"We're in first place by a half a game, and tomorrow's game really separates the men from the boys, I believe," said Branyan. "If we can go up a game and a half with 14 games left in the season, we'll be looking pretty good."
Billingsley prepares: Chad Billingsley threw a simulated game Monday afternoon, the kind he didn't throw last week before pitching Saturday night after 20 days on the sidelines because of a strained oblique muscle.
A similar simulated game in Chicago last week was scratched twice by weather, so with only a bullpen session under his belt, Billingsley went into the biggest game of his young career and lasted only one 40-pitch inning in a San Diego blowout.
As recently as Sunday, manager Grady Little said Billingsley would not be facing batters before his next start Thursday, but it was actually Billingsley who decided that he was so rusty, he needed to see live bats.
"I was talking to the trainers [Sunday], and I said I wanted to see if it was all right to face hitters, and a few minutes later, [pitching coach] Rick Honeycutt came up and asked if I wanted to face hitters," said Billingsley.
"I was really rusty [Saturday], going 20 days without facing hitters. I feel a lot more comfortable going into this next start than I was Saturday, when I knew it would either be a hit or miss -- either I'd be great, or it would be a tough one."
It was a tough one. In a perfect world, Billingsley would have had a Minor League rehab assignment, but the Minor League season is over. The Dodgers might have found a spot for him to come out of the bullpen in Chicago, but the decision was made to go with just a bullpen session for Saturday night's game.
That same strategy was in place for his next start, but plans changed.
"We talked, and decided it was the best thing for him between starts to develop a more comfortable feeling for him," Little said of the change in preparation. "We want to get him back to the way he was before he got hurt."
Tie-breaker coin toss: If the Dodgers tie with Philadelphia for the Wild Card, there will be a one-game playoff in Philadelphia to determine the postseason berth after the Phillies won a coin toss Monday.
In the event that the Padres, Dodgers and Phillies finish with the same record, Los Angeles would play San Diego in Los Angeles on Monday, Oct. 2, to determine the West Division winner, the loser then playing in Philadelphia on Tuesday to determine the Wild Card.
Theoretically, the Dodgers or Padres could be forced to play four games in four cities in four days.
Little ball: For pretty much the entire season, Little has predicted that his club would need to win 87 games to qualify for the postseason. He was still holding to that coming into Monday's series finale with San Diego.
"We need to go 9-4 to do what we need to do the last 13 games, and that's a lot of wins," he said. "that gets us 87 wins, and we'll see where that leaves us."
Lineup changes: Trying for a split of the four-game series, Little had Nomar Garciaparra and Marlon Anderson in the lineup, and Julio Lugo and Andre Ethier out of the lineup.
Garciaparra was returning after missing two games with a strained quad muscle, and Little made it clear that Garciaparra was far from healthy.
"We'll try him today," he said. "We hope he gets through it. It's a little gamble. It could blow up if he gets overextended, but we'll take a chance with it tonight. When a player gets under the gun with a chance to beat out an infield hit, it's hard for them to back off."
But Little didn't apologize for taking the risk.
"We're trying to win the game," he said. "We need him in there to win the game. He wanted to play yesterday. He feels he can play effectively and we feel he can play effectively and that's why he's going to play."
With Garciaparra back at first, Jeff Kent moved back to second and Lugo went back to the bench. So did Ethier, whose September slump continued. Anderson, who played well in place of Ethier on the road trip, is 3-for-9 against Padres starter Jake Peavy.
Coming up: Ian Snell (13-10, 4.78) and the Pirates open a three-game series Tuesday night at 7:10 PT against Dodgers lefty Hong-Chih Kuo (1-4, 4.25).