FanPost

NL Central Heat Index, Week #10

My weekly diary of the division's ups and downs

1. Chicago Cubs, 27-34. Last week: 4-3 (2-1 @ Milwaukee, 2-2 @ Atlanta)

     Hitting  Team batting average: .268   Runs scored: 287   Home runs: 60   Stolen bases: 34
     Pitching  Team ERA: 3.99   Runs allowed: 261   Walks: 205   Strikeouts: 450
     Fielding  Team fielding %: .986   Errors: 32   Double plays: 52

     It took more than two months, but the Cubs finally found the spark they've been looking for, and it wasn't in a catcher's bloody lip or a manager's ejection. Alfonso Soriano went nuclear in Week #10, racking up 13 hits in 30 at-bats, with five home runs and eight RBI, while Felix Pie went 10 for 31 with two home runs and eight RBI. Soriano stole the headlines on Friday, hitting three consecutive homers, but the real story was Sean Marshall (2-2, 2.08 ERA), who limited Atlanta to one run in six innings. Speaking of the pitchers, they gave up 11 runs to Milwaukee, 16 to Atlanta. Highlight: On Thursday, Rich Hill (5-4, 2.71 ERA) freeze-dried the Braves, giving up one run in eight innings, striking out 11, and improving his career record at Turner Field to 3-0. MIA: Derrek Lee went four for 29 (his batting average fell to .332), Jacque Jones went two for 19, and Jason Marquis (5-3, 3.01 ERA), who's winless in his last six starts, had horrible starts in each series, allowing eight runs, 13 hits, and six walks (along with an error and a wild pitch) in five-plus innings. Mike Fontenot, summoned from AAA Iowa to replace Cliff Floyd (bereavement list), went three for eight vs. Atlanta, with a home run and three RBI. The Cubs had four stolen bases vs. Milwaukee, five vs. Atlanta. The question: What's more embarrassing, the made-for-TV fight between Carlos Zambrano and Michael Barrett or their syrupy kiss-and-make-up session afterward, during which Zambrano confessed, "He apologized and I apologized and we both cried"? Ted Lilly was ejected from Sunday's game for throwing at Edgar Renteria, presumably in retaliation for Tim Hudson throwing at Soriano on Saturday. Aramis Ramirez jammed his knee on Wednesday and missed the series vs. Atlanta, and Angel Guzman went on the DL (muscle strain). Milestone: On Sunday, Lou Piniella managed the 3,000th game of his career. Jim Hendry, GM: "I have faith that we'll get this thing righted."

2. St. Louis Cardinals, 27-33. Last week: 3-3 (2-1 vs. Cincinnati, 1-2 vs. L. A. Angels)

     Hitting  Team batting average: .257   Runs scored: 242   Home runs: 51   Stolen bases: 16
     Pitching  Team ERA: 4.77   Runs allowed: 304   Walks: 192   Strikeouts: 349
     Fielding  Team fielding %: .983   Errors: 38   Double plays: 52

     Despite being perched in second place in the Central, St. Louis is worried about its pitching. Against Cincinnati, the Cards' starters gave up 10 runs, 17 hits, and nine walks in 15-plus innings, and against the Angels they gave up 14 runs, 25 hits, and 10 walks in 16-plus innings. The bullpen chilled the Reds, holding them to two runs in 11-plus innings, but it was torched by the Angels (11 runs in 10-plus innings). Those failures led St. Louis to take a flyer on Troy Percival, the former Angels closer, even though he hasn't thrown in front of paying customers since 2005. Tony La Russa offered a ringing endorsement of the signing: "I think there's a realistic chance he's going to pitch for us and pitch well." Highlight: Albert Pujols (.299), returning to Hall of Fame form, went eight for 22, with three home runs and nine RBI. Milestone: David Eckstein (.301), who went 10 for 24, got hit number 1,000 of his career on Sunday. St. Louis leads the NL with 27 pinch hits, and its pinch-hitters went four for 10 in Week #10, including a game-winning, ninth-inning single by So Taguchi on Tuesday and a home run by Ryan Ludwick (his first since 2005) on Wednesday. Eckstein: "I think guys are just starting to get hot." Only days after the Cards put Yadier Molina on the DL, back-up catcher Gary Bennett had to miss a game because he was beaned by Aaron Harang. MIA: Chris Duncan, who returned to the line-up after missing more than a week with an infected knee, went two for 22 with 11 strike-outs. Chris Carpenter played catch for the first time since his operation, and Mark Mulder, who hopes to be activated in early August, began throwing off a mound. The Cardinals are 19-14 vs. NL Central opponents, the second-best record in the division. Aaron Miles: "We're going in the right direction."

