This Week in the National League - August 9

A Wild League! Other might consider them the weak sisters of Major League Baseball, but as Pete Khazen points out, there is plenty of action to go around in the Senior Circuit this season.

There's been plenty of chatter about how bad, downright dreadfully weak, the National League is this season. But that parity across the league sure has a lot of folks across the country still thinking the playoffs are a possibility.  The Mets might be running away with the show, but everything else is up for grabs with about 50 games remaining. The Cardinals lead in the NL Central is just 3.5 games over the Reds, and the streaking Dodgers have pulled within a half game of the hanging-on Padres. In the Wild Card battle, the Reds and Dodgers are dead even while eight other teams remain within striking distance at no more than 5.5 games back. Heck even the Nationals are just 8.5 games off the Wild Card pace, and even the Cubs have narrowed the lead to 9.5 games. If we've learned anything this week, it's that any one team can catch fire like the Dodgers have and put together a 10+ game win streak and be right in the thick of things, if not run away with it all. And we all know what that Wild Card momentum can mean in the playoffs.


Some teams are definitely poised for a run better than others, but it's still anyone's guess where the next six and a half weeks will take us. So let's get right to the latest and greatest from around the league:


East Division


New York Mets (67-44)

To boost the club's confidence, as well as that of its fan base, the front office locked up their stellar left side of the infield this week. Stud third baseman David Wright signed a six-year, $55 million extension while shortstop Jose Reyes brought home his own extension, a four-year, $23.25 million deal. There is not a better tandem of position players in baseball to build towards the future with. But forget about the future, what about now? Well, the Mets just keep rolling. To help them on that roll and add a left-handed bat to the bench, the club picked up outfielder Ricky Ledee, who as recently put on waivers by the Dodgers. And after blowing a save last week, Billy Wagner jumped right back on the horse and nailed two conversions this week. Speaking of horses, there's been quite the buzz about catcher Paul Lo Duca, his unfortunate pending divorce, and allegations of gambling problems. Nonetheless, Lo Duca has denied any problems. His teammates have stood beside him. And the Mets fans gave him a big round of applause during his first at-bat Tuesday showing their support and refusal to let this become a distraction.


Philadelphia Phillies (54-58)

Chase Utley's run for the history books was stopped short last week in New York. Still his remarkable 35-game hit streak was one great thrill after another. Interestingly enough, the buzz he helped create has gotten the Phillies back on track and in the playoff hunt. Funny how sometimes when a club appears to be selling the farm, those left in the barn rally to do some amazing things. Ryan Howard is definitely one of those special players who will create magic regardless of the circumstances. He's just been on a tear lately. The young slugger is tops in the league with 39 home runs and 101 RBI. And though Brett Myers and Jon Lieber have definitely been looking sharper lately, Cole Hamels has been the story in the Phils rotation the past week or so. Hamels is 2-1 in his last three starts and has posted 31 strikeouts in 19.2 innings.


Atlanta Braves (52-60)

Pitcher Horatio Ramirez, who has been plagued with injuries this season, has a partially torn ligament in his left middle finger and will be heading to the DL again, possibly for the remainder of the year. As the bad news broke about Ramirez, something positive did happen. Tim Hudson, who was a miserable 2-6 in his last two games, dominated the Phillies Tuesday. He tossed 7.0 innings of shutout ball en route to his ninth win. Bob Wickman closed out the 3-1 victory for his sixth save since joining the Braves. The big, veteran closer hasn't given up an earned run as a Brave, and in less than three weeks in Atlanta he has posted a save total just three fewer than Chris Reitsma, who started the season as the club's closer.


Florida Marlins (52-60)

The Marlins took a big hit in their improbably quest for the playoffs when they were swept this weekend by a streaking Dodgers club. Manager Joe Girardi reportedly kept the clubhouse doors closed for 90 minutes following that sweep as he addressed his club. And it's with that session that rumors started circulating about a potential rift between Girardi and the Marlins owner, Jeffrey Loria. Those rumors have been squashed by Girardi, and the Marlins got back on the winning track with a 4-2 victory over the Nationals Tuesday as Ricky Nolasco picked up his tenth win. Joe Borowski, who has had one of the better comeback seasons this year, earned his 23rd save in 26 chances this season.


