Phils, Rays lead wild cards with 40 games to go

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.

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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.

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