.
Advantage: Phillies

• San Diego at Arizona
Clay Hensley vs. Livan Hernandez
Breakdown: Two good appearances for Hensley against the Diamondbacks, plus his 2.67 ERA in September, puts San Diego in good shape.
Advantage: Padres

• Los Angeles at San Francisco
Hong-Chih Kuo vs. Noah Lowry
Breakdown: The Giants haven't seen much of Kuo, who has been in relief most of the season. The Dodgers have to love what they've seen of Lowry in his last four outings (25 earned runs in 15 2/3 innings).
Advantage: Dodgers

Saturday

• Philadelphia at Florida
Randy Wolf vs. Scott Olsen
Breakdown: The Marlins knocked around Wolf, and the Phillies did the same to Olsen. The difference: With the exception of his Sunday start, Olsen has been excellent in September, and Wolf hasn't.
Advantage: Marlins

• San Diego at Arizona
David Wells vs. Edgar Gonzalez
Breakdown: Wells has been positively mediocre since his arrival from Boston, and his one start against the Diamondbacks was bad. Gonzalez, meanwhile, limited the Padres to one run in seven innings. Tough call, but why not go with an upset?
Advantage: Diamondbacks

• Los Angeles at San Francisco
Greg Maddux vs. Matt Cain
Breakdown: Cain's line against the Dodgers: eight innings, 16 hits, nine earned runs. And that's the main salvation for Los Angeles, because Maddux's September ERA is 4.76
Advantage: Dodgers

Sunday

• Philadelphia at Florida
Brett Myers vs. Dontrelle Willis
Breakdown: Myers has clamped on the Marlins all year. Last time Willis faced the Phillies, he threw a three-hit shutout and struck out a dozen. This may be the best pitching matchup all week, and Philadelphia needs it more.
Advantage: Phillies

• San Diego at Arizona
Woody Williams vs. Brandon Webb
Breakdown: The Padres have touched Webb for almost a hit an inning. Williams has given up more than a hit an inning. This one is a crapshoot.
Advantage: Diamondbacks

• Los Angeles at San Francisco
Derek Lowe vs. Jason Schmidt
Breakdown: Though he's only 1-2 against the Dodgers, Schmidt has a 2.62 ERA and has faced them five times. And sealing the Dodgers' fate could be Lowe's struggles against the Giants (1-1, 5.68 ERA).
Advantage: Giants

NUMBER CRUNCHING

Heard from Cyril Morong, who, by analyzing years of data, constructed a formula how to put together an optimal lineup. He sent along an updated link to his research, and the comment section at the bottom is particularly interesting.

Using Ken Arneson's program, here is a look at the current lineups of National League contenders, their ideal lineups and how the projected run total from the best of 362,800 possible lineups compares to the actual one.

New York Mets

Projected lineup

1) Jose Reyes
2) Paul Lo Duca
3) Carlos Beltran
4) Carlos Delgado
5) David Wright
6) Cliff Floyd
7) Shawn Green
8) Jose Valentin
9) Pedro Martinez

Best lineup

1) Paul Lo Duca
2) Carlos Beltran
3) Jose Reyes
4) David Wright
5) Carlos Delgado
6) Cliff Floyd
7) Shawn Green
8) Jose Valentin
9) Pedro Martinez

Projected lineup runs per game: 5.124
Best lineup runs per game: 5.183
Real runs per game: 5.161

St. Louis Cardinals

Projected lineup

1) David Eckstein
2) Chris Duncan
3) Albert Pujols
4) Scott Rolen
5) Juan Encarnacion
6) Ronnie Belliard
7) Scott Spiezio
8) Yadier Molina
9) Chris Carpenter

Best lineup

1) David Eckstein
2) Albert Pujols
3) Scott Spiezio
4) Chris Duncan
5) Scott Rolen
6) Yadier Molina
7) Ronnie Belliard
8) Juan Encarnacion
9) Chris Carpenter

Projected lineup runs per game: 4.908
Best lineup runs per game: 4.976
Real runs per game: 4.85

San Diego Padres

Projected lineup

1) Dave Roberts
2) Brian Giles
3) Mike Cameron
4) Mike Piazza
5) Adrian Gonzalez
6) Geoff Blum
7) Josh Barfield
8) Todd Walker
9) Jake Peavy

Best lineup

1) Todd Walker
2) Adrian Gonzalez
3) Josh Barfield
4) Mike Cameron
5) Mike Piazza
6) Geoff Blum
7) Dave Roberts
8) Jake Peavy
9) Brian Giles

