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National League pennant race — One for the ages?

Sep 16, 2003 5:06 AM

The World Series winner will be...? The people who’ve run baseball over the last decade have gotten a lot of criticism, much of it justified. One thing that they have to be given some credit for, however, is - calm down, traditionalists ”” the addition of the Wild Card.

This year may go down in history as one of the best pennant races ever, right up there with 1951, 1978 and 1993. Here is a close look at some of the NL teams clawing for those last postseason berths.

Cubs: The Cubbies are in a battle with Houston and St. Louis for the NL Central crown. This team can’t hit, but, oh, what a bunch of talented young arms. The Cubs rotation of Carlos Zambrano, Mark Prior, Kerry Wood and Matt Clement is the envy of many organizations. Their ages? 22, 23, 26 and 29.

The pitching has kept this team in contention, because the offense ”” despite playing in tiny Wrigley Field ”” has been weak. The schedule is favorable, however, with games remaining against all losing teams - the Mets, Pirates and Reds. If the Cubbies fall short again, don’t blame the schedule-maker!

Astros: It’s hard to believe the ”˜Stros were 44-43 on July 6. Houston has survived numerous injuries and has a talented offense and a strong bullpen, anchored by the righty/lefty duo of Octavio Dotel and closer Billy Wagner. The best news of all happened last week, when ace pitcher Roy Oswalt pitched for the first time since July 30.

Oswalt was 19-9 last season and could provide a huge boost at just the right time for this team. Jared Fernandez now moves to the bullpen, making an already strong relief corps even better. They’ll need to survive a trip to Coors Field and series with the Cardinals and Giants before hosting a four-game set against the lowly Brewers to end the regular season.

Dodgers: Or as they’re known in Dodgertown, "The Hitless Wonders." Los Angeles has a long history of great pitching staffs, even winning championships with very little hitting. This group would fit right in if they get to October’s Big Show.

Hideo Nomo, Kazuhisa Ishii, Odalis Perez and resurgent Kevin Brown anchor a deep rotation, while remarkable closer Eric Gagne dominates hitters, closing out games with regularity. Gagne is in the running for the Cy Young award, which no reliever has won since 1992 (Dennis Eckersley). Hitting is another story.

Marlins: Sentimental favorites? Of course. If this pennant race were a Hollywood movie, the Marlins would roll to another World Series title (they won in 1997). Remember that this team was 19-29 in late May and just seven weeks ago was 120-to-1 to win the World Series. Now they’re trying to cap an improbable run to the postseason.

Speedy CF Juan Pierre and 2B Luis Castillo form a great one-two punch atop the order (not to mention defensively), and veteran catcher Pudge Rodriguez handles a talented young staff. The Angels came out of nowhere in 2002 and Florida is trying to do it this season.

Phillies: While the Marlins are the low-budget underdogs, the Phillies are fat-cat favorites. That is, the organization built a talented corps of young players, then went shopping last winter for expensive parts to try and put this team over the top.

Jim Thome and ace pitcher Kevin Millwood were added to a group that included young stars such as Mike Lieberthal, Bob Abreu, Pat Burrell, Vicente Padilla and Randy Wolf. This week begins a crucial run for the wild card as the Marlins and Phils play six games Sept. 16-18 and at Florida on Sept. 23-25.