This Week in the National League

What a Difference a Year Makes

After a wild Interleague weekend during which the American League took an early 23-19 lead, we're back at Intraleague Play. Though the weekend set all kinds of records for attendance and sparked some great rivalries, it's still nice to get back at some familiar faces and ditch that thing they call the Designated Hitter. So let's get right to it…

The most notable new face to hit the scene was Atlanta's Kyle Davies. The prized pitcher who got the start this past Saturday filling in for the injured John Thomson pitched five scoreless innings of four-hit ball against the Boston Red Sox. The performance led the Braves to an eventual 7-5 victory, earning Davies his first win.

Jim Thome and Kenny Lofton both returned to the Philllies lineup this past week. While Lofton had a great 3-4 first game back, Thome has struggled so far going 1-13 and dropping his average below .200. If the Phils are going to rise out of the cellar and pull back into this NL East race, they really need these two veterans to stay healthy and produce like we know they can.

Joe Borowski also made his debut this season with a scoreless inning against the White Sox. But with Ryan Dempster converting on four consecutive save opportunities, Dusty Baker would be foolish to mess with something that's working for his team right now.

Also on the comeback trail is Guillermo Mota. The Marlins' closer should be activated in the coming week, but it does not appear he'll have closer responsibilities all to himself. Todd Jones has been terrific filling in for Mota posting a 1.31 ERA and saving seven games. It looks like Jack McKeon is going to split time between the two for a while. We all know that there is no way that will last. Right now, it's got to be Jones' job to lose, right?

Sticking with the closer theme, Brad Lidge Tuesday night blew his second save opportunity this season. The Cubs rallied from a 2-0 deficit in the bottom half of the eighth inning to win 4-2. The Astros' loss was their seventh straight. It's amazing what a difference a year makes. Houston is sitting 14 games back in the NL Central heading into Wednesday's action and would probably consider selling their souls if they could erase their 2-21 road record. To make matters worse, Roger Clemens had to leave Tuesday's game early with a groin injury. Hopeful Houston fans and teams dreaming of a trade will be earnestly awaiting his status updates.

One person looking forward to the Astros is none other than Ben Sheets. The Milwaukee Brewers' ace will be making his comeback this weekend as Houston carries their road struggles to Miller Park.

Brandon Lyon also figures to be activated this week with intentions of helping the Diamondbacks continue their push to go from last to first. Though it's still very early, it's clear that the D-backs are for real this season and are looking to erase an awful 2004 campaign. With the way Javier Vasquez and Brandon Webb are pitching, this team is poised to contend all season long. Just ask the Detroit Tigers, who dropped games to both pitchers this past weekend. Webb started the series off taking a no-hit bid into the seventh inning on his way to the win, and Vasquez ended the series with a complete game shutout en route to a 1-0 victory. You know George Steinbrenner has to be shaking his head after that performance. Thursday night we'll get treated to a great matchup – Brandon Webb will take his 6-0 record against fellow unbeaten Jake Peavy (4-0) as Arizona and San Diego continue to slug it out for the division lead.

Speaking of marquee pitching matchups, the young will meet the old as Pedro Martinez makes his comeback against Dontrelle Willis Thursday night. Martinez will be looking to show everyone he's not ready to pass any torch just yet, while Willis will look to continue his 2005 domination.

And keeping with marquee pitchers, Giants' fans were thrilled to see Jason Schmidt come back this week. The San Francisco ace threw five solid innings and even hit a homer in a 5-3 win over the Dodgers. Too bad fantasy owners don't get to add that home run to their roto stats.

Despite all these guys making their comebacks, there were three notables that fell from the ranks. Both Mike Hampton and Mark Loretta suffered setbacks. Hampton's move to the DL was retrofitted to May 15, but Loretta looks to be out for a couple months after electing to have surgery on his thumb. The final player to fall was Danny Graves. After another dismal outing, the Reds called it quits designating the closer for assignment. There are clubs who are obviously interested in Graves, but they are going to wait for him to clear waivers so that the Reds are still on the hook for his contract. Who knows where he'll land, but there's a good chance he might make the move to the American League. Ryan Wagner will step into the Reds' closer role as Graves makes his exit from the clubhouse.

As I wrap things up, I'd like to hit on a few notables that are sneaking by quietly.

Mark Redman has been hidden on the Pittsburgh Pirates, but he's part of a tough staff that is keeping the Bucs in the hunt. Redman sits with a 3-3 record, but champions a 2.48 ERA and 1.02 WHIP.

Matt Morris and Chris Hammond both share a 4-0 record. After a crazy up and down season for Morris last year, he has pitched far more consistently in seven starts this 2005 season. Hammond, though not a starter, is tied with Peavy for second in team wins and holds a solid 2.01 ERA out of the San Diego bullpen.

Chris Capuano has also done his part to keep his team in the NL Central race. The Brewers' pitcher is 4-3 with a 3.09 ERA. He's gone at least seven innings in his last five starts and at least eight innings in his last three. He's 3-1 during that stretch with the lone loss coming to the hands of the Nationals who beat him 1-0, scoring the only run in the bottom of the ninth inning.

Finally, to join Javier Vasquez in making Steinbrenner scratch his head, Nick Johnson has just been on a tear. He boasts a .317 average with 7 HRs and 25 RBIs. Though he only drove in one run this past week on a solo shot, he continues to put up multi-hit games.

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