NL Central Heat Index, Week #8

My weekly diary of the division's ups and downs

1. St. Louis Cardinals 20-27, Last week: 4-2 (3-0 vs. Pittsburgh, 1-2 vs. Washington)

     Hitting  Team batting average: .256   Runs scored: 174   Home runs: 27   Stolen bases: 13
     Pitching  Team ERA: 4.58   Runs allowed: 231   Walks: 149   Strikeouts: 282
     Fielding  Team fielding %: .984   Errors: 29   Double plays: 40

     For the first time this season, St. Louis looked like defending World Champions. Yes, the Birds were feasting on also-rans, and yes, they entered Week #8 with a five-game losing streak. Still, they pounded out 34 hits vs. Pittsburgh and got contributions from virtually every spot in the lineup, including Aaron Miles (eight for 16) and David Eckstein (nine for 22 and back at the top of the batting order). Even better, the Cards' Big Three have started to breathe fire; against Washington, Albert Pujols was eight for 12 with a home run (he lifted his batting average to .302), Scott Rolen was four for nine with three RBI, and Jim Edmonds was three for eight with a home run and four RBI. St. Louis even got a win from Kip Wells (2-8, 6.10 ERA), who beat his former team on Wednesday, ending a string of seven consecutive losses. The question: Can St. Louis keep up the pace against tougher opponents? Highlight: On Tuesday vs. Pittsburgh, eight of the Cardinals' nine starters (including pitcher Adam Wainwright) got at least one hit, and every starter (including Wainwright) either scored a run or knocked one in. St. Louis sent Anthony Reyes (0-8, 6.08 ERA) to AAA Memphis and plans to give Todd Wellemeyer a shot as a starter, a decision that gives them four converted relievers in the pitching rotation.
     As of Memorial Day, it's clear: With an aging roster and a patched-together pitching staff, the Cardinals will need a dose of that famed Tony La Russa magic to contend for the division title.
     St. Louis's starters (they've used seven) are 15-25, and its relievers are 5-2.

2. Pittsburgh Pirates 22-27, Last week: 3-3 (0-3 @ St. Louis, 3-0 @ Cincinnati)

     Hitting  Team batting average: .252   Runs scored: 212   Home runs: 36   Stolen bases: 16
     Pitching  Team ERA: 4.49   Runs allowed: 238   Walks: 159   Strikeouts: 296
     Fielding  Team fielding %: .984   Errors: 30   Double plays: 54

     In Pittsburgh, Week #8 was a tale of two series, both sweeps. Against St. Louis, the powerless Pirates scored just eight runs, struck out 20 times, left 26 runners on base, and, worst of all, lost the games started by Ian Snell and Tom Gorzelanny. (Adding injury to insult, Aaron Miles drilled a liner off Gorzelanny's thumb in the sixth inning of Thursday's game, sending the Pirates' ace to the nearest x-ray machine but, thankfully, not out of the rotation.) Against Cincinnati, the powerful Pirates broke a season-high five-game losing streak, posted Steelers-like scores (10 runs on Friday, nine on Saturday, 14 on Sunday), and registered their biggest inning of the season (eight runs on Friday). In a sign of how things may change in Pittsburgh if such slugging continues, Zach Duke (2-5, 5.55 ERA) pitched two dreadful games (11 runs and 18 hits in nine-plus innings) but still managed to win one of them. The question: If the Pirates continue to hit, how many games can Snell (4-3) and Gorzelanny (5-3) win? Ryan Doumit missed two games vs. Cincinnati after Ryan Freel's follow-through swing clubbed him on the left temple. Jose Bautisa appears to have won the lead-off job, with Chris Duffy dropped to second and Jack Wilson glued to the eighth spot. Freddy Sanchez punched out nine hits in 25 at-bats this week, with five RBI and six runs scored, and Duffy went 10 for 20. Highlight: On Saturday vs. Cincinnati, Pittsburgh's number four, five, and six hitters -- Adam LaRoche, Jason Bay, and Xavier Nady -- combined for seven hits, two home runs, eight RBI, and five runs scored. Pittsburgh has had three losing streaks of four or more games this season but is 13-13 on the road, the best record in the division.
     As of Memorial Day, it's clear: Given the quality of their third, fourth, and fifth starters, by August the Pirates will have walked the plank.
     Pittsburgh's starters (they've used six) are 14-20, and its relievers are 8-7.