Projected lineup runs per game: 4.814
Best lineup runs per game: 4.919
Real runs per game: 4.471

Philadelphia Phillies

Projected lineup

1) Jimmy Rollins
2) Shane Victorino
3) Chase Utley
4) Ryan Howard
5) David Dellucci
6) Pat Burrell
7) Chris Coste
8) Abraham Nunez
9) Brett Myers

Best lineup

1) Pat Burrell
2) Ryan Howard
3) Chris Coste
4) Chase Utley
5) David Dellucci
6) Shane Victorino
7) Abraham Nunez
8) Jimmy Rollins
9) Brett Myers

Projected lineup runs per game: 5.049
Best lineup runs per game: 5.212
Real runs per game: 5.348

Los Angeles Dodgers

Projected lineup

1) Rafael Furcal
2) Kenny Lofton
3) Nomar Garciaparra
4) Jeff Kent
5) J.D. Drew
6) Marlon Anderson
7) Wilson Betemit
8) Russell Martin
9) Brad Penny

Best lineup

1) Rafael Furcal
2) J.D. Drew
3) Marlon Anderson
4) Jeff Kent
5) Nomar Garciaparra
6) Brad Penny
7) Russell Martin
8) Wilson Betemit
9) Kenny Lofton

Projected lineup runs per game: 5.103
Best lineup runs per game: 5.179
Real runs per game: 4.949

SKEPTICAL HOMETOWN COLUMNIST OF THE WEEK

Ray Ratto, San Francisco Chronicle

OK, so by Ratto's naturally skeptical standards, this is practically a love letter to the A's. Still, after losing the last two of a three-game series at home to the Angels, Oakland has shown enough weaknesses to keep Ratto – and all of the A's fans hoping they clinch in Seattle instead of going to Anaheim this weekend with a playoff spot on the line – honest.

Perhaps these two comprehensive losses, in which the A's rolled up six entire hits over the course of 65 plate appearances, cause some folks to wonder if the team's hitting deficiencies this season are re-rearing their ugly heads at the worst possible time. I mean, they gave John Lackey a full workload Saturday, forcing him to throw 124 pitches in seven innings, but Sunday, (Ervin) Santana needed only 97 in eight, and only five of the 30 Oakland at-bats lasted longer than four pitches.

But Jered Weaver, Lackey and Santana have one advantage over the Seattle pitchers, Cesar Jimenez, Jake Woods and Gil Meche: Namely, that they are Jered Weaver, Lackey and Santana, and the other guys are Cesar Jimenez, Jake Woods and Gil Meche. If the Angels are in the A's heads, it only stands to reason that the A's are in the Mariners' skulls as well, and for a far more compelling mathematical reason.

All the more reason, then, for the A's to finish their task within the next three nights, and leave the debris from the celebration for the Mariners' visiting clubhouse manager, Henry Genzale, to clean. Even if the Billy Beane/Carrie Nation alcohol ban remains in effect, the A's can, in Macha's immortal words, "pour O'Doul's all over each other."

PLAYOFF ODDS REPORT

Interesting that going into the final week, only three of the eight playoff spots have been clinched. While Minnesota and Oakland are practically givens, the Baseball Prospectus computers can't say the same about the National League. St. Louis, after an ugly sweep by Houston, dropped to 96.10 percent, which seems safe nonetheless. The wild card, on the other hand? Technology's guess is as good as ours.

(Last week's percentages in parentheses.)

American League
New York Yankees: 100 percent (100 percent)
Detroit Tigers: 100 percent (98.33 percent)
Minnesota Twins*: 99.93 percent (95.52 percent)
Oakland Athletics: 98.98 percent (97.42 percent)
Los Angeles Angels: 1.02 percent (2.58 percent)
Chicago White Sox: 0.07 percent (6.09 percent)

National League
New York Mets: 100 percent (100 percent)
St. Louis Cardinals: 96.10 percent (99.15 percent)
San Diego Padres: 89.01 percent (80.59 percent)
Philadelphia Phillies*: 63.71 percent (38.87 percent)
Los Angeles Dodgers: 47.20 percent (71.93 percent)
Houston Astros: 3.33 percent (0.49 percent)

* – Wild card leader: Even though the Phillies are just a half-game up on the Dodgers, they are almost 40 percent likelier to win the wild card, according to the numbers. It will be interesting to see how the numbers fluctuate depending on single wins and losses.

FINAL WORD

"What we did great was we had four very tough losses and every night we came out and played. I give our club a lot of credit for that and I have terrific respect, because that's hard to do." – Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, who must have momentarily forgotten that St. Louis' lead has slipped to 3½ games