Rounding Third: NL could be in store for a 'wild' finish

Did we not learn anything from last year's playoff races?

After one of the more thrilling Septembers in recent memory last year, the National League could once again be heading toward a fantastic finish this season.

Heading into action on Wednesday, the Atlanta Braves and St. Louis Cardinals hold the two wild card spots in the NL. While Atlanta's position seems pretty secure, the Cards' grasp seems to be loosening by the day.

St. Louis' only saving grace lately has been that the two teams who are right behind it - the Los Angeles Dodgers and Pittsburgh Pirates - also have gone into the tank. But with that said, the struggles of all three has opened the door for both the Philadelphia Phillies and Milwaukee Brewers, two teams who were left for dead not too long ago.

Philadelphia was 14 games under .500 on July 13, but it has reeled off six straight wins and got back to the break even mark on Tuesday with a 9-7 win over the Miami Marlins that also saw them move within four games of the Cardinals.

"People ask me about it, 'Are you surprised?' No," Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen said after his team's loss to the Phils on Tuesday. "I'm surprised they're not in. But I think they're coming back, and if they hold on, with their pitching staff, they're going to have a chance."

And it is that pitching staff that has led the team to wins in 14 of their last 18 games. Since the start of September the Phillies as a unit have pitched to a 2.44 ERA (second only to the Los Angeles Dodgers) while leading the entire NL in that category in the second half (3.35).

"I think when things are going well, you don't mess with it," said Phillies ace Roy Halladay. "We've been playing well and not really worrying about that. I think that's kind of what we need to do. Obviously, all of us want to be there. We want to give ourselves a chance to make it close. But I think the reason we've got to that point is we've been kind of going out and playing and not really worrying about it."

Let's be honest, bad season or not is there any team in the NL who would want to face Philadelphia in a playoff series? If the Phillies make the playoffs, they might be the favorites to come out of the NL.

Crazy, right?

Milwaukee has been on a similar role, winning eight straight at home and 17 of its last 22 overall and also got itself back to .500 for the first time since April 24 with a win over Atlanta on Tuesday.

"Obviously it's nice to get there," Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said. "The more important thing that I'm excited about is the way we're playing. Our pitching's been outstanding, starters and relievers, and we're getting some clutch hits from a lot of different people.

"I know because of the distance we have, and all the teams ahead of us, that for me it's just not worth really watching that too closely I'd rather just watch how we're playing."

Milwaukee had been as many as 12 1/2 games back in the wild card before its incredible run.

"It's what we've been waiting on all year, it seems like," second baseman Rickie Weeks said. "It's kind of hard to say 'better late than never,' but it's happening right now. We've been getting some great pitching lately, good defense and some pretty timely hitting.

"All we can do is keep showing up to the ballpark, working hard and trying to win games."

The best part about this is that both the Phils and Brewers were two of the bigger sellers at the trade deadline, signaling to almost everyone they were in fact packing it in.

Philadelphia had jettisoned outfielder Shane Victorino and right-hander Joe Blanton to the Dodgers, and shipped slugger Hunter Pence to San Francisco, while Milwaukee sent ace Zack Greinke to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim right before the trade deadline.

Are the odds in the Phils' and Brewers' favor? No, probably not. After Tuesday's slate of games, Baseball Prospectus has their odds at 1 and 1.8 percent, respectively.

But, crazier things have happened, as the amazing finishes by both the Cardinals and Tampa Bay Rays in 2011 can attest. And it's getting to the point now where you can make a case against the three teams ahead of the Phils and Brewers making it, rather than state why Philadelphia and Milwaukee won't be playing in October.

The Cards will probably be without Lance Berkman and Rafael Furcal the rest of the way. Los Angeles, despite acquiring all that talent from the Boston, has not been able to put anything together. The Pittsburgh Pirates were once a feel-good story, but seem more likely to finish under .500 for a 20th straight season than compete for a playoff spot.

Again, let's concede the first wild card to Atlanta, which is 9 1/2 games up on both Philadelphia and Milwaukee.

Either way, we are probably still another week or so away from getting real excited, but don't tell that to people in Philadelphia and Milwaukee.

And if you want to get even crazier, Arizona is only five games back of a wild card.

Someone explain to me again why the wild cards are not a good thing for baseball.