The NL West is a three-team pile-up

BY Ken Rosenthal • September 13, 2010

In the losing clubhouse, Padres closer Heath Bell said that on the flight to Colorado he would need to remind some of the team’s younger players that the Pads still were in a virtual tie for first place.

On the winning side, Giants right-hander Tim Lincecum spoke with measured excitement, saying that his slider Sunday was the best it had ever been, and that his confidence was at a season high.

Different outcomes, different outlooks. And in the multi-car pileup that the NL East, West and wild-card races promise to deliver, we are not simply talking about two teams.

The Brooklyn Dodgers were the boys of summer; the Rockies are the boys of September. Then there are the Braves, who own the league’s best run differential, trail the Phillies by one game in the NL East and lead the wild-card race by one — and could miss the postseason entirely.

A week ago, a Rockies official predicted to me that the Padres and Braves would falter, enabling both the Giants and Rockies to barge into the postseason. At the time, his projection seemed a little farfetched. No more.

The Phillies again look like the best team in the league. Their front three of Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels is positively fearsome. But if the Giants and Rockies indeed make the playoffs, both will be legitimate threats in the first round.

Their respective pitching staffs are that good.

The Rockies rank only 10th in the NL in ERA, but a postseason rotation of Ubaldo Jimenez, Jorge De La Rosa and Jason Hammel would be formidable now that De La Rosa is back in form. Closer Huston Street and setup man Rafael Betancourt suddenly are hot, and Jhoulys Chacin and Esmil Rogers could move to the bullpen for the playoffs.

The Giants? They are in even better shape.

After slogging through August, they have regained their pitching mojo, holding the Padres over the weekend to five runs in four games.

True, the Pads’ offense has gone from weak to pathetic, averaging just 2.2 runs in the past 17 games. But do not discount the Giants’ pitching dominance — their 1.84 ERA in September leads the majors.

Lincecum, who was 0-5 with a 7.82 ERA in August, is at the heart of this stirring renaissance. His victory Sunday came in a much-anticipated showdown against Padres ace Mat Latos. After the Giants’ Buster Posey hit a two-run, opposite-field homer in the first, the game was never close.

Lincecum’s 29-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his last three starts speaks volumes. And yet, it doesn’t tell everything. On Sunday, Lincecum unleashed a little-used weapon, leaning more heavily on his slider, a pitch that he had thrown only 7.5 percent of the time in his previous starts.

A scout in attendance said Lincecum’s changeup remained his best pitch, adding that his slider was above-average, but not a wipeout pitch. In any case, the effect was significant: Lincecum had his slider breaking toward one side of the plate, his changeup toward the other.

Giants pitching coach Dave Righetti does not advocate his pitchers throwing sliders, fearing added strain on the elbow. But when Lincecum uses a shorter stride, gets over the pitch and throws it down-and-away to right-handed hitters, “that’s pitching,” Righetti said. “That’s why he doesn’t have to throw 97.”

Part of Lincecum’s problem is that he is “The Freak,” a back-to-back Cy Young winner, one of the game’s most compelling performers. The expectations for him are so high, he tries to be — in Righetti’s words — “Captain America” every time out. Even for the most talented, the game is not that easy.

Latos, after a major league-record 15 straight starts of five or more innings and two or fewer runs allowed, admitted to struggling with his breaking stuff Sunday. As Lincecum learns that some days will simply be better than others, he will continue to evolve.

Heck, he’s already back.

Lincecum and Matt Cain would be a formidable 1-2 in the postseason, and if Barry Zito fails to snap out of his recent slump, the Giants could use one of their other talented lefties, Jonathan Sanchez or Madison Bumgarner.

Their bullpen, while not as strong as the Padres’, is one of the league’s best. Their offense, while below average, is good enough if the pitching excels. The team’s biggest current problem: Center fielder Andres Torres underwent an appendectomy Sunday and could miss the rest of the regular season.

Without Torres, manager Bruce Bochy will need to make greater use of Cody Ross. The Giants’ outfield defense on Sunday — Pat Burrell in left, Aaron Rowand in center and Jose Guillen in right — was an accident waiting to happen.

Hey, it’s the National League. Every team is flawed. But here’s the thing: The Giants are an experienced, confident group, while the Rockies are drawing on their success from previous late-season runs.

The Padres lack such a foundation.

On Monday they begin a difficult 10-game trip to Colorado, St. Louis and Los Angeles. They are tied for first place, but it’s almost as if they are playing from behind.

“It’s not like we have to catch somebody,” Bell protested. “If we win every game out, it’s not like we have to hope and pray the next team loses a couple of games.

“Like the Rockies: If they win every game out, they have to hope they beat us, beat the Giants. We just have to win every day. It’s as simple as that.”

And as complicated, too.

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