The St. Louis Cardinals clinched the NL Central title, and they did it on the hostile soil of Wrigley Field. It was tough for the Chicago Cubs and their fans to swallow the jagged pill of watching the likes of Tony La Russa, Chris Carpenter, Mark Mulder, and Albert Pujols douse each other in champagne and beer in the shrine they have come to know as the Friendly Confines. The Cubs put up a good fight and delayed the celebration until Saturday when Mulder beat Greg Maddux and the Cubs 5-1. Despite a disappointing season, the Cubs managed the only winning record against the Cardinals in the NL Central with an impressive 10-6 mark.
A big part of the Cubs' success against the Cardinals this season was the pitching performance of Glendon Rusch. The Cubs' lefty has had great success against the Cardinals in recent years, and has demonstrated that success again in September. In the past two weeks, he took on the Cards and shut them down, bringing home two victories in as many starts. The most recent win came Friday afternoon. Rusch beat Matt Morris and the Cards 5-3. For Morris, it was his fourth consecutive defeat. As his slump continues, the Cardinals' seasoned veteran is now in danger of having to swallow his own jagged pill of post-season bullpen duties.
Speaking of pitchers with question marks heading to the post-season, John Smoltz skipped his last start Wednesday due to a sore shoulder. The staff ace of the soon-to-be NL East champion Atlanta Braves is trying to rest an arm that is showing signs of a long season. Remember, it's been a long time since Smoltz was a starting pitcher for an entire season. Now the questions loom about how much gas he might have in the tank for a post-season run.
And just as MVP talks surged about Andruw Jones last week, the Braves' center fielder has run into a five-game, 1-19 slump at the plate. Nonetheless, league-leading numbers of 50 HRs and 126 RBIs speak for themselves. Braves' fans just hope that Jones doesn't run into another five-game slump in the NL Division Series.
Yes, I am clearly being premature in calling the NL East for the Braves. As of Wednesday afternoon, they are six games up on Philadelphia and have a magic number of six. But let's not deny the obvious – it would take a miracle, or maybe a tragedy, for the Braves to lose the division. If it was Boston or Chicago I might think things over, but this is Bobby Cox and the Braves. I'm not betting against them.
That's not necessarily the case for the NL West-leading San Diego Padres who are continuing to struggle to stay above .500 at 76-75. They are only five games up on the San Francisco Giants. And to make matters worse, during a time when they should be feeding on the cellar dwellers, they are not. They barely squeaked out an 8-7 win against the Colorado Rockies Monday night behind two clutch homers by Khalil Greene. And in Tuesday's contest, well, they got smoked – 20-1. It was an embarrassment, and though it was only one game, it makes you wonder if this is really a playoff team. Luckily for the Padres, they found the strength to rebound and save face with a 5-2 victory fueled by none other than staff ace, Jake Peavy.
Yep, things definitely aren't locked up for the Padres. And with Barry Bonds back in a San Francisco uniform hitting long balls (now up to 707 with his fourth in as many games), anything can happen. If there is one player in the National League who can steal the headlines from the American League and make all eyes focus on the Second Stage, it's Barry Bonds.
On the Wild Card front, the Astros are starting to distance themselves from the competition, but have seven games looming with a Cubs team just looking to make some noise in September. Roy Oswalt and Roger Clemens continue to pitch tough baseball games, but Andy Pettitte is coming on as the surprise arm down the stretch. With a 7-4 Astros win over the Pirates Tuesday, Pettitte has now won six consecutive games and is leading the charge to the post-season.
But Florida isn't going to just lie down. Dontrelle Willis, winner of 21 games now, is going to do his part to keep the Marlins' chances alive, but he can't pitch every day. And with Luis Castillo and Alex Gonzalez hurt, making up two games is easier said than done. Add in the possibility that Miguel Cabrera could be sidelined for a while after fouling a ball a ball off his knee Wednesday night, and the Marlins' chances get slimmer.
That leaves us with the Philadelphia Phillies, who continue to hang around within striking distance. They're just two games behind the Astros. And Jimmy Rollins is doing everything in his power to keep the Phils chances alive. Rollins has a 26-game hitting streak going and has surpassed the century mark with 102 runs scored. And despite the seemingly huge loss of Jim Thome, rookie first baseman Ryan Howard is filling in with authority. Just this past Wednesday night he launched his 19th home run, a game-winning grand slam in the tenth inning. The blast set up a 10-6 victory over the Braves and kept the Phils alive in the divisional race, but more importantly in the Wild Card race. They are looming, just waiting for the opportunity to strike. And the stars might be aligning to pull them into the post-season.
Yes, all eyes might be focused on the American League races right now, but the National League has its own exciting storylines brewing for the final week of the season. Too bad it needs to play out on the Second Stage… for now.
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