3. Chicago Cubs 22-26, Last week: 2-4 (1-2 @ San Diego, 1-2 @ L. A. Dodgers)

     Hitting  Team batting average: .269   Runs scored: 224   Home runs: 42   Stolen bases: 25
     Pitching  Team ERA: 3.93   Runs allowed: 197   Walks: 166   Strikeouts: 345
     Fielding  Team fielding %: .987   Errors: 23   Double plays: 41

     Like so many managers who've come and gone in the Windy City, these days Lou Piniella is fretting about his bullpen. He's wondering where his team might be if the pen hadn't crumbled against Philadelphia (six runs allowed), the Mets (five runs), and the White Sox (seven runs). He's trying to shake the memory of Week #8's collapses in Los Angeles, where on Friday the pen blew a three-run, eighth-inning lead and on Sunday gave up a game-tying home run and then generously issued three walks and hit a batter in the 11th inning. This week the Cubs scored 18 runs (they allowed 21) but out-hit their opponents in every game but one, and in that one they broke even. In three games vs. San Diego, they left 24 men on base and struck out 27 times, including consecutive Ks by Mark DeRosa, Derrek Lee, and Aramis Ramirez with a runner on third in the sixth inning of Thursday's game. Piniella: "We've got chances to do things in baseball games and just don't." On Saturday vs. Los Angeles, Ramirez and DeRosa smacked back-to-back home runs, but the Cubs aren't playing long ball; although major-league outfielders are supposed to be power hitters, Alfonso Soraino has four home runs in 176 at-bats, Cliff Floyd has two in 96, Jacque Jones has one in 149, and Matt Murton has one in 101. Highlight: Carlos Zambrano (5.24 ERA), who had three victories at this time last season, picked up his fifth win (against four losses) vs. Los Angeles on Saturday. Better late than never, the Cubs announced that they'll immortalize Ernie Banks (a two-time MVP, a 14-time all-star, and a Hall of Famer) with a statue outside Wrigley. The Cubs are 1-5 in extra-inning games and 2-12 in one-run games, far and away the worst records in the division.
     As of Memorial Day, it's clear: The Cubs' starting pitching is much better than expected, the hitting much worse.
     Chicago's starters (they've used seven) are 18-14, and its relievers are 4-12.

4. Milwaukee Brewers 28-22, Last week: 1-5 (1-2 @ L. A. Dodgers, 0-3 @ San Diego)

     Hitting  Team batting average: .258   Runs scored: 230   Home runs: 65   Stolen bases: 27
     Pitching  Team ERA: 3.98   Runs allowed: 217   Walks: 141   Strikeouts: 335
     Fielding  Team fielding %: .984   Errors: 30   Double plays: 45

     When it rains, it pours. All those early-season triumphs are now nothing more than a distant memory, as Milwaukee lost its fifth straight series, concluded Week #8 with a five-game losing streak, and saw its division lead slip to five games. The Brewers got nine runs on 13 hits in game one vs. Los Angeles, three runs on 12 hits in the next two games. They scored only nine runs in San Diego, where they were shut out by Jake Peavy and a pair of relievers. Claudio Vargas (3-1, 4.01 ERA) lost his first game of the season, and the formerly untouchable Chris Capuano (5-3) is 0-3 with a 9.45 ERA in his last three starts. MIA: J. J. Hardy finished the week with three hits in 20 at-bats, and Geoff Jenkins was three for 18. Ned Yost: "We need to pick our game up, and we need to pick it up soon." In an indication of management's distress, the Brewers brought up their top prospect, third-baseman Ryan Braun (.342 with 10 home runs at AAA Nashville), a move that makes third-basemen Craig Counsell (.231) and Tony Graffanino (.187) expendable. Just a couple of weeks after he exchanged unpleasantries with Pirates reliever Matt Capps, Prince Fielder got into a shouting match with Mariano Duncan, L.A.'s first base coach, a quarrel that led both benches to clear. In other stress-related news, Jenkins and Yost were tossed from Friday's game for disputing a called third strike. Highlight: Braun got a hit and two RBI in his major-league debut, and on Saturday he went three for four with a home run, a run scored, and a stolen base. Milestone: Jenkins hit his 201st home run as a Brewer, tying him for third (with Cecil Cooper) among the franchise's all-time leaders. Ben Sheets allowed just two earned runs in six-plus innings vs. the Dodgers on Tuesday, but he was forced to leave the game with a blister on his middle finger and may miss his next start. (He reportedly treated the wound with Stan's Rodeo Rub, a balm created by Stan Johnson, the Dodgers' trainer and a former rodeo cowboy.) The players who appeared on "The Young and the Restless" -- Hardy, Capuano, Bill Hall, and Jeff Suppan -- were each paid $367 for their time. Mark Attanasio, the team's principal owner: "When you're winning, it feels like you're never going to lose. And when you're losing, it feels like you're never going to win."
     As of Memorial Day, it's clear: Milwaukee has a young, talented core of players and will be a force in the NL Central for years to come.
     Milwaukee's starters (they've used five) are 21-17, and its relievers are 7-5.

