MLB.com Columnist

Tracy Ringolsby

NL Wild Card race heating up for final month

NL Wild Card race heating up for final month

Understand, it's not a long season -- anymore. It's time to step up or get left behind.

The 162-game grind has been reduced to a final-month push, and while the Dodgers have all but made their National League West title official, the division will still be a focal point over the next 31 days, and there's no time like the present for it to move center stage. 

The NL Wild Card-leading D-backs, the hottest team in the NL with a seven-game winning streak, just became the first team to sweep the Dodgers this season, and now will spend Labor Day Weekend at Coors Field, looking to prolong the recent agony of a Rockies team that is hanging on to the No. 2 spot in the NL Wild Card race. The beleaguered Rockies surely know a wake-up call is needed -- in a hurry.

Meanwhile, the Brewers, a bigger surprise than either the D-backs or the Rockies, are in contention for a postseason berth. They are closely watching contending teams from Milwaukee, where they opened a four-game series against the NL East-leading Nationals on Thursday. They did, after all, go into Thursday night just three games behind Colorado.

And the Rockies not only host the D-backs for three games this weekend, but also have a four-game trip to Arizona on Sept. 11-14, in addition to seven games remaining against the Dodgers -- four at Dodger Stadium next weekend, and a season-ending Coors Field get-together.

It's going to be a major test for the Rox, featuring a rotation in which Chad Bettis, 28, is the graybeard, and there are at least three, sometimes four, rookies in starting roles.

The Rockies took charge in the NL West early, but then came a reality check in the later part of June. They lost the final game of a three-game series against the D-backs at Coors Field on June 22, stumbled through a 1-8 NL West trip to Los Angeles, San Francisco and Arizona, and haven't seen first place since.

And now, after an August that the Rockies ended as the first month in which they had a losing record this season, they will find out just how their inexperienced core will handle the demands of a stretch drive.

The good news for the Rockies is they do miss D-backs ace Zack Greinke, who won his 16th game Thursday, and open the series with Kyle Freeland on Friday and Jon Gray on Saturday. Freeland has been their most consistent starter this season, as the rookie is 13th in the NL with a 3.81 ERA, despite calling the hitter-friendly Coors Field home. Gray has finally rebounded from a broken bone in his left foot that sidelined him for more than two months and was 3-1 with a 2.30 ERA in August, good for fifth best in the NL.

The bad news is the sudden struggles of closer Greg Holland, who, after converting 34 of his first 35 saves, failed to convert three of his past five and had a 13.50 ERA in August. He is reportedly healthy, but the slider isn't, which has led to Jake McGee getting the team's past two saves.

And for all the youth of the rotation, the Rockies do have a bullpen that has dealt with postseason pressures with left-handers McGee and Mike Dunn, and right-handers Pat Neshek and Holland, along with catcher Jonathan Lucroy, first baseman Mark Reynolds, the versatile Ian Desmond and right fielder Carlos Gonzalez.

They do have 15 of their final 29 wins at home, and the 14 remaining games they have against teams with winning records will be split evenly with the D-backs and Dodgers.

The Brewers, meanwhile, will play 14 of their final 30 games at home, including four each with the Nationals and Cubs. And the D-backs play 15 of their final 28 games on the road.

The sleeper in the September postseason race is the Marlins, who went into its game Thursday night at 66-66, tied for fourth place in the NL Wild Card race with the Cardinals, who sit 5 1/2 games back of the Rockies. Their schedule still includes three-game sets with the Brewers, Rockies and D-backs.

The Marlins might not have time to climb over both the Brewers and the Rox, though.

They do, however, have the scheduling opportunity to impact what happens in the NL Wild Card race.

Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.