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Lowly Padres may present challenge in playoffs

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  • Lowly Padres may present challenge in playoffs

    Lowly Padres may present challenge in the NL playoffs
    By Rick Hummel

    Now that the National League playoff field is all but set, it is almost certain that, for the first time in baseball history, a team with 80 or more losses will be in postseason play.

    The San Diego Padres, the likely opponents for the Cardinals in the first round, won the Western Division championship Wednesday when they ascended to the .500 mark. The Padres needed to lose only one of their final four games - a distinct possibility, given how their season has gone - to reach 80 losses for the season and they had a real chance to go into postseason play at .500 or even below.

    But history tells us that teams barely over the break-even mark can be highly successful in the postseason.

    Exhibit A is the 1973 New York Mets, who finished 82-79 - the worst record by a postseason team to date. The National League Eastern Division champion Mets upended the highly favored Cincinnati Reds in the league championship series and then led the defending world champion Oakland Athletics three games to two in the World Series before losing the final two games in Oakland.

    That Mets team had Tom Seaver, who won 19 games, and lefthanders Jon Matlack and Jerry Koosman, who both had losing records that year but were top-line pitchers.

    The 1987 Minnesota Twins finished only eight games over .500 at 85-77. But they upset the 98-game-winning Detroit Tigers in the ALCS and then disposed of the Cardinals in seven games in the World Series. The Twins had 17-game winner Frank Viola and 15-game winner Bert Blyleven, both considered top-line pitchers.

    San Diego, likewise has a top-line pitcher in Jake Peavy, who will lead the National League in strikeouts, and another borderline top-line talent in Adam Eaton, who was as highly regarded or even more so than Peavy at the start of the season but has been plagued with finger issues.

    Clearly, the Padres pose some problems, as the Eastern Division champion Atlanta Braves found out this year. When it wasn't clear whether the Braves would be playing Houston as the wild-card entrant or the middling Padres as the West champion in the first round, Atlanta third baseman Chipper Jones said, "Watch out for what you hope for."

    The Braves are 1-5 against San Diego but 5-1 against Houston, which seems the stronger team.

    Still, Jones told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "I'm gearing up for Houston."

    And Atlanta first baseman Adam LaRoche said, "No disrespect to San Diego, but I don't think anyone looks forward to facing (Houston's) Roger Clemens, Roy Oswalt and Andy Pettitte."

    As clear as the National League playoff picture is, the American League is in a word, clouded, although the Chicago White Sox punched their ticket Thursday afternoon by beating Detroit 4-2. The White Sox's win over the Tigers gave them, much like the Cardinals, a mathematical certainty that they are the Central Division champions, too, because they have an 11-5 tiebreaker edge over Cleveland before the teams play a three-game series in Jacobs Field this weekend.

    The White Sox win Thursday also ensured there can be no four-team playoff spot for three spots among Chicago, Cleveland, New York and Boston.

    There still exists a possibility that Cleveland, Boston and New York could wind up with the same records. In that case, Boston and New York, who have a three-game series this weekend in Fenway Park, would play off for the AL Eastern Division title on Monday and the loser would play Cleveland for the wild-card spot on Tuesday.

    That scenario would push back both American League first-round series to Wednesday from Tuesday. That technically could affect the projected Tuesday-Thursday first-round home scenario for the Cardinals, although Katy Feeney, a vice president for Major League Baseball, said no decision had been made on that yet.

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