Inside Pitch: Examining NL contenders
Tight races in all three divsions should equal stretch-run drama
The National League division races have turned into a cavalry charge. With the finish line only seven weeks away, nine of the 16 teams in the NL are within six games of first place in their respective divisions and seven teams are within seven games of the Wild Card lead.
In all three divisions, the leaders are bunched together, as no dominant team has been able to pull away from the pack. While all have hopes of emerging on top, each has issues that could undermine its chances of reaching the postseason.
Handicapping such tight races require as much input as possible, so we sought the opinions of various industry insiders to give us their take on the NL races. While only those teams within 6 1/2 games of the lead are included (on the theory that gaining one game a week on the leader for the final six weeks would be the cutoff), it is important to note that no team has been eliminated from postseason contention.
Florida is 10 1/2 games out in the NL East and last-place Washington is 11 1/2 out. Houston (fourth place, nine games out in the NL Central) has a dozen games remaining with NL Central leader Milwaukee and second-place Chicago.
As manager Phil Garner pointed out: "At this point, we don't need anybody's help; it's still right there in front of us if we can just get it done."
Right now, that statement could apply to every team in the league.
As for the division races, here's a look at the NL picture heading into Tuesday's action.
Status: First place with a three-game lead.
The Mets haven't won a series against a divisional foe since taking three of four at Philadelphia June 29-July 1. They have split a four-game series with Washington and dropped two of three to Atlanta and Florida since then. Since climbing 13 games over .500 on June 30, the Mets have played .500 ball (19-19). Getting Moises Alou and Carlos Beltran back helps, but the pitching hasn't been as strong lately as Jorge Sosa has moved to the bulllpen, John Maine has a 6.23 ERA in his past five starts and there's no guarantee Pedro Martinez will make it back from rotator cuff surgery this season.
Key series: At Philadelphia, Aug. 27-30; at Atlanta, Aug. 31-Sept. 2; vs. Atlanta, Sept. 9-12; vs. Philadelphia, Sept. 14-16.
Bottom line: If the pitching holds up and the Mets can fend off the Phillies and Braves through mid-September, they should be OK, as their schedule looks favorable after that.
Status: Second place, three games behind the Mets.
The NL's most prolific offense (only the Yankees and Tigers have scored more runs), the Phillies have also been a resilient team that has managed to stay in the hunt despite numerous injuries, particularly to the pitching staff and MVP candidate All-Star second baseman Chase Utley. Even without Utley, the offense continues to roll (NL-leading 171 runs scored over the past 30 days). The Phillies are 14-7 since July 20, the best record in the division. New York and Atlanta are both 11-10 over that span.
Key series: Vs. New York, Aug. 27-30; at Atlanta, Sept. 3-5; vs. Colorado, Sept. 9-13; at New York, Sept. 14-16; vs. Atlanta, Sept. 25-27.
Bottom line: Now that they've cut the number of players on the DL to single digits, maybe the Phils will make a big move. If Utley comes back strong in September and the Phillies can get a few of the other injured pitchers back, this will be a tough team to beat.
Status: Third place, 3 1/2 games behind New York and a half-game behind the Phillies.
No team made more improvements at the trade deadline and the addition of first baseman Mark Teixeira should boost considerably an offense that has been vulnerable to tough right-handers too often this season. Losing Edgar Renteria and Octavio Dotel to the DL will hurt, but the Braves have enough weapons to stay in the picture, and like the other top teams in this division, control their own destiny.Key series: Vs. Arizona, Aug. 17-19; vs. New York, Aug. 31-Sept. 2; vs. Philadelphia, Sept. 3-5; vs. Milwaukee, Sept. 20-23; at Philadelphia Sept. 25-27.
Bottom line: The Braves have the toughest remaining schedule of any of the three, based on opponents' winning percentage, and they are only 6-5 since the deadline deals. But the offense is humming -- the team batting average of .302 over the past month is the best in the NL and second best in baseball behind the Yankees -- and the pitching has been the best of the top three contenders over the past few weeks.
Status: First place, 1 1/2 games ahead of Chicago.
The Brewers blazed out of the starting blocks (24-10), stumbled during the final weeks in May, then led the NL with .654 winning percentage (17-9) in June only to fall to an 11-16 July. They have continued to struggle in August. The team ERA over the past month is 5.03, which ranks 25th among the 30 MLB teams. Outscored 36-10 in a sweep at Colorado, they took two out of three at Houston to hold on to first place and now head home to face a Cardinals team that has been gaining ground.
