This Week in the National League

Leveling the Playing Field

Excitement in the National League continues to build following the All-Star break as the playing field has been leveled by recent injuries, which have opened the door for teams and for individuals. The trade deadline looms, and though some players have already begun swapping jerseys, others are sure to follow. But the excitement won't stop when those trades are processed. The rush for the Playoffs is on, and the NL race got a lot more interesting this week.

The Cards, who have dominated the league thus far have been reduced to a shell of a team in recent weeks. Scott Rolen and Reggie Sanders are both sitting on the Disabled List and figure to be there until early September. Larry Walker has been struggling with a neck problem and has been out of the line-up for some time. Add in Yadier Molina's own stint on the DL, and the Cards are without four key starters, including a big part of that Murderer's Row lineup from a year ago. The team roster has looked more like that of the club's AAA Memphis squad than the team that began to run away with the division.

The changes for the Cardinals have opened the door for some new faces. John Rodriguez, who had a monster month of June in the minors, burst on the scene in place of Reggie Sanders and has not disappointed. And his minor league teammate and highly-touted outfielding prospect, John Gall, made his MLB appearance Tuesday night. But the Cards are definitely not the same team, and it starting to show giving opponents some life.

The Cubs went to visit the Cards at Busch Stadium this past weekend for a three-game series. Arguably the best rivalry in the league, the games did not disappoint in raising the excitement level. Despite a very different Cardinals lineup, all games were closely contended. Surprisingly to Cub fans, Albert Pujols had an opportunity to tie or win all three games in the ninth inning and could not come through. The first game featured two nine-inning one-run performances by Carlos Zambrano and Chris Carpenter. Neither factored in the decision as the game ended in the 11th inning on a suicide squeeze bunt executed beautifully by David Eckstein. With the tying run on second base in Abraham Nunez, Pujols ended the second game with a line drive to Neifi Perez, who doubled up Nunez at second, sealing the Cubs 6-5 victory.

The final game was a series of comebacks. After Mark Prior got rocked for four hits and three solo home runs in the first inning, he came back to shut the Cards down, only giving up one more hit in the ensuing five innings. Trailing 3-2 in the eighth inning, the hottest hitter in baseball since the All-Star break, Aramis Ramirez (.396, 8 HRs, 16 RBIs), launched a two-run homer off Julian Tavarez. Ryan Dempster blew the save opportunity in the ninth, though, as the Cards came roaring back. Dempster nearly lost the game, but managed come back and get Pujols to ground out with the winning run at third base. The game essentially ended, though, in the tenth when Neifi Perez, of all people, pulled a grand slam just fair down the right field line giving the Cubs an 8-4 win and a series victory.

Tony La Russa and the Cards also opened the eyes of Cubs' opponents. They refused to pitch to Derrek Lee in late-inning, clutch situations, putting him on base numerous times and forcing someone else on the Cubs to beat them. Felipe Alou definitely noticed as he intentionally walking Lee twice in the Giants' series at Wrigley Field. Jeromy Burnitz, who singled home the game-winner Wednesday afternoon after Lee was walked, backs up Lee along with Ramirez. If those two join the likes of Perez in continuing to deliver behind Lee, managers won't have the luxury of walking Lee all too often. Nonetheless, if the trend continues, Lee's numbers might start to fall off the Triple Crown pace.

Speaking of the Cubs vs. Giants series, the three-game set brought LaTroy Hawkins back to Wrigley Field, home of nightmares and countless boos for him. The return was actually different. It was worse. Though he didn't get charged with a loss, his three appearances resulted in one run each. And they all just happened to tie up the games in late innings. Most notable was a first-pitch fastball that Michael Barrett, Hawkins' former catcher, took deep for a game-tying solo shot late Tuesday night.

But as the Giants continue to struggle, they are still only seven games behind San Diego in the NL West. And as sad as it sounds, the Padres now lead that division with a .500 record, courtesy of an ugly eight-game losing streak. They have given new hope to the rest of the division and are causing many GMs to think twice about packing it up for the season before the trade deadline arrives. The Padres did pick up a bright spot by trading for Joe Randa this past week, though. But their attempt to trade Phil Nevin for Sydney Ponson was rejected by Nevin. The rejection might have been upsetting to the club, but Nevin showed he's committed to the cause by stepping in and catching nine innings behind the plate Tuesday night.

The NL East is quite different from the NL West. Every team in the East is above the .500 mark. And as they continue to slug it out in intra-divisional play, the only things becoming clear are that the Washington Nationals are starting to falter and the playing field in the East is becoming even more level. With their weaknesses exposed, the Nationals are hoping the return of Nick Johnson can spark some new life to their offense. If not, they could be heading for the cellar after a dominating first half of the season. They've already fallen to second behind the Braves, and if the trend continues it could be as short as two weeks before they're looking up at everyone else.

But the most notable from this past week is none other than the continued exciting play of the Houston Astros. With the Cards struggling to stay healthy and the Nationals stumbling, the Astros are sniffing out both the Wild Card and the NL Central division title. Nothing is set in stone, and there is still a lot of baseball to be played. The Astros are making that known. Despite losing Brandon Backe to the DL this week, they are standing strong behind their top three pitchers, Roger Clemens, Roy Oswalt, and Andy Pettitte. The three stars are shining bright boasting ERAs under 3.00 (1.40, 2.33, and 2.73, respectively). They have just been offensive shut-down machines as of late and are attempting to lead the way towards cutting the Cardinals' lead to single digits before the first of August. Add in a setup man in Dan Wheeler with a 0.87 WHIP and a closer in Brad Lidge with 23 saves and 62 punchouts in 41 innings, and it just doesn't seem fair.

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