This Week in the National League

Our weekly feature on player and team happenings across Major League Baseball's Senior Circuit. This week's story calls attention to the fact that several races remain tight and at least one new one is, too.

The National League is the definition of parity. Just about any team can win on any given night. Even the Marlins and the Pirates are showing teams that they cannot be taken lightly. With a rash of injuries around the league and some teams that were struggling beginning to get healthy, the field is being leveled even more. Just 13.0 games separate the Wild Card leading Reds from the league's bottom. Anything can and will happen in the final 17 weeks of the season. Here's the latest and greatest news from around the league:

 

East Division

 

New York Mets (34-23)

Lastings Milledge got the call-up when Xavier Nady went down with an appendectomy. When he launched his first home run of his big league career, the youngster was so excited, he decided to give fans at Shea Stadium some high-fives. The move has spawned countless discussions on whether is was a big no-no – that he was showing up the pitcher and opposing team by doing so. Get over it. He was excited he just hit his first home run just as so many other players are excited after hitting a long ball and then hop out of the box, sprint around the bases instead of jogging, or flip their bats and stand to watch it sore into the sky. The Mets need that excitement in their outfield as Cliff Floyd left Tuesday's game with a sprained ankle and might be looking at time on the disabled list.

 

Philadelphia Phillies (31-27)

Starting pitcher Cole Hamels was activated this week after a two-week stint on the disabled list. Tuesday night he showed just how solid a promising pitcher he is by tossing 5.2 innings of one-run, three-hit ball against the Diamondbacks. With Aaron Rowand back in the lineup and playing everyday, the Phils have as powerful a 3-4-5-6 lineup in the league. Rowand has been batting in that six spot, with Bobby Abreu, Pat Burrell, and Ryan Howard in front of him. And with Chase Utley's .327 batting average and 40 RBI in the number two spot, the Phils are going to be a force to deal with in the National League all year long.

 

Atlanta Braves (29-30)

The Braves were swept by Arizona this weekend and dropped five straight before pulling out a W against the Nationals on Tuesday. Heading into that game, they had lost seven of eight contests. With some sloppy play in the field, and a collision course with some hot opposing pitchers, the Braves have been sliding downhill. Don't expect their struggles to continue very long. They're just too good a ball club for that to happen.

 

Washington Nationals (26-33)

Alfonso Soriano is hitting that groove. He had a big week at the plate elevating his batting average to .311 as well as his home run total to 21 and RBI total to 43. Young starting pitcher Mike O'Connor might only have a 2-3 record in eight starts, but his 3.25 ERA and .221 opposing batting average is promising.

 

Florida Marlins (21-36)

Josh Johnson took NL Rookie of the Month honors for May. The relief pitcher was given a chance as a starter on May 4. He's 3-1 in six starts, and he hasn't give up more than three runs in an outing. The much-hyped rookie Jeremy Hermida found this weekend that he really likes to hit in Colorado. Florida's right fielder was 6-for-11 at Coors Field.

 

Central Division

 

St. Louis Cardinals (35-23)

The Cards were lit up with a harsh taste of reality when Albert Pujols pulled up lame with a strained oblique muscle on Saturday. He's out indefinitely, though reports are indicating anywhere from 2-6 weeks. That most likely means the Cards will be without this season's best hitter until sometime in July. Jim Edmonds, who has been recovering from a tear in his lower abdominal wall, will be playing first base for Pujols. Still the Cards will be desperately need a player or two to step up in a big way to maintain their pace of play. Counting Saturday's game, the Cards are 1-3 without Pujols, and they've dropped consecutive series at Busch Stadium. Chris Carpenter did make his comeback Tuesday night, but he lasted just 5.0 innings giving up nine hits and three runs.

 

Cincinnati Reds (34-24)

The Reds are simply on fire. Ken Griffey Jr. is just smokin' the ball. He's got his batting average up to .298 and rocked a game-winning, three-run homer in the ninth inning off Cardinals closer Jason Isringhausen on Monday. Third baseman Edwin Encarnacion did sprain his ankle Tuesday night. It's unsure how long he might be out, but expect Rich Aurilia to fill in at the hot corner in his absence.