Washington Nationals (49-63)

Farewell, Livan. Nationals staff ace Livan Hernandez was dealt to the Arizona Diamondbacks this week as the club takes a huge step closer to packing it up for good this season. Alfonso Soriano is still swinging away, though. No matter how much he might claim to want to stay in Washington, Soriano definitely loves the big stage, and you can be guaranteed that teams are still salivating over his 35 home runs, 72 RBI, and 28 stolen bases he's carrying right now.



Central Division


St. Louis Cardinals (61-51)

The Cardinals snapped an ugly eight-game losing streak on Saturday as they knocked off the Milwaukee Brewers. The team jumped out to a 4-0 lead, and managed to hold on to a 4-3 victory despite not getting a hit after the third inning. Jim Edmonds saved the game with a bases-loaded, inning-ending diving catch of a sinking liner hit by Prince Fielder in the seventh inning. That play arguably jumpstarted a three-game win streak, which included a 13-1 pounding of Cincinnati on Monday to open a huge four-game set. Jeff Weaver definitely showed he fits in well with the Cardinals rotation. After giving up a combined 11 runs in his last two starts, Weaver tossed 6.0 strong innings of one-run ball for the Redbirds in his best outing as a Cardinal. His solid effort was not duplicated by Jason Marquis in the second game of the series. Marquis, whose ERA has risen to 5.82, gave up four runs and nine hits as he was chased with one out still remaining in the third inning.


Cincinnati Reds (58-55)

The Reds crept within 2.5 games of the Cards this weekend, but could not close the gap any further. As they began the big four-game series in Cincinnati with the division leaders, the Reds were sitting just 3.5 games out. That 13-1 beating dropped them 4.5 back, but Ryan Freel and Eric Milton led the charge Tuesday as the Reds won 10-3 and evened the series at a game a piece. Milton kept the ball in the yard and allowed just one run in 6.0 innings of work. Freel was 3-for-4 on the night with three runs scored. Most notably though, he made a ridiculous diving catch in right-center field on an Albert Pujols drive, which will make highlight reels for months to come. With Aaron Harang taking on Anthony Reyes Wednesday and Bronson Arroyo up against Chris Carpenter Thursday in the finale, the series definitely has two marquee matchups to intensify the competition for first place.


Houston Astros (54-58)

Brandon Backe has definitely shined in October, but the starting pitcher has had his share of health issues and just hasn't been consistent during the regular season. Backe returned from an extensive stint on the disabled list this past week, and he's a perfect 2-0 in his return having given up just two runs in 14.2 innings of work. With Roy Oswalt, Roger Clemens, and Andy Pettitte in that rotation, you better believe that the Astros have the tools to make a serious run for the playoffs, especially if Backe is bringing his A-game. Still closing games out has been no easy feat for Brad Lidge who has been temporarily demoted from closer multiple times this season. But while Dan Wheeler has picked up three saves this season, Lidge is still the Astros main man, and he earned save number 25, striking out the side in a scoreless ninth Tuesday night.


Milwaukee Brewers (52-60)

After losing four of their last five, the Brewers have sunk to a season-low, eight games under .500. They're slipping out of the playoff race, partly due to lack of run production. You can tell that Carlos Lee's departure is being felt now. Kevin Mench is just 8-for-32 as a Brewer, and recently acquired third baseman David Bell has yet to drive in a run for the Brew Crew. On a side note, starting pitcher Ben Sheets was pulled from Saturday's game in St. Louis after just one inning of work. He reportedly has a strained chest muscle but is expected to miss no more than one start, if that.


