SEPT. 14 | ASTROS 10, MARLINS 2:

A Wild-Card Race Worth Chasing

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By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 17, 2005

HOUSTON, NEW YORK and PHILADELPHIA -- "Wild card" is a noun, referring to the extra playoff spot, one in each league, that is awarded to the second-place team with the best regular season record. Introduced by Commissioner Bud Selig and used for the first time in 1995, it was roundly criticized by traditionalists, who saw it as a gimmick. "Wild card" can also be an adjective: wild-card race, wild-card standings, wild-card contender.

But right now -- since no one can really stop us -- we hereby coin it as a verb: "to wild card." And what is "to wild card"? It is to immerse oneself in a wild-card race -- in this case, the teeming, shifting, flip-flopping, four-team National League race that has made people in Houston, Miami, Philadelphia and Washington, for a month at least, thankful for Bud Selig.

To wild card is to study the standings and the remain ing schedules as though they contain holy secrets. It is to sit in the stands watching your contender play while glancing at the out-of-town scoreboard between every pitch to monitor the others. It is to pick out a slice of wild-card heaven -- three games in three cities, involving four contenders, in 24 hours -- book some flights, pack some bags, and have your bosses pay for the whole thing.

From 8:05 p.m. Wednesday to 10:11 p.m. Thursday -- okay, that's 26 hours, but who's counting? -- you will see all four wild-card contenders: the Houston Astros and Florida Marlins at Houston's Minute Maid Park on Wednesday night, the Washington Nationals at New York's Shea Stadium on Thursday afternoon, and the Philadelphia Phillies at Philadelphia's Citizens Bank Park on Thursday night.

People will think you're crazy, but you will say: "No, I'm just wild-carding."

During the course of those 24 hours, you will see three of those four teams -- Houston, Florida and Philadelphia -- hold at least a share of the wild-card lead at one point or another. You will see the Nationals pick up 1 1/2 games on the lead.

You will also see Roger Clemens cry.

Wednesday Night: Marlins at Astros

Standings at the start of the day:

TeamWLGB
Florida7867--
Philadelphia77681
Houston76681 1/2
Washington74714

The Houston Astros were 15 games under .500 on May 24, and no team in the last 90 years has made the playoffs after reaching such a nadir. (In the American League, Oakland is threatening to achieve the same feat.) Of the four teams still in contention in the NL wild-card race, Houston is the only one that does not play in the East Division, a fact that works greatly to its advantage: While the Marlins, Phillies and Nationals spend September beating up on each other, the Astros are seeing a healthy diet of weaker Central Division chum, such as Milwaukee and Pittsburgh.

As they face off this week, the Astros and Marlins are twins of a sort -- flawed teams that, nonetheless, no one would relish playing in October. Both have major issues on offense, but both go three-deep with front-line power starting pitchers -- Houston's Roger Clemens, Roy Oswalt and Andy Pettitte, and Florida's Dontrelle Willis, Josh Beckett and A.J. Burnett.

"We have to get there first," says Marlins General Manager Larry Beinfest, "but when you talk about the postseason, you talk about the pitching. Power pitching in a short series is the ultimate weapon. And we think we're in good shape there, with Willis, Beckett and Burnett. But we were talking about it last year, too, at this time, and we never got there."


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