It was the Chicago Cubs last season and the St. Louis Cardinals in 2006. Back in '05, it was the San Diego Padres.
What do these three teams have in common?
In the last three seasons, respectively, these teams have won a division title, despite winning 85 games or less. The Cubs of '07 finished with an 85-77 record and won the National League Central. The Cardinals of '06 were 83-78, also winning the NL Central, and the Padres of '05 were an even-less impressive 82-80, winning the NL West.
After winning their division in those years, the Cubs and the Padres' went on to get swept right out of the postseason in just three Division Series games. The Cardinals, well, do I need to remind you they went on to win the World Series in '06?
This season, there is a pretty good chance we will see this happen again: A team will win their division without winning more than 85 games.
The division: NL West, again. The winner: Who knows?
Since the All Star break, this has pretty much been a two-team race between the Arizona Diamondbacks and Los Angeles Dodgers. Arizona has held a slight lead over L.A. for a majority of that time.
Both teams had begun to play very good baseball earlier this month, with the D-Backs winning eight out of 10, from Aug. 10-21, and the Dodgers won 10 out of 15 from Aug. 2-17.
After games on Aug. 21, Arizona sat at 67-60, with the L.A. Dodgers at 65-62, two games behind.
However, within the past week, both teams have really struggled. Arizona lost two out of three at home to the Florida Marlins before getting swept in a three-game series in San Diego.
The Dodgers, with a great opportunity to make up their two-game deficit to the D-Backs, have had an even worse time playing on the East Coast. They were swept in a four-game series against the Phillies before going on to get swept in three games in Washington DC by the lowly Nationals.
The recent struggles of Arizona and L.A. have pushed the door open for a third team to make a move in this race: the Colorado Rockies. Despite a very mediocre 63-72 record, the Rockies are somehow in a decent position to make a run in September and return to the playoffs.
They may not even have to win 14 out of 15 to end the season, like they did in '07, to do it!
Here is a look at these three teams, and what will help or hurt each of their chances of winning this division.
NOTE: Records and standing are updated as of all games played on Aug. 28.
Arizona Diamondbacks 68-65 First place
- STARTING PITCHING: This may not be any great revelation to anyone, but those who don't follow this division may not realize just how good the D-Backs' top three starters—Brandon Webb, Dan Haren, and 45-year-old Randy Johnson—have been. Since the All Star break, Webb has continued his Cy Young-caliber pitching, going 6-1 with a 2.34 ERA in eight starts. The No. 2 man, Haren, has also gone 6-1 since the break, with 59 strikeouts to only eight walks in 54-1/3 innings. Perhaps even more impressive than Webb and Haren, Johnson owns a microscopic 1.82 ERA since the break, in the same number of innings pitched as Haren. His post-break record of 4-2 would be even better if not for some bullpen meltdowns, including yesterday's, that have occurred after his outstanding starts. If all three pitchers keep this up, it will be tough for the Dodgers or Rockies to catch them.
- SCHEDULE: The D-Backs have a combined record of 24-11 this season against the Dodgers, Rockies, and Giants. They will play 19 of their remaining 29 games against these three teams. Also, they only play one team with a winning record, the Cardinals. With this type of schedule, they have to feel good about finishing the season strong and maintaining their division lead.
- TEAM HITTING: Arizona is hitting just .251 as a team this season, ranking 12th in the NL. Although the acquisition of Adam Dunn from Cincinnati has given them a true power-presence in the middle of their lineup, he also brings a bunch of strikeouts with him. His 135 K's at the plate only puts him third on the team, behind Mark Reynolds (166) and Chris Young (136). That is an awful lot of strikeouts in a lineup, and it could prove to be crippling in key situations where the team needs a run or two in a late-inning rally situation.
- LATE-INNING RELIEF: The two guys at the back end of the Arizona bullpen, Brandon Lyon and Jon Rauch, have been very shaky of late. Lyon has allowed 10 ER in his last five-and-one-third IP, and Rauch has allowed nine in his last six-and-two-thirds. These are the two guys manager Bob Melvin counts on to close out games, and they have been failing considerably at this over the past few weeks. Considering the team's inability to produce runs, the successes (or failures) of the 'pen become even more magnified, considering the number of close games the team is involved in.
LA Dodgers 65-69 Second Place - 3.5 GB
- QUALITY STARTERS: The Dodgers don't have the great starters at the top of their rotation like Arizona, but they have a very solid rotation from one through five. The five starters—Derek Lowe, Chad Billingsley, Hiroki Kuroda, Clayton Kershaw, and the recently acquired Greg Maddux—all currently have ERAs between 3.11 and 4.22. Kuroda and Billingsley have been very effective in August. Kuroda has allowed just one run in four of his last five starts, while Billingsley has a 2.77 ERA over his last six starts.
