This Week in the National League - July 26

With only about two months remaining in the 2006 regular season, we are not much closer to knowing which teams will be playing in October while the others sit at home and watch than we were back in March.

About a month or so ago, it appeared as though the New York Mets and St. Louis Cardinals were the lone sure-bets to make the 2006 post-season. But that doesn't seem all too sure of a bet anymore, though they are clearly the front-runners to be there.


After burying the so-called cursed Chicago Cubs and the hapless, All-Star hosting Pittsburgh Pirates, you might as well have a coin-flipping tournament to see who from the National League will be duking it out come this October. Some teams are definitely better positioned than others, and it's clear that some will be packing it up for the year and becoming sellers before we know it. But your guess is as good as anyone else's with respect to who will catch fire in these next couple months.


Will the Rockies bring the post-season back to the thin, cool air of Colorado? Will the Astros buzz their way into the playoffs once again? Will a new Big Red Machine emerge in Cincinnati? Will perhaps Bobby Cox manage in the post-season, yet again, and earn yet another well-deserved Manager of the Year award? Or will Joe Girardi and his young guns steal the show from Miami and mystify us all?


It's been said time and time again. Anything can and will happen in baseball. So as you get set to enjoy that crazy roller coaster ride that picks up speed as the trade deadline approaches, check out the latest and greatest from the land where the pitcher steps to the plate and bats for himself…


East Division


New York Mets (59-41)

Tom Glavine and his resurrected success was the talk of the town the first half of the season.  Glavine really isn't pitching any worse than he was earlier in the season, maintaining an ERA of 3.54, but the Mets pitcher is 0-2 in his last six starts.  With Pedro Martinez still out, you better believe that General Manager Omar Minaya recognizes that his Mets need to beef up their rotation if they really want to make a run for the World Series crown. If he doesn't make a move to add a big name starter to the roster, the National League's best chance at knocking off the American League might not even get the opportunity.


Atlanta Braves (47-52)

The Braves made a statement. They went out and filled their biggest hole, showing everyone that they're not even thinking about throwing in the towel. The club made a deal with the Indians and landed closer Bob Wickman. The imposing pitcher has been in the majors since 1992, but he had his most impressive season last year when he lit up the American League with 45 saves. Since joining the Braves, Wickman has tossed two scoreless innings in as many appearances, and he snagged his first save. But that Braves explosive offense has room for concern. Both Andruw Jones and Chipper Jones, who had seemed to be hitting their stride, have now missed three consecutive games each. Both sluggers are day-to-day. Chipper is struggling a bit with a strained oblique, and Andruw is dealing with a sore back that is affecting his breathing and will keep him out of the lineup for at least one more game.


Florida Marlins (46-52)

The Florida Marlins are sitting six games under .500 and just 6.0 back in the Wild Card race. With a bunch of youngsters, a select few veterans, and no payroll, you better believe that Cubs fans are wondering why Joe Girardi is managing in South Florida and not in North Chicago. The Marlins continue to just be a talent pool. Anibal Sanchez is the latest phenom. He got a spot start against the New York Yankees, of all teams, on June 25. He won that game, and essentially bought himself at least one more start. He's gotten five more since then and now holds an impressive 4-0 record. He's given up just one run in his last three starts. Sanchez and Girardi have the 11,000 or so fans that attend games regularly in Miami believing that something special might just be brewing once again.


Philadelphia Phillies (44-53)

The Phillies are sliding amidst trade rumors involving Bobby Abreu. Ryan Madson got the start on Tuesday and tied a Major League record, but not in a category any pitcher would like his name associated. Madson tossed four wild pitches in the same inning, but he was in line for the W until Tom Gordon suffered his third blown save, giving up an unearned run in the ninth inning. At least Madson can rest assured knowing that Wild Thing Rick Ankiel one-upped him in the 2000 NL Divisional Series against Atlanta when he threw five wild pitches in a single inning.


Washington Nationals (44-56)

The latest buzz is that Alfonso Soriano might be heading to the defending World Champion Chicago White Sox, but the Nationals left fielder continues to swing away and play in Washington. Soriano loves the big stage, and he's turning on his game for all suitors. He went 7-for-13 against the Cubs this weekend, including five extra-base hits and two stolen bases. The Nationals need Soriano's bat desperately right now. Jose Vidro landed on the 15-day disabled list with a torn hamstring, and Jose Guillen decided to have season-ending surgery on his elbow. No doubt Soriano is a prized player in the trade market. The Nationals should make out well with any deal.


Central Division


St. Louis Cardinals (57-42)

The Cardinals need to play the Dodgers more often. They swept a four-game series at Busch Stadium two weekends ago and then took a three-game series in the City of Angels this past weekend. Yes, the Redbirds swept the Dodgers again, and they did it only giving up two runs all weekend. Jason Marquis earned his league-leading twelfth victory Sunday despite his ugly 5.62 ERA. Jeff Weaver earned his first win as a Cardinal, knocking off his old team with 5.2 innings of impressive six-hit, one-run ball. And if you haven't noticed, the Cards might have figured out their left field problems. Amidst the buzz of Bobby Abreu possibly coming to St. Louis, Chris Duncan is marking his territory. The first baseman turned outfielder has scored 20 runs in 33 games and has six homers in 91 at-bats. That's a lot more productive than Abreu has been.


