The Dodgers have thrived during a crucial 18-game stretch in which they're playing first-place Atlanta and Arizona, and wild-card contending San Francisco and Houston, having won eight of the first 12 games against teams that are a combined 328-230.
And if they emerge from the next two-week stretch, in which they play the Giants seven times, with their National League wild-card lead intact, the Dodgers would seem to have a clear path toward their first playoff berth since 1996. Their final nine games are against lowly Colorado and San Diego, which are a combined 123-157.
But Dodger first baseman Eric Karros looks at the Rockies and Padres at the end of the schedule and thinks: Where are the Braves and Diamondbacks when you really need them?
"I'd rather be playing a lot of other teams besides San Diego," Karros said. "Historically, we've always had trouble against the Padres. They play us tough, they always get up for us, and if it means throwing a wrench into our season, they'll pull out all the stops.
"To say [the teams we're playing now] is the tough part of the schedule is not right. Every game the rest of the season is important. When you play teams like Colorado and San Diego, there's a lot to lose. Those games are just as tough."
History supports Karros. The Dodgers, who open a three-game series against the Astros tonight before traveling to San Francisco and Colorado next week, have lost several division titles because they failed to beat teams they were expected to beat--or failed to beat the Padres--in the final weeks of the season.
In 1996, the Dodgers needed one victory during a season-ending series against San Diego to clinch the NL West title, but the Padres swept three games and won it themselves. The Dodgers advanced to the playoffs as a wild-card team but were swept by Atlanta in the division series.
In 1991, the Dodgers were tied for first place on Oct. 1 but lost their next three games to the Padres and a sub-.500 Giant team, finishing one game behind the Braves for the division championship.
The Dodgers were in first place on Sept. 19, 1982, before losing eight straight--two games to the Padres, three to the Giants, two to a Cincinnati Reds' team that went 61-101 and one to the Braves, who won the division title.
The Dodgers were in first place on Aug. 31, 1973, before losing nine straight--three to Houston, three to San Francisco, and three to an awful San Diego team that finished 60-102--falling into second, where they finished.
And in 1971, after having won eight straight and going from eight games back on Sept. 5 to one behind on Sept. 14, the Dodgers stumbled twice to another 100-loss Padre team and finished one game behind San Francisco in the division.
The Dodgers played so poorly in San Diego from 1978-80, going 7-20 in Jack Murphy Stadium, that then-general manager Al Campanis forbade families from traveling south with the team for several years because he felt they were a distraction to the players.
"I don't care if you're playing the Brewers, the Cubs or the Mets, it doesn't matter," Dodger outfielder Marquis Grissom said. "There's no such thing as an easy game this time of year. There's no smooth sailing.
"When I played with Milwaukee [from 1998-2000] we wanted to make sure Cincinnati didn't go to the playoffs. That's the attitude you have to have when you're on the other team. Guys are still trying to put up numbers, they're still competing."
Teams no longer in contention usually play a lot of September call-ups, players who haven't been scouted as much as big leaguers and are difficult to prepare for.
An even bigger threat to contenders in September: An established team with a potent offense that has been eliminated from the playoff hunt, is playing for pride or for future contracts and has nothing to lose.
Recent example: When Seattle and Oakland were battling for the American League West title in September 2000, neither wanted anything to do with the Angels, who had four players--Troy Glaus, Mo Vaughn, Garret Anderson and Tim Salmon--with at least 34 homers and a center fielder, Darin Erstad, who was en route to a 240-hit, 25-homer, 100-RBI season.
That's why it's difficult to handicap the NL West and wild-card races with three weeks left.
Arizona, which has a 5 1/2-game lead over the Dodgers, appears to have the easiest schedule. Only six of the Diamondbacks' final 22 games are against teams with winning records, and three are against Milwaukee, which has the league's worst record.
Their remaining opponents have a cumulative winning average of .472, and Manager Bob Brenly can start Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling in nine of those remaining games if he decides to shuffle his rotation around days off.
Of the Dodgers' 23 remaining games, 10 are against teams with winning records, including seven against their long-time nemeses and closest wild-card pursuers, the Giants, who trail the Dodgers by three games after losing, 8-5, to the Diamondbacks on Thursday night.