Chicago Cubs (48-64)

Carlos Zambrano's win streak was snapped by none other than the Pittsburgh Pirates, but that hasn't slowed the Cubs down. They're young pitching staff is far from the likes of the Detroit Tigers, who have three rookie pitchers 5+ games over .500, but they're starting to develop a swagger. Rookie pitcher Rich Hill, who at 26 years young, is the oldest member of the starting rotation. Hill showed great stuff in the minors, and that stuff is finally starting to take form. He's 2-0 in his last two starts having given up four runs in 15 innings of work, while also striking out 15 batters. As for that Mark Prior guy, well, he managed to earn his first victory of the season Saturday lasting 5.2 innings against the Pirates, giving up just two earned runs on five hits.


Pittsburgh Pirates (42-71)

Shawn Chacon pitched 5.0 innings in his first start as a Pirate, and he gave up just one earned run. He brought home a victory in that first start, and his reward is that he gets to go head-to-head with Roy Oswalt for his second start. As for the Freddy Sanchez watch, the rookie sensation has seen his average drop to .339, but he's still the front runner in the league for that batting crown.


West Division


San Diego Padres (58-54)

The Padres have slipped a bit, and Jake Peavy continues to struggle. The staff ace is just 5-11 this season, and in his past 10 starts is just 1-5. So just how has this club stayed above .500 and in first place? Well, Dave Roberts has a lot to do with it. This week Roberts had three games with three hits, and the Padres won all three of those games. Roberts batting average is now up to .312 as he continues to compete with hot-hitting Adrian Gonzalez (.306) for top honors on the club.


Los Angeles Dodgers (58-55)

Anyone who thought this Dodgers team wouldn't be inspired by the trades for Greg Maddux and Julio Lugo at the non-waiver trade deadline clearly need to think again. The Dodgers have run off 11 straight wins and are riding atop cloud nine. Nevermind that Brad Penny didn't offer up his jersey number so future Hall of Famer Maddux would have his No. 31. Nevermind that Nomar Garciaparra is back on the disabled list, and Jeff Kent has just recently come off it. Penny has won his last two starts after dropping his past three decisions. Maddux, wearing number 36, tossed 6.0 scoreless innings before a rain delay snuffed his chances for a no-hitter in his debut as a Dodger. And Tuesday night the Professor tossed another 6.0 solid innings of two-run ball in a no-decision that ended in a Dodger victory. As for Kent, he returned from the DL Tuesday with a three-run homer in his first at-bat. Oh, and let's not leave out rookie Andre Ethier who has a 12-game hit streak alive and is carrying an impressive .350 batting average.


Arizona Diamondbacks (57-56)

Brandon Webb is dealing with a sore pitching elbow due to inflammation. He's having a season worthy of Cy Young Award consideration with a 12-4 record and 2.74 ERA, but this injury is expected to keep him out at least one start. With the uncertainty around Webb and the clear picture that the Dodgers got a lot better at the trade deadline, the D'Backs added Livan Hernandez to their rotation, who should definitely help them out.


Colorado Rockies (54-58)

The Rockies have seen their offense fizzle on this road trip, scoring just two runs in each of their past four contests. Starting pitcher Jason Jennings may only be 1-3 in his last eight starts, but he's tossed no fewer than 6.0 innings in each trip to the mound and has lowered his ERA from 4.02 to 3.48 in that time doing his best to give his club a solid chance for victory each time. And if you haven't noticed, Garrett Atkins has taken over the club's RBI lead. Despite an impressive .310 batting average, Atkins now has 73 RBI on the year.


San Francisco Giants (54-59)

You look at the Giants lineup and rotation and can't help but wonder how they are staying alive in the playoff hunt. Then you realize how balanced the NL West is and how weak the league is as a whole. Jason Schmidt came back to life this week posting two victories, giving up a combined four runs in the two outings, while striking out 12 in 12.2 innings of work. And courtesy of seven multi-hit games in his last eight, Omar Vizquel has picked his average up to .319, showing the Fountain of Youth hasn't run dry just yet.


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