Key series: Vs. St. Louis, Aug. 14-16; at Arizona, Aug. 20-22; at Chicago, Aug. 28-30; at Atlanta Sept. 20-23; vs. St. Louis, Sept. 24-26; vs. San Diego, Sept. 27-30.
Bottom line: The Brewers are a young team without much pennant-race experience (Jeff Suppan and Craig Counsell excepted) and have continually been unable to capitalize on opportunities to widen their lead in recent weeks. They have the NL's best home record, but are a whopping 13 games under .500 on the road, a lopsided disparity not uncommon with young teams. The pitching staff has shown signs of fatigue in recent weeks, and the offense has become inconsistent. The Brewers might be able to hold off pursuers in this unremarkable division, but right now they're not inspiring a lot of confidence.
Status: Second place, 1 1/2 games behind the Brewers.
The Cubs have cooled off in recent weeks after a sizzling run that lifted the club into first place briefly. Since losing leadoff hitter Alfonso Soriano to a torn right quadriceps, the Cubs have lost seven of nine. The offense has been further hamstrung by third baseman Aramis Ramirez's uncertain status due to a wrist injury. The bullpen welcomed Kerry Wood back recently, and Carlos Zambrano anchors an above-average rotation.
Key series: Vs. St. Louis, Aug. 17-20; at Arizona, Aug. 24-26; vs. Milwaukee, Aug. 28-30; vs. Los Angeles, Sept. 3-6; at St. Louis, Sept. 14-16.
Bottom line: If they get everybody healthy, the Cubs look like a strong pick to win the division, if only because they were playing the best baseball in the division until the past couple of weeks. They've been the best road team in the Central, and the schedule isn't as formidable as some of the other contenders.
Status: Third place, 5 1/2 games behind Milwaukee and four games behind Chicago.
The Cardinals were 10 1/2 games out as recently as July 1, and if not for a disappointing 1-5 road trip to Pittsburgh and Washington earlier this month they would be even closer to the leaders. That they are this close is surprising, considering the rotation ERA has been above 5.00 most of the year and the offense ranks 24th among MLB's 30 teams.
Key series: At Milwaukee, Aug. 14-16; at Chicago, Aug. 17-20; vs. Atlanta, Aug. 24-26; at Arizona, Sept. 7-9; vs. Chicago, Sept. 14-16; vs. Philadelphia, Sept. 17-19; at Milwaukee, Sept. 24-26; at New York, Sept. 27.
Bottom line: The defending World Series champions stumbled in September last year, but this year's team, though not nearly as talented as last year's, has a chance to get back to the playoffs if they can finish strong.
Status: First place, three games ahead of San Diego.
The D-backs, led by ace Brandon Webb, have won 17 of 21 to take charge in the NL West. They are one of the youngest teams in baseball, with five players who haven't reached their 26th birthdays. They have the second-best home record in the NL and are above .500 on the road. They also have the NL's best record since the All-Star break (20-9).
Key series: At Atlanta, Aug. 17-19; vs. Milwaukee, Aug. 20-22; vs. Chicago, Aug. 24-26; at San Diego, Aug. 27-30; vs. Colorado, Aug. 31-Sept. 2; vs. San Diego, Sept. 3-5; vs. St. Louis, Sept. 7-9; at Los Angeles, Sept. 14-16; vs. Los Angeles, Sept. 21-23; at Colorado, Sept. 28-30.
Bottom line: This team just keeps getting better, and despite questions about certain aspects of its offense, appears to have the personnel to pull away from the pack.
Status: Second place, three games behind Arizona.
The Padres lead the Major Leagues with 16 shutouts and have the deepest staff in all of baseball, but an anemic offense has held this team back.
Key series: Vs. Colorado, Aug. 14-16; at New York, Aug. 21-23; at Philadelphia, Aug. 24-26; vs. Arizona, Aug. 27-30; vs. Los Angeles, Aug. 31-Sept. 2; at Arizona, Sept. 3-5; at Colorado, Sept. 7-9; at Los Angeles, Sept. 11-13; vs. Colorado, Sept. 21-23; at Milwaukee, Sept. 27-30.
Bottom line: There's no middle ground with this team. They have the best team ERA in the Major Leagues but the worst team batting average in baseball. You've got to love that pitching, but unless they can figure out a way to score more runs, it's hard to love this team's playoff chances.
Status: Third place, five games out of first place and two games behind the second-place Padres.
They have played well of late, and the team ERA of 3.41 over the past month is the best in the NL and second best in the Major Leagues behind Toronto (3.26). The loss of Jason Hirsh, however, will hurt the pitching staff, and the Rockies are a team that has had trouble on the road.
