"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 remaining 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 11/2 games on the lead.

You will also see Roger Clemens cry.

Wednesday Night:

Marlins at Astros

Standings at the start of the day:

TeamWLGBFlorida7867 -- Philadelphia77681Houston766811/2Washington74714

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."

Wednesday night's Astros-Marlins game has taken on an added layer of drama. Clemens's mother, Bess, has died earlier this morning, but word begins to make its way through the clubhouse that Clemens is planning on starting anyway.

"It's something he's chosen to do," veteran first baseman Jeff Bagwell says. "Only he knows his reasons."

In what was surely Houston's biggest game of the season -- and one of the most difficult of Clemens's career -- he pitched the Astros to a 10-2 win, then spoke poignantly about his mother for almost 20 minutes in a postgame news conference. When it was over, he hugged his family and wiped away tears.

Meantime, in a somber visitors' clubhouse, Burnett stands at his locker. One day before, he had called this "the biggest start of my career." He has taken the loss hard.

"It feels like you're letting your team down right when they need you the most," Burnett tells reporters. "I went from being one of the best pitchers out there to 'I can't win nothing now.' To lose control like that is unacceptable."

Interlude

Observations, discoveries and oddities from a close examination of the wild-card standings over the last several weeks:

* Beginning Aug. 16, there have been eight outright lead changes, including an eight-day period (Aug. 16-23) when the lead changed hands between Houston and Philadelphia five times. But there have been only three instances in which there was a tie for the lead at the end of a day -- Aug. 17 (Phillies and Astros), Aug. 30 (Marlins and Phillies) and Sept. 14 (Marlins and Phillies).

* Beginning Aug. 13, no team has enjoyed a first-place lead bigger than 11/2 games. This month, there have been only three days (Sept. 13, Florida; Sept. 6 and 7, Houston) when a team held a lead bigger than a half-game.

* It used to be a five-team race. The New York Mets were as close as 11/2 games at one point (most recently on Aug. 30) and were within five games of the lead as recently as Sept. 7, but have fallen apart in the last week.

* At the end of play on Aug. 30, the bunching of the five contenders was the closest it has been all year: First and last place are separated by a total of 11/2 games. A day later, the five teams were within two games of each other, in perfectly symmetrical order: Each team trailed the team directly ahead of it by a half-game.

* On Aug. 26, with five teams separated by a total of 21/2 games, all five teams won. Two days later, with the same margin of separation, all five teams lost.

* The Nationals last led the wild-card race outright at the end of play on July 27, with a 55-46 record. The next day, they lost to the Braves to fall into a tie for the lead, and the day after that a loss to the Marlins dropped the Nationals behind the Astros.

* Proof that no one seems to want to win this thing: Entering today none of the four teams has a record better than 9-6 this month. The Astros are 9-6. The Nationals, Marlins and Phillies are 8-7.

"I said a month and a half ago," says Astros second baseman Craig Biggio, "that it's going down to the last weekend somewhere."

Every team chasing the wild card, in fact, is flawed by definition; none is good enough to win its own division.

The Marlins are alarmingly power-challenged -- at one point this summer, they went nearly a month without a single homer from someone besides Carlos Delgado or Miguel Cabrera -- and have struggled to find dependable No. 4 and No. 5 starters.

The Astros are last in the league in on-base percentage, and their lineup -- especially with third baseman Morgan Ensberg nursing a sore hand -- is nearly devoid of dangerous hitters. They are also 12 games under .500 on the road.

The Phillies have plenty of excellent Nos. 3 and 4 starters, but they lack dominant pitchers at the front end of their rotation, especially when compared to the others.

The Nationals? Well, where to begin? They essentially have three starting pitchers. They are last in the majors in hitting and runs scored. And they sometimes don't get along with each other, or with their manager.

Thursday Morning:

Nats at Mets

Standings at the start of the day:

TeamWLGBFlorida7868 -- Philadelphia7868 -- Houston77681/2Washington75713

One can tell a lot about these creatures called professional baseball players by observing them in their natural habitat.

Having had their locker room music taken away recently by their manager, Frank Robinson, the Nationals have had to find other ways to occupy their time.

