This Week in the National League – March 14

"Brackets, Grapefruits, and Cacti" are on the docket as Pete Khazen makes his weekly swing through Florida and Arizona-based spring training camps.

Try saying that subtitle three times in a row. The majority of the free world embarks on that college basketball extravaganza this week and is ensconced in "bracketology". If you could care less, there's plenty of baseball to follow the next few weeks. And if you can't tear yourself away from those haunting decisions like which number twelve seed is going to be the upset special this Thursday or Friday, well, that's what we're here for.

We've got you covered on the latest and greatest news from around the Senior Circuit, while you read about the goofiest college mascot names, try to circumvent the firewall at work to make your tournament picks, and sneak away for extended lunch hours, while completely ignoring the baseball world.

East Division

New York Mets - Jose Reyes is batting .375 and has racked up 24 total bases from the plate in just 10 games. He's also collected six steals, which is just bad news for everyone outside the Mets organization as this phenom appears primed to hit and run all over opposing pitching staffs. As for the Mets staff, Pedro Martinez continues to work his rehab without any apparent setbacks, but there's still no timetable for his return. John Maine has started two games and has thrown 5.0 shutout innings.

Philadelphia Phillies - Jamie Moyer will turn 45 years young come November this season, but the Energizer Bunny himself just keeps on going. Sure it might be spring, but the crafty veteran needed just 59 pitches to toss five scoreless frames in a split-squad game against the Detroit Tigers Sunday. As for that Philly debacle at third base the past few years, well, the club might just have their answer in Wes Helms, who is batting .433 this spring with two home runs and seven RBI through nine games.

Florida Marlins - Second baseman Dan Uggla had a monster rookie campaign with that young Marlins team in 2006, cracking 27 home runs and driving in 90. But Uggla is struggling to find his stride so far this spring batting just .179 without a single long ball. He's not the only young Marlin trying to shake the cobwebs. Jeremy Hermida has just two hits in 27 at-bats. Even Aaron Boone, who is on the comeback trail, is a mere 3-for-32 from the plate.

Atlanta Braves - Chipper Jones hurt his ankle on Monday and had to leave the game, but he was right back in the lineup on Tuesday and had a pair of hits. Closer Bob Wickman has seen action in four games, tossing 4.0 shutout innings, but he made them interesting giving up six hits and two walks.

Washington Nationals - Sophomore third baseman Ryan Zimmerman inked himself a $400,000 deal for the 2007 season, but it's clear the contract negotiations were not a distraction so far for the youngster. He's batting .455 with an .818 slugging percentage influenced by a pair of doubles and homers. On the bright side for the Washington pitching staff, potential number two man Shawn Hill held the Mets to just one run in four innings of work. In three starts, he's pitched 9.0 innings and given up just two earned runs.

Central Division

St. Louis Cardinals - Jim Edmonds took batting practice this week, but his prognosis for making Opening Day isn't exactly looking up. We'll continue to follow his progress. On the up and up, though, David Eckstein returned to the Cards lineup on Tuesday. But the big news from the defending World Champions camp is their pitching, particularly their starting pitching. They've got a lot of questions, and so far this spring all the right answers are showing up. The starting pitching staff has given up just five earned runs in 47.0 innings. Last October Adam Wainwright made knees buckle with his hook out of the bullpen, and this spring he's doing it as a staring pitcher, who has only given up five hits in 11.2 shutout innings. Now all eyes focus on Jason Isringhausen's return Thursday.

Cincinnati Reds - Josh Hamilton continues to be the hot story from Cincy's camp. The comeback kid went 2-for-2 Tuesday with a pair of RBIs, boosting his spring batting average to .571. Starting pitchers Aaron Harang and Eric Milton have not had similar success. The duo has combined to allow 35 hits in just 18.1 innings for 13 earned runs.

Houston Astros - Chris Burke is in one impressive slump this spring, going just 2-for-34 at the plate for a .059 batting average. On the positive side, one could argue that he's far better off getting it out of his system now. And on another sour note, closer Brad Lidge is struggling too. Granted Lidge tends to struggle when he's not in a save situation, or when he's facing Albert Pujols, but the Astros stopper has given up six runs in five innings of work.

Milwaukee Brewers - Johnny Estrada is making his presence felt with his new team this spring. The sweet swinging catcher already has 14 RBIs in 11 games and is batting .517 with just two strikeouts. Youngster Carlos Villanueva is making his case to not only make the Brewers starting roster but also earn a spot in the rotation. In three starts he's pitched 10.0 innings, given up just three runs, and has struck out 12 batters.

Pittsburgh Pirates - Jason Bay is easing his way back into a regular routine, and it's quite promising that he's already got his swing working for him, hitting safely in five of his first 11 at-bats. The Pirates young one-two punch in the starting rotation is looking fairly sharp to start the spring as well. Zach Duke and Ian Snell have given up a respectable seven total runs in 17.0 innings of work, while both are averaging better than a strikeout per frame.

Chicago Cubs - The Mark Prior rescheduling saga continues. The struggling pitcher was slated for a minor league start on Thursday but instead will be pitching in a minor league intrasquad game Friday. It is what it is. There's no doubt, though, that Carlos Zambrano is the staff ace, but the fiery competitor scared the beegeezes out of everyone when he took a spill rounding second base en route to an RBI triple. Zambrano was fine afterwards, which was a relief to all. He likes to hit and run, no doubt, and when you look at the number of times he's sparked his offense for him, you can't argue against his efforts.

West Division

Los Angeles Dodgers - Chad Billingsley is reportedly out of the running for the final spot in the Dodgers starting rotation. It's now a three-way battle among Brett Tomko, Hong-Chih Kuo, and Mark Hendrickson. Starting pitcher Brad Penny, who is a lock for the rotation, hasn't looked like much of one this spring. Penny has given up 17 hits in 7.0 innings of work, including 10 runs for a lofty ERA of 12.86.

San Diego Padres - Though Manager Bud Black is downplaying its severity, Greg Maddux was scratched from his scheduled start Monday due to a lower abdominal muscle strain. Maddux is dependent on his mechanics and ability to place pitches exactly where he wants to, and such an injury might not be easy to overcome if he's feeling any discomfort. Terrmel Sledge has been looking impressive so far. The projected starting left fielder has clubbed four long balls and is batting .355 through nine games.

San Francisco Giants - Armando Benitez pitched a scoreless inning of relief in his first appearance this spring. But the starting Matts, Matt Cain and Matt Morris, have been rocked this spring. In a combined 15.1 innings pitched, the Matts have given up 29 hits and 23 earned runs.

Arizona Diamondbacks - Randy Johnson made a big step on the comeback trail from back surgery by tossing batting practice to some prospects on Saturday without any negative press. One man to definitely watch this season is Eric Byrnes. He was a popular player-analyst in the broadcast booth and television studios last October, and has some nice momentum heading into spring from that high. To date, Byrnes is batting .522 with six extra-base hits in 23 at-bats.

Colorado Rockies - Javy Lopez was cut loose by the Rockies after struggling to throw any runners out on the basepaths. Opposing base swipers were a perfect 8-for-8 against Lopez, which was all the Rockies needed to for verification that his bat wasn't worth the liability behind the plate. Interestingly enough, the loaded Rockies lineup doesn't have a single slugger with multiple home runs this spring. But Todd Helton could be poised for a monster resurgence in 2007. His swing appears to be fully intact evidenced by his .529 batting average thus far.

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