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What's Ahead

With the off day, let's look at what the three NL Central contenders will face in the season's remaining five weeks.

The three clubs have an equal number of home and road games (16), except the Cubs, who have a 17th home game due to the makeup split doubleheader on September 2 against the Cardinals. You'd think that would give the Cardinals an extra road game, but they are the only one of the three to have a two-game series in September (at Milwaukee the final week).

Here are the three schedules, in order:

Cubs (17 home, 16 road): at STL (3); Mil (3); STL (5); at Mil (3); at Mon (Puerto Rico) (3); Cin (3); NYM (3); at Pit (3); at Cin (3); Pit (3)

Cardinals (16 home, 16 road): Cubs (3); at Cin (3); at Cubs (5); Cin (3); Col (3); at Hou (3); Mil (4); Hou (3); at Mil (2); at Arz (3)

Astros (16 home, 16 road): LA (3); SD (3); at LA (3); at SD (3); at Mil (3); STL (3); at Col (3); at STL (3); SF (3); Mil (4)

The Cubs have what appears to be the easiest schedule, playing only 11 games against teams who currently have a winning record, and 8 of those are in the next two weeks against the Cardinals. St. Louis has the toughest, with 17 games vs. winning teams, and Houston has 15 such games.

You can often throw that out the window when September comes, as some of those "losing" teams love to play spoiler. Milwaukee is riding a six-game winning streak, though I don't expect that to last. This weekend would be a great time for it to end.

Looking further, the Astros have won 7 of the first 12 head-to-head matchups with St. Louis. It'd be great for the Cubs if they'd split the six games, which seems quite possible, since both clubs play well at home and not so well on the road.

Houston's road games include three at Los Angeles, also fighting for a playoff spot, and three at Colorado, where anything can happen and often does, and where the Rockies are 44-22 so far this year. The Astros also have three games against the Giants, though they are likely to have clinched the West title by then, barring a total collapse, and as a final note, they are only 4-5 vs. Milwaukee so far this year, with eight remaining. The Brewers actually have a slightly better road record than home record.

For their part, the Cardinals are 9-15 vs. West teams so far, with the three vs. the Rockies at home in St. Louis, but then they play the final three of the season at Arizona, where the Diamondbacks may be fighting for a wild-card spot. In contrast with Houston's mark, St. Louis is 8-2 vs. the Brewers so far this year.

The Cubs are 11-13 with the NL East so far in 2003, though 4-2 vs. the teams they will be facing in the upcoming month, the Expos and Mets, and the Mets aren't the team they were when the season started, which is when the Cubs played them. The Cubs are only 3-6 vs. the Cardinals, but they are 18-14 against the Reds, Pirates and Brewers, the other Central teams they play.

What does all this boil down to? Each team has its easy and hard parts of the schedule. Despite an equal number of home and road games, the Astros have the longest road-trip, a 10-game trip that begins on Labor Day, and the Cubs have the longest homestand, eight, beginning this weekend. Houston hasn't played well on the road, but the Cubs are just .500 at home.

So, it very well may come down to the season's final weekend, when the Astros host the Brewers, the Cubs host the Pirates, and the Cardinals are at the Diamondbacks.

In 1998, when three teams, the Cubs, Giants and Mets, were fighting for the wild card, the NL had a "mini-lottery" in case of a 3-way tie. The Cubs won it, and were given the following choice:

a) play the Giants at home, and if they won, play the Mets at home; or

b) let the other two teams play, and then play the winner, but on the road.

They chose (b), and I would too. Why make your team win two games when one will do? As it turned out, of course, there was no 3-way tie, and the Cubs got home field for the tiebreaker game, which they won, and which I can tell you was perhaps the most exciting day I've ever spent at the ballpark -- it is still the only winner-take-all game ever played at Wrigley Field (the 7th game of the 1945 World Series was in Detroit).

This year's a bit more complicated because of the tightness of the wild-card race and the possibility that three or more teams might tie for that as well.