NL Central Heat Index, Week #9

My weekly diary of the division's ups and downs

1. Milwaukee Brewers, 32-25. Last week: 4-3 (1-2 vs. Atlanta, 3-1 vs. Florida)

     Hitting  Team batting average: .260   Runs scored: 256   Home runs: 73   Stolen bases: 30
     Pitching  Team ERA: 3.95   Runs allowed: 245   Walks: 157   Strikeouts: 391
     Fielding  Team fielding %: .984   Errors: 34   Double plays: 47

     To paraphrase Rudyard Kipling, winning the NL Central may simply be a matter of keeping your head while those around you are losing theirs. That's pretty much the way Milwaukee did it in Week #9, doing nothing especially noteworthy except winning a series after six consecutive series losses and remaining on the plus side of the ledger against NL East opponents (11-9 for the season). The timely hits are again starting to fall for the Brewers, as Prince Fielder was five for 12 vs. Atlanta with four RBI and a home run in each game. Against Florida, Corey Hart went five for 13 with five runs scored, and J. J. Hardy went five for 16 with three RBI. Highlight: Ryan Braun, Tony Graffanino, and Kevin Mench combined for seven hits (including Braun's second home run of the season) and eight RBI in the win over Florida on Friday. Fielder: "We know we're going to be fine." Derrick Turnbow (1-3, 4.76 ERA) took the loss vs. Atlanta on Wednesday, allowing three runs in one-third of an inning, but Ben Sheets (6-3, 3.51 ERA) won twice, allowing three runs in six innings to the Braves and shutting out the Marlins for six innings. Chris Capuano (5-4, 3.80 ERA) hit a home run on Saturday, the first for a Brewers pitcher this season, but he was 0-1 on the mound despite allowing only four runs in 14 combined innings vs. Atlanta and Florida. Milestone: Fielder hit his league-leading 19th home run of the season vs. Florida on Thursday, a blow that set a franchise record for home runs in a month (13). Francisco Cordero picked up his 19th, 20th, and 21st saves vs. the Marlins, remaining perfect for the season and lowering his ERA to a microscopic 0.39. Milwaukee put Rickie Weeks on the DL (tendinitis in his right wrist). Ned Yost, tongue planted firmly in cheek: "We've been consistent within our division."
     The Brewers were 14-15 in May. To win 90 games, they need to finish the season 58-47.

2. St. Louis Cardinals, 24-30. Last week: 4-3 (2-2 @ Colorado, 2-1 @ Houston)

     Hitting  Team batting average: .255   Runs scored: 213   Home runs: 40   Stolen bases: 14
     Pitching  Team ERA: 4.64   Runs allowed: 267   Walks: 168   Strikeouts: 314
     Fielding  Team fielding %: .983   Errors: 34   Double plays: 48

     Those sirens you hear are ambulances chasing St. Louis, whose players are dropping like flies. Yadier Molina broke his wrist on Tuesday and has been placed on the DL, probably for a month or more. Scott Rolen couldn't play on Monday (he was feeling "fuzzy" from a minor concussion suffered vs. Washington in Week #8), and he missed most of the series vs. Houston because a hamstring tightened up on him. David Eckstein didn't play against Colorado (backache), and he had to leave Friday's game and miss Saturday's after being hit by a pitch. Scott Spiezio was removed from Tuesday's game due to dizziness apparently caused by medication, and Chris Duncan missed the entire week due to bursitis and an infection in his knee. Still, the Cards climbed into second place in the division, 6.5 games behind Milwaukee, mostly on the strength of old-fashioned Powerball (13 home runs for the week). The Cardinals scored seven runs in the ninth inning on Friday, their biggest outburst in an inning this season. Against Houston, Spiezio went five for 14, Gary Bennett (subbing for Molina) went three for 11 with five RBI, and Eckstein hit a home run in his first at-bat when he returned to the lineup on Sunday. Highlight: Albert Pujols and Jim Edmonds hit back-to-back home runs on Wednesday, and Juan Encarnacion and Bennett turned the same trick on Friday. Edmonds: "Everybody's starting to put it together a little bit." Well, not everybody. Kip Wells (2-10, 6.40 ERA) had another dreadful week, becoming the first MLB pitcher to lose 10 games; he gave up two homers and six runs in six-plus innings vs. Colorado, then duplicated the feat in five-plus innings vs. Houston.
     The Cards were 12-15 in May. To win 90 games, they need to finish the season 66-42.

