Monday, July 9, 2012

Baseball’s All Star Break: A time to reflect in the National League

Unlike the American League which has three teams that are already playoff locks even at the break, there is much to be decided in the National League. Only three teams have winning records both at home and on the road and none are a shoe-in come October. With that extra wild-card spot this post-season the N.L. races are going to come down to the final couple of days of the regular season which should make for some amazing fall baseball.

While nothing is settled in any National League division, it’s the west that could finish with the most exciting race in baseball. The Los Angeles Dodgers limped into the break with an anemic 5-15 record in their last 20 games. But the good news for the Blue Crew is they still own the division lead by a half a game. Injuries have been the story at Chavez Ravine in the first half of the season. Arguably the N.L. MVP when healthy Matt Kemp, twice hit the disabled list with groin and hamstring injuries, playing in just 31 games. Follow slugger Andre Ethier also finished the first half on the disabled list with an oblique strain. Starting second baseman Mark Ellis suffered a bizarre leg injury which caused him to miss almost seven weeks. The good news for L.A. Ellis is back while Kemp and Ethier return in game one after the break. The Dodgers will still be missing number five starter Ted Lilly who pitched very well before shoulder stiffness put him on the shelf. He is not expected to return right away so rookie Nathan Eovaldi will take over his spot in the rotation. The Dodgers half game lead is pretty amazing considering all the make-shift line-ups manager Don Mattingly was forced to create. No doubt the strength of the Los Angeles club is the pitching. The Dodgers team earned run average of just 3.33 is only second in the N.L. to the Washington Nationals. Giving the fact they’ve weathered a storm of injuries and are still the front-runner in the west, speak volumes of where they could end up at the end of the regular season. With new ownership just salivating to show the Dodger fans they are committed to winning, you can expect the Blue Crew to be buyers before the trade deadline possibly picking up a power bat for one of the corner positions as well as another arm that can be put in the starting rotation or the bull-pin. If Kemp and Ethier pick up where they started the season, the Dodgers will not only make the play-offs but most likely win the west. Hot on their tail, the San Francisco Giants. The 2010 Champions got off to a slow start but eventually picked up the pace and took a lead in the west before dropping five of six on the road to close out the first half. The Giants have also suffered a couple of major injuries, losing third baseman Pablo Sandoval for a month with a broken bone in his left hand. The bigger injury however was the elbow problem closer Brian Wilson suffered causing him to undergo Tommy John surgery ending his season. Santiago Casilla took over the closer spot to mixed reviews. Wilson was not only the guy to shut the door at the end of games for San Francisco but was also the swagger of the entire Giants’ clubhouse. Without a doubt, there is a lot missing from the team that captured the first ever title in San Francisco Giants history just two seasons ago. Missing in action is two-time CY Young winner Tim Lincecum. He appears to be a shell of the dominate force that was once the Giants ace on the mound. The right-hander has struggled to a record of 3-10 with ERA of 6.42. Lincecum’s earned run average is the highest in the National League among qualifying pitchers and nothing so far has proven he’ll regain his once great form. With that said the Giants only trail the Dodgers by a half a game in the West and sport a couple of the best starters in baseball period. Matt Cain has received major pub for his perfect game against the Houston Astros but what’s more important, his record of 9-3 to go with lefty Madison Bumgarner’s mark of 10-5. These two alone could keep San Francisco in the race with solid starts. Manager Bruce Bochey will most likely need to move Casilla from the closer role and insert Sergio Romo if the Giants are going to stop giving games away at the end. Offensively San Francisco only has one player in double digits in the home run column and that’s Buster Posey. Power is an issue and the Giants will need more than Melky Cabrera’s hot batting average of .353 with 44 rbis to win the division. Maybe the biggest question surrounding the Giants; will they go out and get some much needed offense before the break? It could decide their playoff future in 2012.

