NL Central Heat Index, Week #5

My weekly diary of the division's ups and downs

1. Milwaukee Brewers 21-10 (Last week: 3-0 vs. St. Louis, 3-1 vs. Pittsburgh)

     Hitting  Team batting average: .272   Runs scored: 157   Home runs: 38   Stolen bases: 18
     Pitching  Team ERA: 3.49   Runs allowed: 127   Walks: 90   Strikeouts: 220
     Fielding  Team fielding %: .983   Errors: 20   Double plays: 28

     The Brewers are blistering hot -- so hot that they incinerated St. Louis and Pittsburgh and finished Week #5 with the best record in baseball. They ended the week having won 12 of their last 15 games and clearly established themselves as the team to beat in the NL Central. The Brewers lead the division in runs scored (and strikeouts, if you're looking for a flaw), and they're the only team in the division with a winning record at home. Need more stats? The Brewers are 18-3 when they score four or more runs, they've lost only one series this season (it happened way back in Week #2), and they haven't lost a game that they've led after seven innings. The question: Is the rest of the division playing for second place? Highlight: Milwaukee swept St. Louis for the first time in five years, outscoring the Cardinals by an almost unimaginable 23-3. Prince Fielder, who seems to get a clutch hit every night, was 11 for 25 this week, with three home runs, 12 RBI, and eight runs scored. J. J. Hardy was 15 for 28 with two home runs, nine RBI, and eight runs scored. Johnny Estrada: "When we're all hitting the ball, God bless the pitcher who's out there." Jeff Suppan stuck it to his former team for the second time this season, throwing his first complete game since 2003, and picked up his fourth consecutive victory (and fifth overall) against Pittsburgh. Francisco Cordero recorded his 12th save, maintaining his unblemished record. Bob Uecker, offering a scary thought: "They're winning, and they're not playing as good as they can play."

2. Chicago Cubs 15-14 (Last week: 2-1 @ Pittsburgh, 3-0 vs. Washington)

     Hitting  Team batting average: .275   Runs scored: 142   Home runs: 25   Stolen bases: 12
     Pitching  Team ERA: 3.52   Runs allowed: 108   Walks: 98   Strikeouts: 216
     Fielding  Team fielding %: .988   Errors: 13   Double plays: 20

     Don't underestimate the value of a change of scenery. Alfonso Soriano is hitting .245 as a center fielder this season, .364 as a left fielder. What's more, Soriano, who didn't hit a home run in April (he called it "the worst month I've had in my career"), started May with a dinger in his first at-bat and finished Week #5 hitting .303 and riding a 15-game hit streak. (Lou Piniella, patting himself on the back: "I think moving him to left field has been a real wise decision.") Soriano's relocation has also benefited Jacque Jones, who went seven for 20 this week, mostly as a center fielder. Highlight: On Tuesday vs. Pittsburgh, each of Chicago's starting outfielders -- Soriano, Jones, and Cliff Floyd -- hit home runs, exceeding by one the number that the team's five outfielders hit during the entire month of April. Derrek Lee, who's been on base at least once in every game this season, is hitting .416 and has hit in 14 straight games. Jason Marquis (2.09 ERA) won his fourth game in a row on Wednesday vs. Pittsburgh and hasn't allowed more than three earned runs in a game this season. MIA: Michael Barrett (.235) went three for 26 in Week #5 and is looking like a guy who needs a rest. Go figure: The Cubs have faced only three left-handed starters this season, the fewest by far in the league. Despite beating up on the league's worst-hitting teams and moving into second place in the NL Central, Chicago lost a half-game to the torrid Brewers. Piniella: "Truthfully, we need to get better."

