This Week in the National League

Streaks in the East

The Washington Nationals went on a record-setting ten-game win streak as they mustered together a 12-1 home stand. Behind some great pitching from Luis Ayala, who rattled off three wins in the streak, the Nationals stuck it to the Braves, Marlins, Athletics, and Mariners. They leapfrogged the competition and landed in first place in the NL East. But questions still linger if this usual cellar dweller has what it takes to stay at the top - especially with a suspect offensive lineup.

But the Nationals did get some good news to help answer those questions. Jose Vidro appears to be ahead of schedule in his rehab from an ankle sprain. The Nats' second baseman could very well return before the month of June is up. Considering the Nationals are second to last in the NL in runs scored (261) as of Tuesday, they definitely need the help if they think they can stave off the tough competition in the East.

The Philadelphia Phillies joined the Nationals by putting together their own 12-1 home stand as they keep pace with the new division leaders. The Phils were led by the continued hot bats of Pat Burrell and Bobby Abreu, who are building a great one-two punch NL pitchers are dreading everyday. The Phillies also added to their bullpen during the streak picking up Ugueth Urbina. Though Urbina had a less than perfect first week in his new uniform, he adds some ridiculous depth to a relief core that already boasts Billy Wagner and Ryan Madsen. With these three closing out games, it brings back memories of the Cincinnati Nasty Boys of Rob Dibble, Norm Charlton, and Randy Myers.

Even though the NL East is all bunched up, the recent winning streaks by the Nats and Phils have dropped the perennial division champion Braves (33-31) to 4.5 games back. They are just a game ahead of Mets for last in the division. With Chipper Jones out 4-6 weeks due to a ligament strain in his foot, lingering questions in the bullpen, and Mike Hampton not likely to return from the DL before the All-Star break, you have to wonder if the Braves reign is about to end.

Moving over to the NL Central, fans in the St. Louis area were given a special treat this last week as both the Red Sox and Yankees traveled to Busch Stadium for Interleague Play. Seeking some redemption from the Red Sox following last season's World Series, they handily took the first two games of the series before David Wells held them in check for the final. But that didn't slow them down. They got right back to it taking two of three from the Yankees, who seem to be a long ways from their late-90s dominance.

The Cards are now 41-23, but some critics question this team's caliber compared to last season. They are 21-5 against an arguably weak NL Central, but they are only 20-18 against everyone else. The stats are intriguing, but who is going to tell the Yankees and Red Sox this team isn't as good as it was last year.

Moving on to the bottom of the NL Central, Wily Mo Pena is back and healthy. In light of that, the Reds decided to clear up the confusion in their outfield by optioning Austin Kearns down to AAA. It's another disappointing move for the struggling young prospect, but it could be the decisive one that lowers his stock to the point where he lands a starting role on a contending team via a trade.

On the Cubs' front, Kerry Wood had a successful rehab start Monday for AAA Iowa giving up only one run in three innings. He tossed 46 pitches, 28 of which were strikes. He even hit a triple and registered 92 mph on the radar gun. Wood figures to make two more rehab starts before making it back to the Cubs starting rotation.

This past week a Cubs' pitcher took down Roy Halladay and Josh Beckett, and made it look easy. It obviously wasn't Kerry Wood; nor was it Mark Prior, Carlos Zambrano, or Greg Maddux. It was… Sergio Mitre? The Cubs' recent call-up has pitched phenomenally well as of late. Last week he pitched seven strong innings of shutout ball to beat Halladay and the Blue Jays 2-0. In his start Tuesday night, he needed just 99 pitches to toss a complete game shutout as the Cubs rolled to a 14-0 romp over the Florida Marlins.

Mitre didn't have the best outing in the NL Tuesday night, though. The night belonged to a pitcher on the rival Cardinals. Chris Carpenter unloaded against the Blue Jays tossing his own complete game shutout. The Jays only came up with one hit against the Cards' ace. If only Bob Uecker was calling the game for Toronto as he did for the Indians in the movie Major League. Impressively, Carpenter only needed 95 pitches to complete the game and strike out ten batters. The win helped keep the Cubs at a 6.5-game arms length in the NL Central.

Moving West, and though this happened over a week ago, it's still worth noting the disappointment over Clint Barmes' fractured clavicle. The youngster was having a heck of a year and now he joins the laundry list of injured Colorado Rockies. This one would be much easier to accept had Barmes injured himself on the field of battle, but he reportedly took a fall at home carrying some deer meat. Do you think contract restrictions about hazardous behavior like riding motorcycles typically include any detail about carrying deer meat?

The Dodgers, on the other hand, expect to shrink their Disabled List this week. Milton Bradley plans to return sometime within the next few days. The center fielder was having a breakout year before landing on the DL with a torn ligament in his right ring finger. Though the Dodgers will welcome Bradley's .298 average, 10 HRs, and 26 RBIs he tallied in 48 games, Hee Seop Choi decided to help pick up the slack this past weekend. Choi unloaded for six home runs in three games against Minnesota capping off the weekend with a three-dinger performance. And he has continued his tear Tuesday night hitting his seventh homer in four games. The only downside to the fabulous streak that Choi put together was that six of the seven home runs were solo shots. This is the type of hitter Choi was in the minors, and what the Cubs and Marlins had hoped he'd be. But four games are just four games – he's got a long way to go yet, even though he's heading in the right direction.

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