5. Cincinnati Reds 18-33, Last week: 1-6 (1-3 vs. Washington, 0-3 vs. Pittsburgh)

     Hitting  Team batting average: .256   Runs scored: 239   Home runs: 70   Stolen bases: 35
     Pitching  Team ERA: 4.82   Runs allowed: 272   Walks: 146   Strikeouts: 333
     Fielding  Team fielding %: .980   Errors: 38   Double plays: 44

     That hissing sound you hear is the air going out of Cincinnati's season. Despite favorable scheduling, the Reds finished Week #8 with just one victory and the worst record in baseball. They've lost eight straight series and 20 of their last 26 games. They were out-scored 33-22 by Washington, the league's worst-hitting team. In successive games, Reds pitchers permitted Washington to tie its season record for runs in a game (seven), break it (eight), and then shatter it (12). Bob Castellini, the team's dismayed owner, gave the boys a pep talk before Wednesday's game, inspiring them to lose every game for the rest of the week. Against Pittsburgh, the Reds hit two home runs on Friday, three on Saturday, and five on Sunday (two by Adam Dunn) and lost all three games. Alex Gonzalez, who had just seven errors in 2006, committed his seventh and eighth of this season on Wednesday. On Sunday, Kirk Saarloos (0-4, 7.04 ERA) gave up five runs without recording an out. The Reds gave up seven first-inning runs to Washington, nine to Pittsburgh. Bronson Arroyo: "It's the starting pitcher tonight. It's the relievers tomorrow. It's defense the next day. It's lack on hitting the next day." The question: Have the Reds quit on Jerry Narron? MIA: Arroyo (2-5, 4.01 ERA) pitched two innings vs. Washington, the shortest stint of his career, and four innings vs. Pittsburgh, giving up six runs each time. Highlight: The Reds climbed out of a 6-0 hole and beat Washington on Monday, mostly because four relievers closed the door (one run in seven innings) and Scott Hatteberg, Ken Griffey, and Javier Valentin hit home runs. Milestones: Hatteberg hit home run #100 of his career vs. Pittsburgh, and Ken Griffey hit three home runs this week, including #547 of his career. The Reds put Josh Hamilton (gastroenteritis) on the DL and recalled -- shudder -- Edwin Encarnacion, whose.218 batting average and team-leading six errors got him shipped off to AAA Louisville in Week #6. The Reds gave Todd Coffey (4.94 ERA) a ticket to Louisville and brought up Gary Majewski. Go figure: Kyle Lohse was 1-0 with a 1.91 ERA in his first four starts, but he's 0-6 with an 8.87 ERA in his last six. The Reds have allowed three or more runs in the eighth inning seven times, more than any other team in the league.
     As of Memorial Day, it's clear: The Reds can hit with any team in the division, but they can't pitch with any of them.
     Cincinnati's starters (they've used seven) are 12-25, and its relievers are 6-8.

6. Houston Astros 21-29, Last week: 0-7 (0-3 @ San Francisco, 0-4 @ Arizona)

     Hitting  Team batting average: .249   Runs scored: 198   Home runs: 40   Stolen bases: 24
     Pitching  Team ERA: 4.44   Runs allowed: 239   Walks: 155   Strikeouts: 320
     Fielding  Team fielding %: .983   Errors: 32   Double plays: 45

     The spirits are willing, but the bats are weak. The Astros recorded the Heat Index's first shut-out of the season, as they were swept twice, getting out-scored 17-3 by San Francisco and 35-12 by Arizona. They flew home having lost eight in a row and 10 of 11, and they've sunk to eight games below .500, their worst mark of the season. In an attempt to spark the offense, Phil Garner put Mike Lamb at the top of the batting order, dropped Craig Biggio to seventh, played Lance Berkman in right field, and penciled in Mark Loretta at first, second, and third base. None of the moves paid off, as Lamb went three for 24 and Biggio, who struck out four times on Saturday and didn't play on Sunday, went two for 17. On Wednesday, Morgan Ensberg hit a home run off Barry Zito, but no other Astro got past first base. Roy Oswalt (6-4, 3.36 ERA) lost twice, giving up four runs in seven innings to San Francisco and six runs in six innings to Arizona. Chris Sampson (4-5, 3.44 ERA) also lost twice, though he delivered a pair of quality starts (one earned run in six innings vs. the Giants, three runs in six innings vs. the D'Backs). Woody Williams: "We're not hitting the way we can, we're not pitching the way we can, and we're not fielding the way we can." MIA: Berkman, a career .304 hitter (.254 this season), went three for 22, and he has just six extra-base hits (a double and five home runs) in 2007. The question: At the trade deadline, will the Astros be buyers or sellers? Highlight: Against Arizona, Carlos Lee went five for 14 with four RBI, and Homer Pence went eight for 16, with two hits in each game. For the fourth straight week, the NL named a Central player -- in this case, Pence -- as its Player or co-Player of the Week. Brad Lidge, who has an ERA of 1.04 in his last 17-plus innings, missed the weekend's games due to a bone bruise on his femur. On the bright side, Houston lost just 1.5 games in the standings to Milwaukee, and Jason Jennings is expected to come off the DL next week. Phil Garner: "We're trying to keep an upbeat spirit about it."
     As of Memorial Day, it's clear: Biggio's pursuit of his 3,000th hit, combined with the franchise's loyalty to Ensberg (.230) and Adam Everett (.190), has strangled the offense.
     Houston's starters (they've used six) are 14-25, and its relievers are 7-4.

     Infield Chatter  Boy, it was an ugly week for the NL Central. In games played outside the division, Central teams went 5-22. And the Washington Nationals, who went 0-6 on a recent trip through Chicago and Milwaukee, went 3-1 in Cincinnati and 2-1 in St. Louis.

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