 

Houston Astros (29-31)

Roy Oswalt was a last minute scratch due to back spasms and missed his last start. He now finds himself on the disabled list, though it looks like he is forecasted to spend the minimum amount of time out of commission. With Houston slumping, this was the last thing they needed to happen. Sure, Roger Clemens just signed and is on the comeback trail, but just how good will Clemens be after missing spring training and the first two months of the season? The Astros did snap their five-game skid on Tuesday night when Wandy Rodriguez bounced back from a horrendous 1.1-inning, seven-run outing Friday evening to toss a 7.0-inning, shutout gem against the Cubs in earning his sixth victory.

 

Milwaukee Brewers (28-31)

After dropping three to the Nationals over the weekend to extend their losing streak to eight games, the Brew Crew pulled out victories in their first two games of a three-game set against a solid San Diego squad. Chris Capuano put the stop to the losing streak with a 6.0-inning, two-run performance against the Padres. It was a solid game after his worst outing of the season Thursday against the Pirates when he gave up 11 hits and six runs in 6.0 innings or work. During that losing streak, Carlos Lee had just one home run and one RBI and watched his batting average plummet to an ugly .266 mark.

 

Chicago Cubs (23-35)

The Cubs are starting to play better baseball and took two of three against both the Reds and the Cardinals this past week. Jacque Jones continues to swing a hot stick and is beginning to produce a return on the investment made by the Cubs. Jones has lifted his batting average to .310 after hitting just .219 on May 2. On the hill, Carlos Zambrano is finally looking like that Cy Young potential candidate. He took a no-hitter into the eighth inning with one out on Monday only to have it broken up by Houston outfielder Preston Wilson. It was the second time in three starts that Zambrano had carried a no-no past the sixth inning. On the injury watch, both Derrek Lee and Mark Prior are progressing with their rehab. Both are looking like they could be back with the Cubs before the month of June is over.

 

Pittsburgh Pirates (22-38)

Catcher Ronny Paulino might only have one home run and 13 RBI, but the youngster has an impressive .323 batting average. Sean Casey had a big first three games coming off the DL, but the first baseman has mustered just one hit in five starts since then.

 

West Division

 

Arizona Diamondbacks (34-24)

Brandon Webb might be the talk of the town in Phoenix, but Juan Cruz is starting to pour it on as well. Cruz has always had huge potential, and the D'Backs have really gotten to see that potential come to reality the past couple weeks. He's won his last two starts and didn't give up a run in 13.0 innings. Interestingly enough, the Diamondbacks have been successful without hitting the long ball. Chad Tracy and Eric Byrnes lead the club in home runs with 10 each.

 

Los Angeles Dodgers (33-26)

That deal for Brad Penny is finally starting to pay off. Penny is 6-1 this season with a 2.62 ERA, and he's given up just two home runs in 68.2 innings of work. Matt Kemp is also making his presence known in L.A. The utility outfielder has played just 10 games this season, but he's batting .345 with four home runs and 10 RBI.

 

San Francisco Giants (31-28)

Barry Bonds supposedly injured his side during the weekend series in New York and was visibly in pain while swinging Tuesday night. The slugger will be getting checked out by the team physicians, so keep an eye on this one. The Giants also lost Mike Matheny to the 15-day disabled list due to a concussion after being hit with a foul tip last week Wednesday. Jason Schmidt seems to be perfectly fine, though. He pitched one of the best games in his career on Tuesday giving up just one run on a solo homer and striking out a whopping 16 batters in a complete game 2-1 victory.

 

San Diego Padres (30-28)

The Padres have the worst batting average in the National League with a .251 clip, but somehow the team is still battling to stay above .500. Having one of the best bullpen's in the league helps keep them in close games when they trail and maintains those miniscule leads when they get them. The team carries a 3.06 ERA from the seventh inning on, which is second best in MLB. Starting pitcher Chris Young has been on fire lately. Young tossed 8.0 shutout innings in both his last two starts earning two wins and giving up just three total hits.

 

Colorado Rockies (29-30)

Cory Sullivan is in an ugly slump, going hitless in his last eight games (17 at-bats). The Rockies have been giving Jamey Carroll the occasional nod at the leadoff spot over Sullivan with hopes that he can get on-base and generate some offense. One thing is for certain, though. If the Rockies can get the game into Brian Fuentes' hands, they're virtually gold. Fuentes has blown just one save opportunity this year and boasts a 1.52 ERA.

 

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

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