- NO EASY OUTS: Going along the lines of how I described their rotation, the Dodgers' lineup has good hitters at each spot in the lineup (pitcher's spot excluded). Six hitters are currently hitting .275 or better for the season, and that doesn't include Manny Ramirez, who has hit .380 with his new team since the July 31 trade. Veteran hitters Casey Blake and Nomar Garciaparra have struggled some of late, but they are still capable of getting that big hit with runners in scoring position.
- LACK OF POWER: Even with the addition of Manny and his six home runs he has hit as a Dodger this month, the team still ranks third-to-last in the NL in team HRs with 102. They also rank fourth-to-last in team slugging percentage (.388). Among season-long Dodgers, Andre Ethier leads the team with just 17 HRs. With Manny being by far the most feared and dangerous hitter in their lineup, you wonder just how many pitches he will see that he can drive out of the deep dimensions of Dodger Stadium.
- NO TRUE CLOSER: Takashi Saito had converted 80 out of 89 career save opportunities since 2006, before being sidelined since the All Star break with a right-elbow injury. Since then, Jonathan Broxton has moved into the closer's role. While Broxton converted on his first seven save opportunities, he has since blown two of his last five. He has given up seven runs in his last nine innings, giving manager Joe Torre a bit of a dilemma. A closer-by-committee situation could open up in L.A., with Hong-Chih Kuo and veteran Chan Ho Park getting possible save chances in September. Like with Arizona, this should be an issue to watch as this team also finds itself in a lot of close, low-scoring games.
Colorado Rockies 63-72 Third Place - 6 GB
- OFFENSIVE OUTBURST: Matt Holliday and Brad Hawpe have been offensive machines in the second half, picking up where they left off late last season. Since July 20, Holliday has hit .367, with 51 hits and 42 runs scored. Hawpe has hit .344, with a .434 on-base percentage and 23 RBI in August, becoming the Rockies' primary cleanup hitter. One of the new guys—third baseman Ian Stewart—has been just as impressive since returning to the club after the All Star break. Stewart has hit .351, with six HRs and 35 RBI since July 19. If Todd Helton were healthy, Garrett Atkins would never have been moved to first base, and Stewart would have never had the chance to do all this. Oh, and Willy Taveras happens to lead the majors with 61 stolen bases. This has certainly helped give these guys some great RBI opportunities.
- HOMEFIELD ADVANTAGE: Beginning Sept. 1, the Rockies will play 15 out of 18 games at Coors Field. While their current home record (36-30) is not quite as stellar as last year's (51-31), it is still far better than their 27-42 mark away from Coors. The Rockies will probably need to win at least 10 of those 15 in order to put themselves in position to seriously challenge the D-Backs and Dodgers at the end.
- CONFIDENCE: I wouldn't bet that the great memories from '07 have faded from any of these players' minds. Almost all of the key players are still there that led them through that amazing regular-season finish, and run to the World Series. A run that included four-straight wins over Arizona in the NLCS. These guys can benefit from that postseason success should they have the chance to overtake the D-Backs in the final week to return to the playoffs.
- ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS: Since the Rockies blew past the D-Backs last year to reach the World Series, Arizona has gained some measure of revenge so far this season. The Rockies are just 2-10 in 12 games against the D-Backs, with six more to play, including three in Phoenix to end the regular season. They will have to turn their previous struggles around and win at least four of these six games against Arizona. Otherwise, they will have to win almost all their remaining games to have a shot.
- NO STOPPER: Not to be confused with closers. Jeff Francis emerged as the No. 1 starter in '07 and backed it up with some outstanding starts in September and October. However, Francis has struggled all season at 4-8 with a 5.36 ERA. He also just recently returned from a shoulder injury that forced him to miss over a month. Aaron Cook had an excellent first half and looked like a potential staff ace, going 10-3 with a 3.29 ERA through June 15. Since then, Cook has been more like a No. 4 starter, going just 5-5 with a Coors-like 5.43 ERA. Ubaldo Jimenez, though, has sort of reemerged with seven wins since the beginning of July. However, the lack of a consistent No. 1 starter, or even No. 2, could give the Rockies big problems in some of those late matchups with Arizona.
With all things considered, this appears to be Arizona's division to lose. They have the chance to win enough games on their outstanding starting pitching alone. Manny may not get enough chances to drive in runs and win games for the Dodgers. The Rockies should make a run before it's all said and done, but they will not be able to win enough matchups with Arizona's top three.
Final standings prediction: Arizona 84-78, Colorado 81-81, and L.A. Dodgers 80-82.