Key series: At San Diego, Aug. 14-16; at Los Angeles, Aug. 17-19; at Arizona, Aug. 31-Sept. 2; vs. San Diego, Sept. 7-9; at Philadelphia, Sept. 10-13; vs. Los Angeles, Sept. 18-20; at San Diego, Sept. 21-23; at Los Angeles, Sept. 25-27; vs. Arizona Sept. 28-30.
Bottom line: The perception is the Rockies have done well to stay in the race this long but will need better production from the back end of the rotation and strong Septembers from several regulars to make the postseason.
Status: Fourth place, 6 1/2 games out.
The reeling Dodgers have had trouble scoring runs (102 over the past 30 days are the fewest in the NL), and the bullpen has shown signs of fatigue.
Key series: Vs. Colorado, Aug. 17-19, at Philadelphia, Aug. 21-23; at New York, Aug. 24-26; at San Diego, Aug. 31-Sept. 2; at Chicago Sept. 3-6; vs. San Diego, Sept. 11-13; vs. Arizona, Sept. 14-16; at Colorado, Sept. 16-20; at Arizona, Sept. 21-23; vs. Colorado, Sept. 25-27.
Bottom line: The Dodgers are in a free fall while Arizona is flying high. It's hard to see Los Angeles catching the D-backs unless they first get their own house in order. If the offense reverts to form, there's time for the Dodgers to turn things around, but right now that looks like a mighty big "if."
Pearls from the diamond ...
The Tigers were 57-36 on July 19, but dropped 17 of 25 after Monday night's game against Oakland, dropping back into a first-place tie with Cleveland, which has also been struggling.
A disappointing loss to Tampa Bay on Thursday night led manager Jim Leyland to admit that more than just injuries were behind the skid.
"Right now, we're playing like it just doesn't mean enough to us," Leyland said. "The answer is nobody's dogging it. I'm very proud of where we're at up to this point. But you can't give into it. Sometimes it's tough. Sometimes a guy is hurting and he's still going out there and self-consciously hopes someone else picks it up for him that day because he's hurting. I don't mean anything negative about that at all. They're giving what they've got, but all of us -- myself, the coaches -- we're just not getting the message [across] that, you know, it's gotta mean enough to you. I'm not saying anyone's not hustling or doesn't care, but when you struggle and go through tough periods with injuries, that's just the way it smells. That's the way it is. You've got to grind [it out]. You've got to care enough to push through all that stuff."
Leyland said the team hadn't been playing with any crispness.
"And I take full responsibility for that," he said. "The heart's still beating, but it doesn't have that little extra charge you need."
The Nationals have the second-best record in the National League over the past 30 days (through Sunday's games) at 17-10. Only Arizona (19-9) had a better mark during that span. The reason behind the improved play is improved pitching.
The Nationals, who brought 37 pitchers to Spring Training, have an ERA of 3.52 in the last month despite having a rotation that, most of the time, consists of three rookies (Matt Chico, Joel Hanrahan and John Lannan) and two others who were six-year Minor League free agents (Mike Bacsik and Tim Redding). Bacsik has since been moved to the bullpen to make room in the rotation for Shawn Hill, who comes off the disabled list to start Tuesday night.
Hill was 3-3 with a 2.70 ERA before hurting his right elbow and left shoulder.
"He could struggle the rest of the way. We know his stuff is there. It's just about him being healthy," Nationals manager Manny Acta said. "He doesn't have to prove anything to me regarding performance."
The Rockies were looking for another starter even before Hirsh was injured, and have been eyeing Toronto's Josh Towers and Baltimore's Steve Trachsel.
Considering what Josh Hamilton, Dmitri Young, Carlos Pena and now Rick Ankiel have accomplished this season, 2007 is looking like the Year of the Comeback.
Speaking of comebacks, how about the Yankees? Joe Torre's team is 25-8 since the All-Star break and is averaging 7.6 runs per game during that span for a Major League-leading 251 runs since play resumed.
Arizona's call up of Justin Upton from the Minor Leagues could mean the handwriting is on the wall for outfielders Carlos Gonzalez and/or Carlos Quentin this winter. Look for the D-backs to shop the outfielders, as both have drawn interest in the past and aren't considered part of the franchise's future.
Upton, the first pick in the 2005 First-Year Player Draft, is batting .294 in the 10 games since he was called up and may be ready to remain the team's everyday right fielder. Chris Young is entrenched in center and left fielder Eric Byrnes recently signed a three-year, $30 million contract extension.
Jim Molony is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.