3. Cincinnati Reds, 22-36. Last week: 4-3 (1-0 vs. Pittsburgh, 2-1 @ Houston, 1-2 @ Colorado)

     Hitting  Team batting average: .256   Runs scored: 265   Home runs: 75   Stolen bases: 39
     Pitching  Team ERA: 4.74   Runs allowed: 302   Walks: 161   Strikeouts: 368
     Fielding  Team fielding %: .980   Errors: 43   Double plays: 52

     Just when it appeared that they were going to roll over and play dead, the Reds posted their best record since Week #1. Cincinnati broke a six-game losing streak to start the week and went on to win three in a row, matching its longest win streak of 2007. The Reds still have the worst record in the NL, but they have plenty of competition. Highlight: On successive days to start the week, Kyle Lohse (2-7, 4.58 ERA) pitched a complete-game shut-out vs. Pittsburgh, Matt Belisle (5-4, 4.26 ERA) allowed one run (and struck out eight) over seven-plus innings vs. Houston, and Aaron Harang (6-2, 4.22 ERA) pitched a complete game vs. Houston, allowing three runs (two earned) and striking out seven. Edwin Encarnacion went for nine for 24 in Week #9, including a career-high four hits vs. Houston on Thursday, and he hasn't made an error since he was recalled from AAA Louisville a couple of weeks ago. Encarnacion: "I've got more luck than I've had in the past." Cincinnati turned four double plays on Saturday. Just six pitches into the game on Wednesday, Jerry Narron was tossed for arguing balls and strikes, the second time he's been ejected this season. Kirk Saarloos (0-4, 7.04 ERA) was optioned to Louisville ("They feel like I'm the problem, so I'm out of here," he said) and was replaced by Bobby Livingston, who shut down Colorado on Friday, giving up one unearned run and seven hits in six-plus innings. On Saturday, Livingston was sent back to Louisville, and team officials hinted that hot-prospect Homer Bailey will be called up soon. The bullpen preserved wins on Tuesday and Friday, but it suffered yet another meltdown on Sunday, allowing seven runs in two-plus innings and turning what had been an 8-2 lead into a 10-9 loss. Milestone: On Wednesday, Adam Dunn drove in the 500th run of his career. On Monday, Ryan Freel had a frightening collision with Norris Hopper that put him on the DL. Alex Gonzalez, who committed just seven errors in 2006, committed his ninth error of the season on Friday. Bronson Arroyo (2-6, 4.73 ERA) lost his fourth game in a row, giving up eight runs over five innings to Houston. Cincinnati is 7-17 against left-handed starters this season. Dunn: "The Central division is still wide open."
     The Reds were 9-21 in May. To win 90 games, they need to finish the season 68-36.

4. Houston Astros, 23-33. Last week: 2-4 (1-2 vs. Cincinnati, 1-2 vs. St. Louis)

     Hitting  Team batting average: .250   Runs scored: 227   Home runs: 46   Stolen bases: 26
     Pitching  Team ERA: 4.44   Runs allowed: 266   Walks: 169   Strikeouts: 370
     Fielding  Team fielding %: .983   Errors: 37   Double plays: 48

     Welcome back, Brad Lidge! Houston's former closer had a terrific week, pitching in all three games vs. Cincinnati (no runs, no hits, five strike-outs) and then throwing more blanks at St. Louis on Saturday (one inning, two strike-outs). Lidge's ERA has fallen to 2.70, the lowest it's been all season, and in his last 19 appearances he's registered an ERA of 0.89 with 30 Ks. The rest of the pitchers aren't doing so well, as Houston's losing streak was extended to 10 games, the longest in the division this season and the longest suffered by the Astros since 1995. Drayton McLane, the team's owner, had some face time with Phil Garner and GM Tim Purpura ("I have great confidence in both of them," he warned afterward), and he blew the kiss of death at Craig Biggio, saying, "Concessions need to be made." On the bright side, Ashley Judd was at the game on Wednesday. MIA: In three appearances this week, Chad Qualls (4-3, 4.55 ERA) gave up the deciding run vs. Cincinnati on Tuesday, back-to-back home runs to start a fateful ninth inning vs. St. Louis on Friday, and a go-ahead, eighth-inning home run to Albert Pujols on Sunday. Jason Jennings (3.13 ERA) returned to the starting rotation, pitching five innings of shut-out ball on Tuesday vs. Cincinnati but giving up four runs in six innings vs. St. Louis on Sunday. Highlight: The Astros dropped 10 runs on the Reds to break the losing streak, as Mark Loretta and Biggio combined for seven hits, and five pitchers combined to strike out 16 (Woody Williams got a season-high nine of them in seven innings). In their continuing search for offense, the Astros called up Eric Munson (.285 with seven home runs at AAA Round Rock) and essentially told Brad Ausmus (.236) that his days behind the plate are numbered. Rick White, who'd given up 14 earned runs and 21 hits since he came off the DL in mid May ("I'm stuck in a big pile of unlucky dog doo," he said), was put on the DL (pinched nerve near his neck). Homer Pence, who's now batting second or third in the lineup, went four for 13, along with four RBI, vs. St. Louis. Carlos Lee, who's arguably the division's best off-season signing, leads the NL in RBI (52) and is tied for 10th in home runs (11).
     The Astros were 12-17 in May. To win 90 games, they need to finish the season 67-39.