3. Houston Astros, 26-36. Last week: 3-3 (1-2 @ Colorado, 2-1 @ Chicago White Sox)

     Hitting  Team batting average: .251   Runs scored: 255   Home runs: 53   Stolen bases: 28
     Pitching  Team ERA: 4.43   Runs allowed: 292   Walks: 185   Strikeouts: 406
     Fielding  Team fielding %: .983   Errors: 41   Double plays: 51

     The weather map is turning brown, and Houston is getting hot under the collar. The Astros, still 10 games under .500, lost their seventh straight series and posted five ejections in Week #10. Lance Berkman and Phil Garner were each thumbed twice, once in each series, and Woody Williams got the old heave-ho on Wednesday, when he hit a batter after light-hitting Kaz Matsui hit a game-tying, seventh-inning home run. The Astros bleached the White Sox, getting quality starts from Chris Sampson (6-5, 3.36 ERA) and Jason Jennings (0-0, 2.70 ERA), but Williams (2-8, 4.52 ERA) gave up six runs in six-plus innings vs. Colorado on Wednesday, and on Thursday Dan Wheeler (0-3, 5.40 ERA) blew a two-run, ninth-inning lead. Garner: "We're playing crappy, and we're getting bad results." Wheeler registered his 11th save on Friday, but Garner is giving the closer's job back to Brad Lidge, who pitched four more scoreless innings this week. Highlight: Berkman went eight for 23 with two home runs and seven RBI, and he got a game-winning single on Saturday vs. the White Sox. Hunter Pence, who was named the NL's Rookie of the Month for May, had to leave Friday's game after he strained a muscle in his hip, and he didn't play on Saturday or Sunday. Houston's pinch-hitters went two for four, including a home run by Morgan Ensberg on Wednesday. MIA: Craig Biggio was two for 19, and Brad Ausmus was two for 10 vs. Colorado before he was sent home to have his sore back examined. The Astros recalled Chris Burke, their second-baseman of the future, from AAA Round Rock. The league suspended Berkman for two games because he returned to the field during a benches-clearing altercation after he was tossed on Tuesday. Berkman: "If there's a fight to be done, you have to be ready to back your guys up."

4. Cincinnati Reds, 25-39. Last week: 3-3 (1-2 @ St. Louis, 2-1 vs. Cleveland)

     Hitting  Team batting average: .252   Runs scored: 288   Home runs: 85   Stolen bases: 42
     Pitching  Team ERA: 4.61   Runs allowed: 324   Walks: 176   Strikeouts: 408
     Fielding  Team fielding %: .982   Errors: 44   Double plays: 58

     In Week #10, the Reds threw a coming-out party for Homer Bailey, celebrated another dominating start by Kyle Lohse, and fretted over Bronson Arroyo's ice-cold season. Bailey's first major-league start wasn't pretty -- five innings, two runs, five hits, four walks, a balk, a hit batter -- but he got the job done, picking up a victory that sparked the Reds to a series win against their cross-state rivals. Lohse (3-7, 4.22 ERA), who pitched a complete-game shut-out vs. Pittsburgh in Week #9, retired 15 of the first 17 Cardinals he faced on Thursday and pitched into the ninth, allowing just one run. Not nearly as good was Arroyo (2-7, 5.01 ERA), who gave up six runs in six-plus innings on Wednesday and is 0-5 with an ERA of 8.24 in his last six starts. Highlight: In a 1-0 win over Cleveland on Sunday, Aaron Harang pitched seven shut-out innings, five relievers threw blanks for five innings, Josh Hamilton erased a runner trying to score in the 12th inning, and Alex Gonzalez drove in the winning run with a 12th-inning single. Edwin Encarnacion went four for four on Thursday -- his second four-hit game in a week -- and again played flawlessly in the field, while Ken Griffey, Jr. continued his all-star season, racking up six hits in 19 at-bats, with three home runs. MIA: David Ross was one for 16 this week, and Juan Castro, filling in for Gonzalez (strained hamstring), started all three games vs. the Cards, going two for 11. In a 4-3 loss to St. Louis on Tuesday, the Reds were two for 17 with runners in scoring position and left 15 men on base, a season high. Ryan Freel, who's been on the DL since he was injured in a collision with Norris Hopper in late May, told reporters that he's having trouble reading and remembering and continues to suffer from headaches. The Reds still have the worst record in the NL. Jerry Narron: "It seems like sometimes we have the heart ripped out of us, but we come back the next day and play hard."