Cincinnati Reds (53-47)

Just when the Reds seemed to be fading a bit, they pulled it together once again. Aaron Harang went into a hostile Minute Maid Park Tuesday to battle the immortal Roger Clemens, and he took the big Texan down. He tossed eight scoreless innings to out-duel the Rocket and earn win number 11. Scott Hatteberg is definitely making it easy for Reds fans to see why the departure of Sean Casey might have been a good thing for the club. Hatteberg has boosted his batting average to .324 courtesy of three three-hit games in the last week.


Milwaukee Brewers (48-53)

Ben Sheets looked solid in his return from the disabled list Tuesday, tossing 7.0 strong innings. Sheets gave up six hits and just one run, while striking out five. But it wasn't good enough for the win as the Pirates scored five in the eighth to win 6-1. In an interesting development out of the bullpen, Derrick Turnbow fell apart in a non-save opportunity Friday night, suffering his fourth loss in July. Call it the All-Star selection hex, but Turnbow hasn't recorded a save since June 29, and now Dan Kolb will take over as staff closer, where he thrived just two years ago. To show their team they're in the hunt this season, the Brewers front office dealt relief pitcher Jorge De La Rosa to the Kansas City Royals for infielder Tony Graffanino, who should give the Brew Crew some much needed depth.


Houston Astros (47-53)

Lance Berkman leads the Astros in batting average (.318), home runs (26), RBI (88), and runs (54). But the Astros best hitter pulled his groin Sunday and had to leave the game early. He didn't get the start on Tuesday against the Reds, but he did pinch hit late in the game, which is encouraging. In his first ten games in an Astros uniform, Aubrey Huff is batting just .243 with one home run and four RBI.


Chicago Cubs (39-60)

In another head-scratching setback for the Cubbies, Derrek Lee landed back on the disabled list with inflammation in the same wrist he broke earlier in the season. Despite his absence, as well as that of Kerry Wood and Mark Prior, Carlos Zambrano isn't getting down. The big Venezuelan just likes to play baseball, and he's looking like one of the best pitchers in the National League after winning his seventh and eighth straight decisions this week. To top it all off, he's got four homers this season. That's half as many as Bobby Abreu, and Zambrano only plays every fifth game. And if you haven't noticed Aramis Ramirez finally woke up. The Cubs third baseman has been en fuego. In his last six games, Ramirez is 11-for-23 with seven mashing homers and 11 RBI.


Pittsburgh Pirates (36-66)

Freddy Sanchez continues his quest for the batting title, maintaining his lead atop the National League with a .351 average. In getting his first start since July 16, Jeromy Burnitz went off on Tuesday knocking two homers and driving in four runs. Burnitz sparked that five-run eighth inning that helped starting pitcher Ian Snell win his ninth game this season. Snell out-dueled Sheets tossing seven innings of four-hit, one-run ball.


West Division


San Diego Padres (53-47)

The Padres dropped four straight, but have countered with three wins, including back-to-back extra inning Ws on Sunday and Monday. They also boosted their bullpen by adding right-hander Scott Williamson via a deal that sent two minor leaguers to the Cubs. First Baseman Adrian Gonzalez was named NL Player of the Week. He's sporting a 16-game hitting streak, which has included six three-hit games and boosted his batting average to .302.


Arizona Diamondbacks (51-48)

Exorcising the Grimsley Factor demons, the D'Backs are back over the .500 mark and looking like serious contenders once again. Brandon Webb is back on-track. After getting skunked in June, he's 3-0 in July having given up just four runs in as many games. And though he's not having a monster year at the plate, Luis Gonzalez (.280, 8, 46) will likely stay put in Arizona as long as the D'Backs are in the hunt. He's too valuable a leader in the clubhouse. If the front office sends him packing, the Arizona fan base should send their owners packing.


San Francisco Giants (51-49)

Matt Cain was just one out away from a complete game Thursday, but he got in a little trouble and Felipe Alou decided to take his young starter out of the game. Still, 8.2 innings of seven-hit, two-run ball en route to his first win in over a month has to give Giants fans a boost. And if you're shaking your heads wondering how the Giants are staying in the playoff hunt this year, you don't need to look beyond the 39-year-old shortstop Omar Vizquel, who continues to shine with a .303 batting average and 60 runs scored.


Colorado Rockies (47-52)

You can have good pitching in Colorado. Jeff Francis held David Eckstein, Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen, and Jim Edmonds to just one hit Monday night in Colorado. Francis only gave up two hits the whole game and improved to 8-8 with his complete game shutout. Even Jason Jennings held the Cardinals to just one run in a complete game loss Tuesday. It should be no surprise that the lone run scored on a solo homer by Pujols, who coincidentally had the lone hit of the hitting foursome previously mentioned.  And though his .237 batting average might not look all too hot, Clint Barmes is definitely heating up. He's hit safely in all but one game in July and has picked his average up 30 points in the month.


Los Angeles Dodgers (47-54)

The Dodgers have dropped seven straight to find themselves in the shallow NL West cellar. Andre Ethier had his first multi-homer game on Monday, launching two long balls, in a futile effort to help his club snap their losing streak. In an interesting story buried in their slide, the Dodgers dumped disgruntled employee Odalis Perez to the Kansas City Royals in exchange for relief pitcher Elmer Dessens. Where better for an unhappy pitcher playing for a contender to find himself but in a small-market, midwestern city with no hope for the post-season anytime soon?


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