By Claire Smith
Inquirer Staff Writer
Ty Cobb never participated in a wild-card race. But baseball's original Mr. Intensity must have been wishing for something like the insanity that is the 2006 scramble for the National League's backdoor entry into the postseason when he said that the national pastime "should be an unrelenting war of nerves."
Try divvying up the one playoff position still up for grabs in the league by seven desperate teams. Six teams, led by the Phillies, began play yesterday within five games of the wild-card-leading San Diego Padres.
That makes seven teams in the scramble for October by any means other than a division title.
Seven. That's insanity and intensity rolled into one. And not Stephen Hawking, Las Vegas oddsmakers, Carnac the Magnificent, or any fingernail-biting player in this race knows how this will all play out.
All that is known is that the ingredients for ultimate victory must include, well, a lot more victories than any of these teams currently have.
"Who knows what it will take?" said Jimmy Rollins, the Phillies shortstop, after watching his team outlast the Houston Astros, 3-2, yesterday to improve to 70-68. "I have no idea, but it's going to take some wins, that's for sure."
The Phillies stayed above .500 because Chase Utley hit a walk-off home run off Dave Borkowski in the bottom of the 10th inning.
The victory assured that the Phillies, at worst, would remain 11/2 games behind the Padres and stay ahead of Florida, Cincinnati, San Francisco, the Astros and Atlanta entering play today.
More important, the win also allowed the Phillies to climb one more rung closer to that 85-, 88- or, heck, even 83-win total it might take move into the postseason.
Not knowing exactly the magic number of victories required is what is magical about all this, of course.
No one knows.
Not Utley nor yesterday's other long-ball hero, Ryan Howard, as they try to find their way to their first postseason.
Not future Hall of Famer Roger Clemens, who would likely have to add a wing to his home should he collect any more postseason bling.
"I don't know what the numbers are if you're trying to get to 88, 85 wins to get this done," said the veteran Astros righthander, who was forced from yesterday's pitching duel with Cole Hamels by a strained right groin.
"And who knows?" Clemens added. "If someone goes on a little run, [those totals] might not be good enough, either."
Anyone familiar with the seven gnarled contenders will probably chuckle at the thought of one catching fire.
The Phillies? Bullpen woes. San Diego? Can't hit. Houston? Can't jell. The Braves? Too little, too late. Florida? Too much inconsistency from Dontrelle Willis. The Giants? Too ancient.
For all but one of the above, there is soon to be another problem as well: too little time.
Ask Phil Garner, the harried Astros manager.
"We're down to no games left," Garner said. "We have to win them all. We don't have much room to play with here."
The Astros do have 24 games left. Still, logic, not numbers, suggests that Garner has reason to be concerned.
Even if the league meets the most mediocre of standards and hands its wild card to a team that wins merely 83 games, the Astros would have to go 16-8 the rest of the way, which is tough for a team that is 67-71.
"We've got to get to .500, and if we can't get to .500, we can't even put it in our vocabulary, talking about the playoffs," Garner said.
The Phillies are above .500 - barely. Getting to 83, 85, 88 victories or beyond? A good start would be to put away one rival at a time, starting with the Astros tonight and tomorrow.
"Running the table, that would make it a lot easier," Rollins said, smiling while crunching the numbers and considering all the possible routes to postseason play.