This Week in the National League – Week 24

Week 24 in Pete Khazen's regular season trip around Major League Baseball's National League in 2007 looks at the tension in the three tightening division races.

Wikipedia defines "tensile strength" as the maximum amount of tensile stress that a material can be subjected to before failure. The definition of failure can vary according to material type and design methodology.

 

Applying this to sports, more so baseball, as the material one could argue that tensile strength could be defined as the maximum amount of stress that can be placed on a team before they ultimately fail. Some teams clearly hold up far better than others.

 

And as we roll down the final two weeks of the season, it's apparent some teams are reaching their breaking point while others are realizing they are far stronger than maybe even they thought themselves to be.

 

Here's the latest and greatest from around the league as the race for October gets more and more interesting by the second.


East Division

 

New York Mets (83-67) - Slip, slip, slipping away. The Mets had a commanding lead a couple weeks ago, but a Phillies sweep this past weekend coupled with a string of losses has the division up for grabs. The Mets are clinging to a one and a half game lead and have lost five straight. Losing two to the Nationals down the stretch clearly isn't good for business. Now we know the Mets' tensile strength is fairly solid considering how they performed just a year ago. Even David Wright, who floundered in the NLCS last season, is doing his part to try and bring home winners. Wright has four home runs and nine RBI in his last 10 games, and he just hit the 30-30 club. But the Mets defense definitely isn't helping matters. During two of their recent five losses they amassed 10 total errors in the field, and one could argue that defensive errors are a sign of not being there mentally, and potentially a sign of weakening as pressure is applied.

 

Philadelphia Phillies (82-69) - The Phils have been rock solid. And though in engineering terms it's not really possible for a material to get stronger as you apply tensile strength, it sure seems like the Phils are toughening up down the stretch. There's nothing like a 13-run outburst followed by a 14-inning win on the road to boost confidence. Chase Utley is in the midst of a 13-game hit streak at the right time of the season, and Aaron Rowand is just hammering the baseball. Rowand has hit safely in six straight games and has three home runs and seven RBI during that period.

 

Atlanta Braves (78-73) - The Braves aren't completely out of the playoff picture yet. They need to get red hot these final two weeks, but if one team can do it, the offensively loaded Braves are the team. Tim Hudson finally snapped a streak of three losses with a complete game shutout over the Nationals on Sunday. Jeff Francoeur has been pouring it on with his bat. He's hit safely in 11 of 12 games and has driven in 18 runs in September thus far.

 

Washington Nationals (68-83) - Playing spoilers, the Nationals aren't about to just give up on the season. You have to love it when teams are professional and play with pride. And these Nats do that. Unless he completely collapses in the final two weeks, Dmitri Young will finish the season with a batting average over .300. Clearly a comeback player of the year candidate, Young is hitting .323, but is currently battling a stiff neck after being struck by a line drive. He's day to day.

 

Florida Marlins (65-86) - The big fish in South Florida flopped this season. Still a lot of fans would gladly take years like the Marlins had in 2007 in exchange for just one of their two World Championships. One person who has proven himself, albeit in a non-playoff competitive atmosphere is closer Kevin Gregg. You could have thrown a dart in the bullpen before the season began trying to find the Marlins closer for this season. Gregg earned the job and saved 30 games while carrying a 3.18 ERA. Not too shabby.


Central Division

 

Milwaukee Brewers (78-72) - The Brewers are getting hot at the right time and are in a dead heat with the Chicago Cubs after winning four straight. They retook the division lead Tuesday night by a fraction of a percentage point as they have played two fewer games than the Cubs and have one less win and one less loss. The Brewers don't have a day off the rest of the way, which can be good or bad pending on how you look at it. They did suffer a blow to their postseason hopes Tuesday, though. Staff ace Ben Sheets left the game in the second inning with tightness in his hamstring and his prognosis is still unknown. But the Brewers bats are alive and well. Prince Fielder has hit safely in all 16 games this September and has cranked seven home runs bringing his season count to 46.

 

Chicago Cubs (79-73) - The Cubs took three of four in St. Louis this weekend and had a dramatic come-from-behind, ninth-inning, three-run rally Monday at home against the Reds. But they didn't have that magic Tuesday night. Carlos Zambrano looked unstoppable Friday night against the Cards, but he didn't have the same stuff on three-days rest Tuesday against the Reds. With the bats, it's been a "who is going to be the hero today? mentality. Alfonso Soriano has hit a couple timely long balls, while Mark DeRosa had a 5-for-5 night on Monday. The pressure is on, and the Cubs are holding up so far. After this home stand, they finish on the road, which some will argue is better for teams in the playoff hunt as it takes the edge off a bit.

