SAN FRANCISCO – With the September slog on the horizon, four clubs chasing the National League wild-card berth try to ignore design flaws that ought to keep them all from extending their season beyond 162 games and remind themselves of an undisputable truth.
Somebody has to win the thing.
The San Francisco Giants bring formidable starting pitching and a lights-out closer, but their hitters swing at anything and miss everything (ignore for the moment Edgar Renteria's(notes) improbable grand slam Sunday). The Colorado Rockies are defensively sound and mentally sturdy, but their pitching is wobbly and their lineup patchy. The Atlanta Braves and Florida Marlins are similarly uneven, seemingly countering every surge with an immediate regression to the mean.
Momentum for the moment is with the Giants, who completed a three-game sweep of the Rockies with a 9-5 victory Sunday to pull even with Colorado in the wild-card standings. Unlike the first two wins – mound gems by Tim Lincecum(notes) and the rejuvenated Barry Zito(notes) – the finale was a rare Giants hit-fest that underscored the vulnerability of the Rockies' castoff-filled bullpen.
Renteria's seventh-inning slam off Rafael Betancourt(notes) erased a 5-2 Rockies' lead built against Matt Cain(notes), and the Giants poured it on against a parade of relievers. The Rockies had been making noise about catching the Los Angeles Dodgers for the NL West crown, but they are limping home on a five-game skid. Meanwhile, the Giants will embark on a trip to Philadelphia and Milwaukee feeling like they might be postseason-worthy after all.
"It's meaningful because we won all three," Lincecum said. "If we hadn't, we'd have to fight back. But we're feeling good right now and want to carry that on the road."
The sweep came less than a week after the Rockies beat the Giants in three of four at Coors Field, including a 14-inning thriller in the finale that also featured a key grand slam. The Giants led in all four of those games.
"This series sort of balanced the scales," Zito said. "It just showed that it's going to be a hard-fought last month and that the teams are pretty evenly matched."
Of the wild-card contenders, the Giants might be the most dangerous in a playoff series because of their starting pitching. Lincecum and Cain are as good as anybody in the NL, and Zito has pitched better than either of them recently, posting a 1.93 ERA since the All-Star break. And they might get Randy Johnson(notes) back, at least in a relief role. The 303-game winner was optimistic Sunday about his return from a shoulder injury, saying he could contribute out of the bullpen in two or three weeks.
"We'd like to get to the point where we find out how dangerous we are, but we aren't there yet," Lincecum said. "Pitching keeps you in the game."
Normally, the Giants' inefficient hitting approach – they rarely draw walks and rarely hit home runs – keeps the opposition in the game. Pablo Sandoval(notes) is the only consistent threat and he's hobbling from a calf injury. Comeback wins on the bats of free-agent bust Renteria and .105-hitting rookie Ryan Rohlinger(notes) (whose two-run, pinch-single provided insurance in the eighth inning) won't happen often.
That it happened Sunday was devastating enough for the Rockies, whose losing streak has been marked by a failure to execute the small-ball fundamentals so valued by manager Jim Tracy. Case in point: With Colorado trailing 6-5 in the eighth, Clint Barmes(notes) popped up a bunt after Ian Stewart(notes) had led off the inning with a double. Yorvit Torrealba(notes) followed with a single, but Stewart was held at third and the next two batters struck out.
"We've temporarily gotten away from what got us here," Tracy said. "We'll be all right. We still hold our destiny in our hands. The race is not over today."
Colorado is 54-31 since Tracy took over May 29, the best record in the NL. These Rockies are a grounded bunch, bringing a sea-level sensibility to a franchise that for so long was built to flourish at high altitude and take its lumps on flat land. Even after the disastrous weekend by the Bay, they are 36-33 on the road and on pace to finish over .500 away from Coors Field for the first time in franchise history.
Disciplined at-bats and sound defense are the team's strengths. The Rockies lead the NL in walks and in the number of pitches they see, which is a bit ironic for Tracy, who might have lost his job as manager of the Dodgers in 2005 because he didn't worship the almighty base on balls. He was considered hopelessly old-fashioned for valuing camaraderie in the clubhouse, leadership on the field and asking his pitchers to give more than a cursory glance to runners threatening to steal.
In the waning days of his five-year tenure in L.A., Tracy went from being pliant to defiant, pushing back after watching his blood-and-guts favorites such as Paul Lo Duca(notes) and Alex Cora(notes) get replaced by the vapid likes of Hee Seop Choi and J.D. Drew(notes). After biting his tongue during a 71-91 season in 2005 – his only losing record with the Dodgers – he made his displeasure known and quickly found himself banished to the purgatory of Pittsburgh.
It turned out the blood-and-guts guys couldn't win when they didn't have talent, and after two miserable seasons Tracy was bounced out of Pittsburgh and landed on the rapidly splintering bench of the Rockies. As it happened, manager Clint Hurdle's sunny soundtrack was wearing thin little more than a year after the Rockies made their improbable World Series run, and Tracy replaced him with the team mired 10 games under .500.
Now the Rockies remind him of the 2004 Dodgers, who won the NL West playing Tracy's way.
"I lie in bed at night and think about that a lot," Tracy said. "There's the same unbelievable chemistry in the clubhouse, the same excellent infield defense and the same pride in taking quality at-bats."
The Rockies might hold a psychological edge as well because so many players remain from 2007. Yes, the best hitter from that club, Matt Holliday(notes), has departed and the best pitcher, Jeff Francis(notes), is injured. Garrett Atkins(notes) isn't nearly the hitter he was two years ago. But enough of the nucleus remains to give the Rockies the look of a team that has been there before.
The Marlins and Braves begin a four-game series Monday that could reduce the wild-card race to three teams with a sweep or continue the slog if they split. Meanwhile, the Giants and Rockies get a day off before resuming the chase.
"It's pretty much an open race," shortstop Troy Tulowitzki(notes) said. "I like the position we're in right now but it's going to be a tough last month. The teams in the East can't be counted out either. Every game will be meaningful."