Charlie Manuel scoffed at the notion of second place. So did Phillies stars Jimmy Rollins and Roy Oswalt.
Even if it meant a playoff spot.
"We don't care about the wild card," Manuel said this week.
OK, Charlie. Let the Philadelphia manager focus on overtaking Atlanta in the NL East. And surely the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays are thinking about winning the AL East, rather than that extra postseason slot. But with 40 or so games left, the Phillies and Rays had wild-card leads going into the weekend, and that's not exactly a bad place to be.
A look at the races in the NL:
— Why the Phillies win the wild card: With Chase Utley healed and big bopper Ryan Howard on the mend, the two-time NL champions are getting healthy and primed for the stretch run. The trade for Oswalt puts him with Roy Halladay, and that's a pair of aces. Cole Hamels, the 2008 World Series MVP, is pitching better than his record indicates. Their big-game experience — and success — will serve them well.
— Why the Phillies won't: Who will be their closer — Lights-out Lidge or Bad Brad? Fans haven't been quite sure the last two seasons. Philadelphia's hitters can be streaky, scoring a bunch of runs and then suddenly getting shut out.
— Why the Giants win: Rookie Buster Posey has energized the lineup, along with resurgent newcomer Pat Burrell. A veteran pro is always nice to have around, and Aubrey Huff fills that role, even though he's never reached the postseason. General manager Brian Sabean recently brought Jose Guillen to the Bay, too, hoping to end the Giants' six-year playoff drought.
— Why the Giants won't: Starting pitching, of all things. Their once-reliable rotation has to get back on track, starting with two-time Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum. San Francisco starters recently went 14 straight games without a win. With San Diego looking strong in the NL West, the wild card is the Giants' best chance.
— Why the Cardinals win: St. Louis has one of the best 1-2 combinations in its rotation and lineup. Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright are hard to beat back-to-back, Albert Pujols has a shot at the Triple Crown and cleanup man Matt Holliday is finally swinging well in the first season of a seven-year, $120 million free agent deal.
— Why the Cardinals won't: Cincinnati has stayed ahead in the NL Central, partly because the bottom end of the Cardinals' rotation was iffy enough for them to trade a bat (Ryan Ludwick) for an arm (Jake Westbrook). The Cards hope Westbrook has a nice finish and Kyle Lohse can finish strong after missing nearly three months following forearm surgery.
— Why the Rockies win: Colorado has one of the top pitchers in the league in Ubaldo Jimenez and a bona fide NL MVP candidate in emerging star Carlos Gonzalez. They also have slick-fielding shortstop Troy Tulowitzki in the heart of the order. The Rockies have the talent to make a late charge, something they did in 2007, when they went all the way to the World Series.
— Why the Rockies won't: Quite simply, they can't seem to win away from Coors Field. They fell to 23-37 on the road after a loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers on Tuesday night. Todd Helton is proving he's past his prime and former All-Star Brad Hawpe was cut this week. What's more, outside of Jimenez, the pitching staff has been inconsistent. Not a good recipe for a team wanting to make a late-season charge, and no real chance of winning the division.
A look at the races in the AL:
— Why the Rays win the wild card: Strong starting pitching, a better-than-expected bullpen and great gloves have enabled them to overcome hitting woes and challenge the Yankees for the majors' best record all season. Manager Joe Maddon has a knack for pushing the right buttons and constantly tinkers with the lineup and batting order, squeezing the most out of role players such as Matt Joyce, Reid Brignac, Sean Rodriguez and Willy Aybar.
— Why the Rays won't: It's amazing they've been able to keep pace with the Yankees despite not getting anticipated production from Carlos Pena, B.J. Upton and Jason Bartlett. Every game, you wonder if they'll get a hit — the Rays have been no-hit twice and one-hit twice. While David Price is an ace, young right-handers Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis recently went on the DL.
— Why the Red Sox win: When healthy, their rotation of Josh Beckett, Clay Buchholz, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Jon Lester and John Lackey is the deepest in baseball. After being hurt by injuries all season, they're starting to get players back — Dustin Pedroia, Mike Lowell, Victor Martinez, Beckett and Buchholz have all come off the DL since the All-Star break.
— Why the Red Sox won't: They're still too banged up. Jacoby Ellsbury is on the DL for the third time this year. Kevin Youkilis is expected to miss the rest of the season. Jason Varitek, Mike Cameron and setup man Hideki Okajima are also out. It's probably too much for one team to overcome when chasing their two AL East rivals.
— Why the White Sox win: Paul Konerko, Alex Rios and the White Sox hit plenty of homers, plus this team can manufacture offense with 100-plus steals. Manager Ozzie Guillen's club is the consummate peak-and-valley team. They've played around .500 for the last month to drop behind Minnesota in the AL Central, so maybe they're due for another big winning streak.
Why the White Sox won't: The way things are shaking out, it appears the wild card will come from the powerful AL East. That means the White Sox almost assuredly have to leapfrog the Twins, and that's a big problem for the White Sox lately. They've lost 20 of their last 27 games to Minnesota. They also have problems closing games out, with Guillen searching for a reliable answer among Bobby Jenks, J.J. Putz and Matt Thornton.