At 11:30 a.m. Thursday, in the cramped visitors' clubhouse at Shea Stadium, the Nationals are in chill-out mode. Video of Jae Seo, that day's pitcher for the Mets, is playing on a television screen. Preston Wilson is the only Nationals player watching it. Livan Hernandez, the Nationals' starting pitcher, sits at his locker in blue athletic shorts and flip-flops, with his back to the room, eating pancakes. Rookie reliever Jason Bergmann is on the couch, reading Maxim magazine. Second baseman Jose Vidro, out with an inflamed right knee, lies on the couch, nearly asleep.

A few minutes earlier, Robinson had been asked why the clubhouse atmosphere does not seem to reflect the importance of these games. "There's no why," he said. "It just doesn't. The energy, the focus, the talk, gearing up for a ballgame, to me . . . it's not there."

Does it surprise you, Robinson was asked? "Yeah, it does," he said. "Because this is an opportunity that doesn't come along very often. And they've worked awful hard a long time this year, and it's still there, it's still possible. We're looking for that little extra. And you don't see it."

Twenty minutes go by, and now Nick Johnson and Jamey Carroll are watching tape of Seo, from his April 29 start at RFK Stadium. On the tape, Brian Schneider is at the plate. "Fastball," Johnson says. Seo throws a fastball, and Schneider hits into the right field bullpen for a homer. Now, Hernandez walks through the clubhouse, dressed in those blue athletic shorts and an orange "Nationals" T-shirt. He looks at the screen and sees Seo pitching to him. "Throw me a [expletive] change-up, baby!?" he yells to the screen. "Don't leave it in the middle [of the plate]!" Seo throws the change-up. "Bam!" Hernandez yells, as he watches himself rip the pitch into the home bullpen for a homer.

Robinson is asked whether, in retrospect, the rule he put in place banning music from the clubhouse -- which he did for the purpose of trying to get the players to focus on the games -- put a damper on his team's personality.

"No," he said. "That was the wrong type of preparation. Fun-loving, talking about everything else besides baseball, listening to the music, playing cards and all that stuff, that's not focusing on the game itself. . . . Start looking at tapes of the opposing pitcher, and talking about the game itself and where we are and what we have to try to go out and do."

The Nationals may not like it, but they are 8-5 since the Day the Music Died, including a 6-5 win on this cloudy afternoon in New York.

"You see those standings. They keep changing," says Nationals outfielder Ryan Church. "One day, Houston will be up there. And Florida the next day. Then Philly. If we could somehow get in there, get in that mix, then we'll have a great opportunity."

Thursday Night:

Braves at Phillies

This is the definition of wild-card mediocrity: The Philadelphia Phillies began a 12-game road trip in late August that everyone said could decide the fate of their season.

They went 6-6 on the road trip.

They returned home for a 10-game homestand at Citizens Bank Park, which everyone said could decide the fate of their season. The homestand ended Thursday night with a loss to the Atlanta Braves, failing to complete what would have been a huge four-game sweep.

The Phillies went 5-5 on the homestand.

"I'll say it again," says catcher Todd Pratt, as the Phillies dress to hit the road for a nine-game road trip to Florida, Atlanta and Cincinnati. "This is going to end in Washington" -- where the Phillies play on the season's final weekend.

"I know we lost tonight," says reserve outfielder Jason Michaels. "But this was a big series win. I think we should go to Florida thinking we have some momentum."

Everyone is trying to calculate what record it is going to take to win the wild card.

Phillies Manager Charlie Manuel once thought 86 wins would get it done, but he has modified his prediction: "I think we're going to have to go a little better. I think 87 or 88 [wins] is going to win this. We're right there."

Standings at the conclusion of play Thursday:

TeamWLGBHouston7868 -- Philadelphia78691/2Florida78691/2Washington767121/2

The door closes behind the last Phillie out the door, as they head to the team bus and then on to Florida. And we all know what they are doing at this very moment:

They are wild-carding.

Staff writer Barry Svrluga contributed to this report.

Roger Clemens delivers a victory for the Astros after his mother had died that morning.Vinny Castilla helps keep the Nationals' hopes alive with his game-winning single Thursday.Brett Myers feels the heat losing to the Braves, who denied the Phillies a four-game sweep.