 

St. Louis Cardinals (70-80) - Nearly two weeks ago, the Cards were a win away from being in first place in a tawdry Central Division. About that time Rick Ankiel was enigmatic, and then the HGH story broke. Since then, the Cards have lost 12 of 13 games, winning only the nightcap of a Saturday doubleheader with the Cubs. With a youthful lineup thanks to far too many veteran injuries, they continue to fight with admirable grit, but it's just not enough. They're particularly struggling with their starting pitching. Mark Mulder made his return from surgery recently and is haunting Redbird fans who know he's got another year on his contract. Mulder is 0-3 with a 12.27 ERA and hasn't lasted more than 4.0 innings in a contest.

 

Cincinnati Reds (69-82) - The Reds never let opponents walk over them, so they are loving the spoiler role right now. Cincy is a tough team to beat with that strong lineup, especially with Aaron Harang on the mound. He racked up two more wins this week, improving to 15-4, with his most recent W coming Tuesday when he knocked Carlos Zambrano and the Cubs from their perch in the Central. Edwin Encarnacion has had a hot stick. With five multi-hit games in his last 10, he also has three home runs and 10 RBI.
 
Pittsburgh Pirates (66-85) - The Pirates also refuse to give way and let these playoff contenders run away with the glory. The Bucs have been a thorn in the side of both the Cubs and the Brewers, but they might just be running out of gas. Pittsburgh has dropped four straight, though they still have two more in San Diego and three in Chicago to make some more noise. They might have to do it without shortstop Jack Wilson who hurt his hamstring Tuesday night. After struggling the first half of the season, last year's NL batting champ Freddy Sanchez has come on in the recent months. He has his average up to .310 and will likely finish the season comfortably above the .300 mark.

 

Houston Astros (65-86) - It's been a disappointing year for the Astros, particularly Lance Berkman. Just a year ago he batted .315 with 45 home runs and 136 RBI. This season he stands today with a .277 average, 30 home runs, and 93 RBI. In an interesting move, the Astros were slated to have Roy Oswalt and Woody Williams pitch the final two games of their series this week against the Brewers, but opted to toss two rookies instead. Knowing what was at-stake, interim general manager Tal Smith called Cubs GM Jim Hendry to explain the situation and cool developing tensions in the Cubs clubhouse. Roy Oswalt became the proud papa of his second child on Tuesday. Congrats! 


West Division

 

Arizona Diamondbacks (85-67) - The Diamondbacks had lost four of six, including two of three to the Dodgers this past weekend, and were watching their lead in the West slip away. Then Micah Owings got the start on Tuesday, and he did his best Brandon Webb impersonation tossing a complete game, two-hit shutout over the Giants keeping the D'Backs in first.

 

San Diego Padres (83-67) - The Padres have won five straight and are right back on the Diamondbacks' tails. Greg Maddux brought home the latest victory on Tuesday night, outpitching Pittsburgh's Tom Gorzelanny. Interestingly enough, it was the first time in 10 starts that Maddux issued a walk. Think about that next time your pitcher walks a couple guys in a single inning and you're wondering if he can handle the pressure. Staff ace Jake Peavy won again this past week, moving above the 200-inning mark, and improving to 18-6 with 225 punchouts. Now he's got a legitimate shot at 20 wins this season.

 

Colorado Rockies (79-72) - Still in the thick of things. The Rockies continue to show they're not going to break. It looks like it'll just be a matter of whether or not the teams above them do. The Rockies swept a doubleheader against the Dodgers to pull back even with them in the battle for the playoffs. One team at a time, right? Todd Helton reached the career 300-HR milestone this week, and he cranked number 301 in Tuesday's nightcap for the game winner. Jeff Francis had one of his best outings of the year on Tuesday, giving up just one run over 6.2 innings and striking out 10 Dodgers for his 16th win of the season.

 

Los Angeles Dodgers (79-72) - It's been a roll of the dice all season long with this team. High expectations with a solid pitching staff and great lineup just haven't materialized, but because they are so talented, they are still in the mix. Closer Takashi Saito has been lights out, but Todd Helton got the best of him Tuesday for his first blown save in what seems like ages. Still Saito is a big reason the Dodgers are still alive. He's 1-1 with 39 saves in 43 chances and a 1.49 ERA.

 

San Francisco Giants (67-84) - What can be said about the Giants? As the rest of the four teams in the division fight it out for the playoffs, the Giants are the odd man out sitting 17.5 games off the division pace. Perhaps that's the cost of sticking through a marriage with Barry Bonds for the glory and revenue of a home run record chase.

 

Got questions or comments? Sound off to pete@petekhazen.com.


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