5. Milwaukee Brewers, 34-29. Last week: 2-4 (1-2 vs. Chicago, 1-2 @ Texas)

     Hitting  Team batting average: .262   Runs scored: 285   Home runs: 84   Stolen bases: 33
     Pitching  Team ERA: 4.09   Runs allowed: 282   Walks: 177   Strikeouts: 434
     Fielding  Team fielding %: .982   Errors: 41   Double plays: 51

     Ned Yost keeps saying that his team's recent misfortunes don't trouble him, but maybe they should. Milwaukee started the season 24-10 but is 10-19 since. They lost two more series this week, including one to the worst team in baseball. Brewers' hitters struck out 24 times vs. Chicago, 31 times vs. Texas. Chris Capuano (5-5, 4.35 ERA) hasn't won a game in more than a month and is 0-5 with an ERA of 6.89 in his last six starts. The bullpen gave up six runs in 10-plus innings vs. the Cubs, nine runs in 12-plus innings vs. the Rangers. Francisco Cordero, once as perfect as a French chef, blew back-to-back save opportunities in Arlington, the first one coming when the Brewers had a 3-0 lead with two outs and nobody on base in the ninth. Yost: "Our pitching is giving up too many runs, plain and simple." On the bright side, Milwaukee is 18-10 against Central Division foes, none of which have been able to post a winning record since the Brewers cooled off. Highlight: Ben Sheets (5-3, 3.21 ERA), looking more and more like the Brewers' most dependable starter, pitched seven shut-out innings vs. the Rangers, giving up five hits and striking out six. Prince Fielder, who's building an MVP-caliber season, went nine for 24 with three home runs, one of them a prodigious blast off Carlos Zambrano. Ryan Braun went 10 for 27 with a pair of homers, and Tony Graffanino was eight for 15 with one home run. The clutch hits aren't falling, however; the Brewers could have put the Cubs away early on Monday, as they loaded the bases in each of the first two innings, but they didn't score a single run. MIA: J. J. Hardy was three for 23 and was rested on Saturday. Prince Fielder was named NL Player of the Month for May, an honor that won him a 52-inch, flat-screen TV. The Brewers have used only 28 players this season, the fewest of any team in MLB, and they're the only team that's gotten by with the five starters they identified in spring training. Yost: "We're not dead."

6. Pittsburgh Pirates, 26-37. Last week: 2-5 (0-1 vs. L. A. Dodgers, 2-1 @ Washington, 0-3 @ N.Y. Yankees)

     Hitting  Team batting average: .250   Runs scored: 262   Home runs: 50   Stolen bases: 22
     Pitching  Team ERA: 4.62   Runs allowed: 314   Walks: 209   Strikeouts: 373
     Fielding  Team fielding %: .986   Errors: 35   Double plays: 64

     One may not be the loneliest number, but it's the one that keeps Jim Tracy up at night. Pittsburgh started the week with a one-run loss to the Dodgers, played three one-run games in Washington (they won two), and began their lost weekend in New York with another one-run loss. The Pirates should have beaten Washington on Wednesday, but Salomon Torres (0-3, 5.14 ERA) gave up two hits and a walk in the ninth and then invited the winning run home with a wild pitch. The Yankees out-scored the Pirates 27-13, fanned 26 Pittsburgh batters, and stole five bases on Saturday, four of them in one inning. Paul Maholm (2.9, 5.33 ERA) lost twice, and his line vs. the Yankees included six hits and five walks in five-plus innings. It all added up to a forgettable week, as the Pirates dropped to 11 games under .500 and provided no evidence that they can make a sustained run in the NL Central. Highlight: The Pirates squeaked out a come-from-behind, 3-2 win vs. the Nats on Thursday, mostly because Ian Snell (5-4, 2.91 ERA) gave up two runs on three hits over seven innings and Matt Capps, who picked up the win, threw two scoreless innings. Tom Gorzelanny (6-3, 2.76 ERA) is sixth among the NL's ERA leaders, Snell ninth. MIA: Adam LaRoche went two for 21 this week, and Jason Bay was hardly awake (zip for 12) in the City that Never Sleeps. Rajai Davis, a call-up from AAA Indianapolis, went one for nine vs. Washington and got one unsuccessful at-bat in New York. The Pirates put Torres on the DL ("elbow inflammation"), and 39-year-old Masumi Kuwata, formerly of the Yomiuri Giants (and AAA Indianapolis), joined the team in New York. Jack Wilson: "They bring back Clemens, we bring back Kuwata." Pittsburgh is 11-19 at home this season, the worst record in the NL. Tracy: "There are signs with our club that are good, and it's very apparent that there are some things that we definitely need to work on."

     Infield Chatter  Some memorable baseball was played in St. Louis on Tuesday, in the second inning of the Cardinals' game vs. the Reds. The Cards' starter, Todd Wellemeyer, walked the bases loaded. He struck out the next two hitters, but then walked in a run. Tyler Johnson replaced Wellemeyer and wild-pitched a second run home before he struck out Josh Hamilton for the final out of the inning. Two runs, no hits, no errors, not one batted ball. Only in the NL Central.

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