5. Pittsburgh Pirates, 24-32. Last week: 2-5 (0-1 @ Cincinnati, 1-2 vs. San Diego, 1-2 vs. L.A. Dodgers)

     Hitting  Team batting average: .253   Runs scored: 229   Home runs: 41   Stolen bases: 17
     Pitching  Team ERA: 4.44   Runs allowed: 267   Walks: 180   Strikeouts: 336
     Fielding  Team fielding %: .986   Errors: 31   Double plays: 59

     In war and baseball, everything revolves around arms. Pittsburgh has two very good ones and a bunch that don't often shoot straight, and they were all on display in Week #9. Ian Snell (5-4, 2.94 ERA) lost to Cincinnati on Monday despite allowing just three runs in seven innings, and he was even better in a victory vs. the Dodgers on Saturday, allowing just one run in eight innings. Tom Gorzelanny (6-3, 2.53 ERA) beat San Diego on Tuesday (one run in seven innings), thanks in part to Matt Capps, John Grabow, and Salomon Torres, who combined to close out the Padres (one hit in two innings). Highlight: Desperate to find support for Snell and Gorzelanny, the Pirates gave the ball to Shawn Chacon, who obliged by pitching seven shut-out innings in a loss vs. San Diego, allowing three hits and striking out 10. MIA: Torres (0-2, 5.13 ERA) blew a save opportunity in each series; he touched off a late-inning, game-tying rally vs. San Diego by walking the leadoff batter then giving up a pair of doubles, and in the eighth inning on Sunday he permitted a single and a game-winning, two-run home run. Capps has replaced Torres as Pittsburgh's closer, and he recorded his first save of the year on Saturday, dispatching the Dodgers on just five pitches in the ninth. The Pirates out-hit both of their opponents in Week #9, and they lost two one-run games to the Dodgers. Jason Bay, who was named NL Player of the Week (for Week #8), was five for 11 with a home run vs. San Diego, and he was four for 12 with two home runs vs. Los Angeles. Pittsburgh was shut out on Monday by Cincinnati and on Wednesday by San Diego. Xavier Nady: "Every game is important, and you try to eliminate the bad ones."
     The Pirates were 11-18 in May. To win 90 games, they need to finish the season 66-40.

6. Chicago Cubs, 23-31. Last week: 1-5 (0-3 vs. Florida, 1-2 vs. Atlanta)

     Hitting  Team batting average: .268   Runs scored: 249   Home runs: 51   Stolen bases: 26
     Pitching  Team ERA: 4.07   Runs allowed: 234   Walks: 183   Strikeouts: 399
     Fielding  Team fielding %: .986   Errors: 29   Double plays: 47

     Mount Zambrano erupted, Lou Piniella was ejected, the bullpen was embarrassed -- it's Chicago's annual June swoon, arriving right on schedule! The Cubs were mere chum for the Marlins, as they were out-scored 23-7, were swept for the first time this season, and committed an error in each game. Things didn't improve much against Atlanta, as Chicago committed three more errors, extended its losing streak to six games (a season high), and fell nine games under .500 (a season low) before winning a consolation prize on Sunday. The week will mostly be remembered for the fight between Carlos Zambrano and Michael Barrett on Friday, an event that caused anguish for some fans but none for the team. Derrek Lee had just one regret -- "I wish it wouldn't have happened in the dugout," he said -- and Lou Piniella, who got into a brawl with Rob Dibble years ago in Cincinnati, appeared to welcome it: "I'd rather have a little wildfire than no fire at all." Besides, there's some poetry involved when a pitcher celebrates his 26th birthday by giving his catcher a fat lip. The low moment of the week was Piniella's please-throw-me-out-of-here performance on Saturday, which was transparently staged ("I was going to argue if he was out, safe, or whatever," Piniella later said) and therefore offered no true catharsis. MIA: Against Florida, Barrett got one hit in eight at-bats and was picked off second base, leading Piniella to give him a breather on Wednesday; the benefits of his rest were evident on Friday, when his passed ball and errant throw detonated Zambrano. Highlight: Sean Marshall (1-2, 2.25 ERA) lost to the Marlins but beat the Braves, pitching a combined 13 innings and permitting four runs (three earned) while striking out 14. The Cubs' walk-happy bullpen, now 4-14 for the year, couldn't pitch even one clean game when the outcome mattered, as Scott Eyre gave up two runs on Monday and five on Friday, Michael Wuertz gave up four on Tuesday and one on Saturday, Angel Guzman gave up three on Wednesday, and Will Ohman gave up one on Saturday. Milestone: On Monday, Eyre (8.27 ERA) pitched in the 500th game of his career. Henry Blanco, Zambrano's designated catcher, was put on the disabled list (herniated disc, neck). In their continuing effort to find outfielders who can catch fly balls, the Cubs recalled Felix Pie (.224 in 18 games earlier this season) from AAA Iowa. To make room for Pie, the Cubs put pinch-hitter Daryle Ward on the DL ("hip strain"). Alfonso Soriano: "There's too much frustration in this clubhouse."
     The Cubs were 12-15 in May. To win 90 games, they need to finish the season 67-41.

     My error  Last week I reported that Ken Griffey had hit home run #547 of his career. It was #574.

     Infield chatter  It was another lackluster week for NL Central teams playing outside the division. The Central teams went 9-14, a mark that would have really been embarrassing if Milwaukee hadn't beaten Florida three times. The Central teams won one series, tied one, and lost five.
     On a happier note, the NL's four top home-run hitters -- Prince Fielder (19), J. J. Hardy (16), Adam Dunn (14), and Aramis Ramirez (13) -- play in the Central.

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