3. Houston Astros 13-17 (Last week: 2-1 vs. Cincinnati, 1-2 @ St. Louis)

     Hitting  Team batting average: .256   Runs scored: 127   Home runs: 21   Stolen bases: 14
     Pitching  Team ERA: 3.90   Runs allowed: 127   Walks: 92   Strikeouts: 187
     Fielding  Team fielding %: .983   Errors: 20   Double plays: 25

     If Roger Clemens isn't going to save the Astros, who will? Houston started Week #5 with an embarrassing 11-2 loss to Cincinnati, its ninth loss in 10 games, and ended it with the deflating sight of Clemens being glorified in Yankee Stadium. Go figure: Houston scored 12 runs vs. Cincinnati and won twice, then gave up just six runs to St. Louis and lost twice. In an attempt to juice the bats of some under-achievers, Phil Garner flipped his line-up inside and out and floated the idea of moving Lance Berkman to the outfield, where he started his career. Mike Lamb, Mark Loretta, and Morgan Ensberg started at third base vs. the Reds, going a combined two for 10, while right fielders Luke Scott and Jason Lane went a combined one for nine. The lack of production has put pressure on the team's pitchers, as Roy Oswalt admitted, "I feel like I need to win every time going out." Oswalt did his part by giving up just one run over eight innings in a victory over the Reds, improving his career record to 18-1 vs. Cincinnati, but the Astros are 1-6 in games started by Woody Williams. Highlight: On Saturday vs. St. Louis, Houston's top six hitters (Ensberg, Loretta, Berkman, Carlos Lee, Scott, and Hunter Pence) racked up 12 hits, nine runs, and 13 RBI. Lee went 11 for 21 (with seven RBI) this week, raising his batting average to .299, and Berkman went seven for 18 with four RBI, raising his average to .277. Pence hit the first home run of his career, a grand slam vs. St. Louis. MIA: Adam Everett was hitless vs. Cincinnati and one for 11 vs. St. Louis. Williams, keeping the faith: "We have a better line-up than what we're showing right now."

4. Cincinnati Reds 14-17 (Last week: 1-2 @ Houston, 1-2 vs. Colorado)

     Hitting  Team batting average: .257   Runs scored: 147   Home runs: 38   Stolen bases: 25
     Pitching  Team ERA: 4.00   Runs allowed: 139   Walks: 84   Strikeouts: 216
     Fielding  Team fielding %: .979   Errors: 24   Double plays: 29

     An old friend returned to Cincinnati this week. A healthier Ken Griffey appears to be rounding into Hall of Fame form, as he went 11 for 23 with a home run, six RBI, five runs scored, and a stolen base -- his first since 2004. The question: If the Reds continue to plod along at or below .500, will they do the unthinkable and put Griffey on the market at the trade deadline? Bronson Arroyo (2.85 ERA), finally getting his just desserts, notched his first two wins of the season, allowing one run to Houston and three to Colorado, but Kyle Lohse (1-2, 3.12 ERA) lost his second consecutive game despite posting a quality start vs. Houston. Eric Milton (0-4, 4.85 ERA) has allowed nine first-inning runs in his last four starts, and Cincinnati's bull pen, which blew a lead on Saturday night, has accounted for seven of the team's 17 losses. Go figure: The Reds scored 11 runs in Tuesday's game vs. Houston but only six runs in the next two games, and then they scored 21 runs vs. Colorado and lost twice. Jerry Narron, scratching his head: "I wish I knew what to tell you." Highlight: Josh Hamilton, the NL's Rookie of the Month in April, went four for five on Saturday vs. Colorado, scoring three runs, stealing a base, and robbing Todd Helton of a hit, then hit a pair of homers on Sunday. Adam Dunn has stolen six bases in six attempts this season and 14 in a row since 2005. Aaron Harang has 44 strike-outs, tied for second in the league. Alex Gonzalez, who shared NL Player of the Week (in Week #4) honors with Chase Utley of Philadelphia, was moved to fifth in the batting order and extended his hit streak to eight games, but he collected just five hits in 25 at-bats. On Sunday, Ryan Freel made his first start of the season at second base, subbing for Brandon Phillips, who was benched for botching a couple of defensive plays on Saturday night. This week, the Reds began a stretch of 33 games in 34 days.