The feel good story in all of baseball this season is the N.L. Central division leading Pittsburgh Pirates. The Bucs haven’t been to the post-season in 20 years but their 48-37 record is making believers out of more than just Pirates faithful. Pittsburgh closed the first half with a flurry, winning eight of their last ten games. Leading the way is National League MVP award leader Andrew McCutchen. 18 home runs to go with 60 runs batted in. He has put the Bucs on his back for the first half of the season. Neil Walker has also driven in 41 rbis, while Garrett Jones and Pedro Alvarez have both added power, with 12 and 16 long balls respectively. The biggest question for the Pirates in terms of not only winning the division but just making the playoffs in general is whether or not their pitching holds up. With just a one game lead over the Cincinnati Reds and a two and a half game margin on the St. Louis Cardinals in the division, there is little margin for error. James McDonald is finally meeting the expectations so many have had for the right-hander since he came over from the Dodgers organization. His 9-3 record leads the team as well as his 12 quality starts with an earned run average of 2.37. A.J. Burnett has regained his Toronto Blue Jays form, the one that eluted him as a New York Yankee. He finished the first half at 10-2 and seems to be more likely to keep up that pace than McDonald. Between those two, to closer Joel Hanrahan, who’s saved 23 games, the Bucs are very thin. They’ll need both McDonald and Burnett to be just as consistent while another starter emerges. If this takes place, the Pirates should find themselves back in the playoffs but most likely as a wild-card team. The Cincinnati Reds seem to be a more likely choice to overtake the Bucs and hold off the Cardinals to win the Central. Experience could prove to be the deciding factor here. The Reds line-up is laced with veteran bats led by Jay Bruce. Bruce has racked up 18 homers to go with 56 runs batted in. Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips and Ryan Ludwick all have double-digit homers to go with big RBI production. The Reds simply have the deepest line-up in the central and that is a huge advantage. On the hill Johnny Cueto has sparkled to a 10-5 record while both Matt Latos and Homer Bailey have started to turn the corner solidifying the Cincinnati rotation. There won’t be stretch run jitters coming from the Reds clubhouse and you know they’re hungry after losing to the Phillies in 2010 and missing the post-season all together last year. The defending World Series Champion St. Louis Cardinals are right back in the mix despite losing manager Tony LaRussa to retirement and slugger Albert Pujols to free-agency. The Red Birds start the second half just 2.5 back of the Bucs and like the Reds are one of three teams in the National League with a winning record at both home and on the road. St. Louis lost Adam Wainwright last season to injury and flourished to win the franchises 11th championship. They’ll try to do the same without Chris Carpenter and so far so good. Carpenter will miss the entire 2012 campaign with nerve damage in his throwing shoulder but the Cards have battled on. Kyle Lohse was responsible for keeping St. Louis afloat early and has continued a tremendous first half with a 9-2 record. Lance Lynn has also been a pleasant surprise winning 11 games in the first half against just four defeats. Wainwright started slow but has almost reached an even .500 at 7-8 overall. If the right-hander can regain his form from the 2010 season, which saw him win 20 against 11 losses, St. Louis would possess the best starting staff in the Central and win the division. The offense hasn’t seemed to miss a beat even without Pujols. Five players posted double-digit power numbers in the first half, led by Carlos Beltran’s 20 homers and 65 runs batted in. The powerful line-up sports Matt Holiday, Yadier Molina, Beltran, Allen Craig and last season’s World Series MVP David Freese. 261 rbis between those five bats says plenty about both the power and balance that is maybe second to none in the entire National League. On paper, both St. Louis and Cincinnati should reach the post-season with Pittsburgh as the odd team out, but that is why they play the game.

The east has been all about the Washington Nationals over the first 83 games. At the break the Nats hold the N.L.’s best record at 49-34, four games in front of the Atlanta Braves and 4.5 in front of the New York Mets. Washington’s success stems from a league-leading earned run average of just 3.20. Newcomer Gio Gonzalez leads the staff with an impressive 12-3 record. Second-year man Stephen Strasburg continues to sky-rocket in his short career, sporting a 9-4 record at the break. Journeyman Edwin Jackson is third in line and his continued improvement of ten quality starts in 16 appearances has given Washington a solid third man on the mound. While the Nats offense consist of just two real power hitters in Ian Desmond and Adam LaRoche; Ryan Zimmerman, Danny Espinosa and rookie Bryce Harper continue to come up with clutch at bats making the entire line-up more than formidable. The Nationals sit on top of the division due to a dominant 16-9 mark versus the division. They hope to keep that type of success up and avoid a meltdown like the second half of the 2005 campaign. In their first season in the nation’s capital, they also led the division only to finish the second half 16 games under .500 and in last place. The Mets don’t have the level of talent Washington possesses, but have received amazing pitching consistency from Dillon Gee and R.A. Dickey to keep them in the race for now. The Atlanta Braves strength has been its offense. Atlanta can rope the long ball with the best of them as Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman, Brian McCann and Dan Uggla all posted double-digit homers and close to fifty runs batted in. The Braves pitching however has been less than spectacular with only Tommy Hanson reaching 10 wins in the first half of the season. Inconsistency on the mound will be Atlanta’s doom in the second half of the year. Miami continues to under-achieve while Philadelphia has dug itself such a hole, 14 games back that even the return of both slugger Ryan Howard and second baseman Chase Utley might not be enough to allow them to make a serious run at the Nats. Roy Halladay is expected to pitch in Clearwater before returning to the majors after two stints on the disabled list with a strain in his throwing shoulder. His return to the big leagues could be delayed if the rehab doesn’t go well. Cliff Lee has suffered from the offense’s lack of run production but did pick up his first win of the season before the break. Cole Hamels, who becomes a free-agent at the end of the year, is on the trading block as the Phillies appear to be sellers this time around as the trade deadline nears.

No comments:

SmacChat Ready to Start Talking Smack Sports Fans? SmacChat is the premier online sports entertainment site. Live chat rooms for every game in the country, with fans from both sides, sports blogs, live scores, betting lines, and much more. No cost to join, so log in and let the nation know what you've got to say! Visit our parent site http://www.smacchat.com for live chats, videos, and latest news.