This Week in the National League

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

In a week loaded with fireworks displays around the country, the National League teams didn't disappoint in giving fans their own impressive blasts of colorful excitement. But with any lot of fireworks, there's bound to be some stray rockets, duds, and surprises.

Leading the charge of impressive displays was none other than that team from the nation's capitol. Forget Montreal. Forget Puerto Rico. The team formerly known as the Expos have a home and a name to be proud of. And after another great week, they have shown they are for real this year. The Washington Nationals have won seven of their last eight games, including a three-game weekend sweep of the Cubs at Wrigley Field. The Nats finished June with a 20-6 record despite the fact their offense still isn't exactly hitting on all cylinders. The squad hasn't posted double digits in the run column since the 11 they put up on May 7th in San Francisco, and they haven't scored more than five in July. To show you how tight it has been, of the 20 wins in June, the bullpen saved 17, 15 of which belonged to Chad Cordero. The most recent win came Tuesday night as Esteban Loaiza out-dueled Pedro Martinez, and a shaky Cordero closed it out for a 3-2 victory. Now only two games off the pace of the St. Louis Cardinals, this team is doing its new hometown proud and are looking to claim the top record in the League that shares its name.

Courtesy of the Nats' good fortune and solid baseball, the Cubs are spirally southward in the NL Central. When the schedules came out with the team from Washington D.C. visiting Wrigley Field just before the Fourth of July, the Cubs should have known they were in trouble. After a four-game winning streak ended, the Cubs have now dropped six straight and find themselves losing sight of the division-leading Cardinals. A hefty 12.5 games back, the Cubs have been plagued by poor base running, thwarted comebacks, and a quiet offense. Included in the ugly is none other than Corey Patterson. The Cubs' center fielder, who shined in the first half of 2003 making his first All-Star appearance, has been a six-week sputtering dud. During the month of June, he batted just .157. And July hasn't been any nicer to him. He now finds himself scratching his head and picking splinters as Dusty Baker finally demoted him to bench duty.

But the ugliness doesn't end there for the Cubs. Derrek Lee, who has been flirting with Triple Crown stats all year and has been single-handedly carrying the Cubs, left the game Tuesday night with a shoulder injury. On the good side for Lee, he narrowly edged out an equally-deserving Albert Pujols for the starting job at first base for the All-Star game. But on the bad side for Lee, the Cubs, and their fans alike, this injury/condition has to have everyone worried even if they say the tests are only "precautionary" and that he just needs a little rest.

So as the Cubs spiral downward, the Houston Astros start to rise. The two clubs are dead even heading into Wednesday night's action, though they are clearly heading in opposite directions. What seemed like the start of an ugly season in southern Texas has quickly turned around thanks to Roger Clemens and Roy Oswalt. In seven road games this year, Clemens has only given up one run. And his current ERA is a miniscule 1.41. Oswalt's 2.44 ERA isn't all that far behind, and if he continues to pitch one-run complete games like he did against the Padres on Monday, he might just catch the Rocket. But the Astros' star pitching hasn't been the only element involved in their recent success. Morgan Ensberg, this week's NL Player of the Week, continues to put on display after display of solid hitting. He now carries 22 HRs and 60 RBIs. It's safe to say that one saw Ensberg coming this year.

But not to take anything away from Clemens and Oswalt, have you really taken time to appreciate what Chris Carpenter has been doing lately? The Cardinals' ace doing his part to keep the club from flying on auto-pilot and is making it really hard for Tony La Russa to start Dontrelle Willis or anyone else ahead of him at the All-Star game. In his last four starts, Carpenter has only given up one run and has tossed two complete game shutouts. With another start tonight in the desert of Arizona, there's a good chance another will be in the books come tomorrow morning.

Rather than end things on a good note, we'll defer to the bad and the ugly out West. The Los Angeles Dodgers have been watching the season run away from them. Though they are only five and a half games off the pace of the division leading Padres, they got smacked with the injury bug this week and have watched the bad turn to ugly. J. D. Drew broke his wrist landing him on the DL for at least a couple months and reminding both Atlanta and St. Louis why they got rid of him. Just a mere two days later, All-Star shortstop Cesar Izturis landed right next to him with a strained hamstring, though the 15-day stint is retroactive to June 30. And to top it all off, All-Star second baseman Jeff Kent is suffering his own hamstring problems and might not be far behind Izturis.

For some teams and players suffering in the ranks of the bad and the ugly, the All-Star break can't get here quick enough. For those riding the sensation of the good, the All-Star break poises a difficult obstacle in the way of positive momentum. Needless to say, there is one more week to go. And in the National League, the good can change to the ugly and vice versa faster than we can report on it.

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