This Week in the National League

Who's Going to Lead? Who's Going to Shine?

We are smack dab in the middle of August. There are only six weeks left in the 2005 Major League Baseball season. With a bunch of teams still hanging around with National League playoff hopes, the next two weeks should really define who's in the race and who's not. It's time for leaders to lead, and stars to shine. During this past week, signs could be seen around the NL that some players are getting ready to pick up their teams and carry them as far as they possibly can…

At print time last week, the lifeless Cubs had just dropped eight in a row. They fell to six games under the .500 mark and were about to open a four-game series with the NL-leading St. Louis Cardinals. But as the cardiac Cubs continue to torment their fans, they managed to show new life and took three of four from the Cards. The series victory even has some Cub believers praying for a "Miracle on Addison Street". Though nothing really miraculous is happening just yet, the Cards had a chance to end the season for the Cubbies, but the little bears showed they still had some fight left in them.

The lone Cardinal victory came from their workhorse, and Cy Young hopeful, Chris Carpenter, who tossed a complete game gem against the Cubs on Saturday. It was his sixth of the season and it came at a time when his team really needed it. But Carpenter wasn't the only one to step up his game during the weekend series. Derrek Lee quickly got back on track in the series opener with a two-homer, four RBI performance. Kerry Wood, who has been relegated to setup man status due to his shoulder problems, continues to shine in the pen. He showed the Cardinals just that in two impressive appearances. The second came in relief of Mark Prior Sunday night as Wood pitched the seventh and eighth innings setting up Prior for the win and Ryan Dempster for the save. With only having to pitch an inning or two at a time, he's leaving it all on the field with each appearance. In doing so, his stuff is as nasty as can be. His fastball has hit triple digits leaving hitters shaking their heads. In six appearances, he's tossed seven shutout innings, striking out twelve, and only giving up one hit. But don't expect Wood in the closer or starter role anytime soon. This situation appears to be working for him and the Cubs and isn't likely to change… this year.

With Wood out of the rotation, a familiar face has decided to step up his game. Greg Maddux pitched a complete game Thursday against the Cardinals for his ninth win and then came back to outduel Andy Pettitte Tuesday night for his tenth. With about seven starts left in the season, Maddux might just have a shot at reaching the 15-win milestone for the eighteenth straight year. Are you willing to bet against him?

Getting back to the Cardinals, they have obviously been hampered by injuries to Larry Walker, Scott Rolen, Reggie Sanders, and Yadier Molina. But this team now leads MLB in wins with 75 and continues to roll. A big part of this has been the role players turned starters. No one deserves more credit in recent weeks for the Cards than So Taguchi. Fans at Busch Stadium are loving this guy. He's got a nine game hitting streak heading into Wednesday's action. Just Tuesday night he had a four-hit performance with three doubles and three RBIs against the Diamondbacks. During the month of August he's hitting .460 with 13 RBIs. How's that for a 5'10", 163-lb. outfielder? Taguchi's reign might end when Walker and Sanders return, but he's making the most of his time and giving Tony La Russa something to think about.

How about that NL East? Atlanta has stepped things up a notch and are poised to attempt another coast to the playoffs, but the rest of the division continues to be clumped together. Three games separate the second place Nationals from the last place Mets.

Ah yes, the poor Mets. They had the worst week in baseball, no doubt. Mike Cameron and Carlos Beltran collided head to head in the worst outfield collision this young writer can remember. The play was one of great hustle as both players laid out for a sinking fly ball, only to meet head on. It was as ominous a scene as they come. All are thankful both athletes survived the accident, but Cameron is likely out for the rest of the season with multiple facial fractures. Beltran, who also suffered a fracture, didn't get quite as injured and continues to play. But that wasn't the end of the club's misfortune. Pedro Martinez was five outs away from a no-hitter when he gave up a triple to Antonio Perez. Just three pitches later Jason Werth slugged a two-run homer. Forget the no-no, Pedro and the Mets ended up losing the game to the Dodgers 2-1. Finally, just as the Mets received word that Beltran was ok to continue playing, news broke that Mike Piazza would be out for at least a few games with a fracture in his hand. It's going to be tough for the Mets to stay in the race with this run of luck.

But there are plenty big games left to be played. The division races might come to an end sooner than later, but the NL Wild Card is sure to provide endless hours of baseball anxiety. This upcoming week will be no different. But who's going to lead and who's going to shine? Enjoy!

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