5. St. Louis Cardinals 12-17 (Last week: 0-3 @ Milwaukee, 2-1 vs. Houston)

     Hitting  Team batting average: .239   Runs scored: 90   Home runs: 17   Stolen bases: 7
     Pitching  Team ERA: 4.40   Runs allowed: 143   Walks: 93   Strikeouts: 175
     Fielding  Team fielding %: .980   Errors: 22   Double plays: 27

     Turn out the lights, the party's over. This week the punchless Cardinals announced that Chris Carpenter will have elbow surgery and miss three months (or more), a development that will soon put Tony La Russa's thumb squarely on the Panic Button as he searches for a starter. This week, Braden Looper, who sits at the top of the team's rotation, was pummeled by Milwaukee, and Kip Wells, who's lost five straight, had a pair of atrocious starts, allowing seven runs in six innings vs. Milwaukee and another seven in four-plus innings vs. Houston. La Russa won't find any comfort in Anthony Reyes (5.46 ERA), who's 0-5. The question: How badly does St. Louis wish it hadn't given up on Jason Marquis, who's 4-1 for Chicago, and Jeff Suppan, who's 4-2 for Milwaukee? St. Louis surrendered meekly to the Brewers, scoring just three runs and suffering breakdowns in every phase of the game, the low point coming when Scott Spiezio dropped an easy fly ball. MIA: Yes, Scott Rolen got the game-winning hit on Sunday, but it was his only hit in 21 at-bats this week, and Jim Edmonds went zero for 15. Albert Pujols went six for 12 vs. Milwaukee, extending his hit streak to 12 games, but one for 10 vs. Houston. Hoping to generate offense, the Cards started a different lead-off man in every game this week, with mixed results (seven for 23, three runs scored). The Cards put Preston Wilson on the DL, due to pain in his knee and a .219 batting average. Tony La Russa, clearing the cobwebs: "The whole first month has been a little fuzzy. We're not sharp in our focus."

6. Pittsburgh Pirates 13-17 (Last week: 1-2 vs. Chicago, 1-3 @ Milwaukee)

     Hitting  Team batting average: .238   Runs scored: 104   Home runs: 17   Stolen bases: 7
     Pitching  Team ERA: 4.54   Runs allowed: 145   Walks: 104   Strikeouts: 167
     Fielding  Team fielding %: .985   Errors: 17   Double plays: 33

     The Pirates must toe a very fine line to be successful, and in Week #5, against the division's top-hitting teams, they just couldn't do it. Pittsburgh scored 10 runs vs. Chicago, 11 vs. Milwaukee. The Pirates have scored seven runs in a game just once this season, and never more than seven. Jim Tracy, pondering the abyss: "It's hard to sit there and think of a way to win a game when you get one run." Desperate for scoring, Tracy started Ryan Doumit at first base, right field, and catcher, and Doumit responded by going nine for 20, with a home run and three RBI. Unfortunately, nobody else is delivering a timely hit, and Pittsburgh's pitchers have allowed the most runs in the division. Ian Snell (2.31 ERA) and Tom Gorzelanny (2.97 ERA) are money in the bank, but Zach Duke (1-3, 5.50 ERA) is a coin flip and the rest of the rotation is mere loose change. The question: How long before the Pirates' ship sinks for good? Highlight: Gorzelanny, who's given up three or fewer runs in his last eight road starts (dating back to 2006), picked up his fourth win by snuffing out the Brewers' big bats (two runs, six hits in seven innings). Matt Capps gave up a damaging homer on Saturday night and, in frustration, threw some chin music at Prince Fielder, earning an ejection. Salomon Torres picked up saves (his eighth and ninth) in both of Pittsburgh's wins. Freddy Sanchez went 11 for 30 this week and Adam LaRoche, who could be snapping out of his season-long slump, went seven for 22. Jason Bay hit his 100th home run as a Pirate. MIA: Chris Duffy went two for 12 vs. the Cubs, one for 15 vs. the Brewers. The Pirates put reliever John Wasdin, along with his bruised thumb and 6.21 ERA, on the DL. Pittsburgh is 6-0 vs. Houston, 7-17 against the rest of the league.

     Random Notes  The supposedly weak NL Central has not only the National League's top team but also its top hitter (Derrek Lee, .414) and top RBI producer (Carlos Lee, 29). It's also home to four of the league's top eight home-run hitters, along with four pitchers -- Rich Hill, Jason Marquis, Ian Snell, and Bronson Arroyo -- who are among the top 10 in ERA.

     My Error  Last week I reported that Cincinnati's won-lost record was 11-13. In fact, it was 12-13.

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