Monday, September 24, 2007

Major League Baseball - Day-by-Day With the Pennant Races and With "The War"

September 25 - Both the night and the Phillies get off to dismal starts. With the NL pennant race in full bloom, the only game on TV in Louisiana is the Astros at Cincinnati. This follows a Sunday on which ESPN televised the long-awaited second division matchup between the Astros and Cards (my boss's boss--a big Cards fan--tells me it was a terrific game). I'll have to follow the action on Ken Burns' "The War" about World War II will win out on TV after 7 p.m, as it did on Sunday. Second division baseball (and an 0-3 start by the Saints for that matter) can't compete with stories of sacrifice and courage on the battlefield and at home.

In Philadelphia, Braves 1B Mark Teixera hit a 3-run homer off Jamie Moyer in the top of the first. Jimmy Rollins answered with a leadoff homer for the Phils off Chuck James. This is the Phils' best pitching matchup of the series as Tim Hudson and John Smoltz await in Games Two and Three. The homer is Rollins' 30th of the season. He joins the 30-30 club with 37 steals. The Nationals picked up their pace from last night, hitting the Mets and Tom Glavine with a four-run first. Austin Kearns and Tony Batista both homered for the Nats.

Jose Reyes matched Rollins with a leadoff homer for the Mets, but they still trail 4-1. At Florida, the Marlins hit the Cubs with a 4-spot in the first.

Yo! The Phils have tied the Braves at 4 in the 4th on homers by Ryan Howard (#43) and Jayson Werth. Washington has extended its lead over the Mets to 6-2. The Brewers lead the Cards 3-0 while the Cubs continue to trail the Marlins, 4-0. In an "off-year", 2006 MVP Howard has 127 RBIs, 103 walks and a 950+ OPS. He'll end up in the top ten for MVP again.

Now it's 6-5 Braves in the top of the 6th. The Phils led briefly after a sac fly by Pat Burrell, but Andruw Jones' RBI single retied the game, and Matt Diaz's single gave the Braves the lead. Elsewhere, the Nats, Marlins and Brewers continue to lead, though the Cubs closed to within 4-2 on a 2-run homer by Craig Monroe.

Time is running out on the Phils tonight. They trail 8-6 going into the 8th despite a homer from Chase Utley. The Nats lead the Mets, 8-3. The Marlins beat the Cubs 4-2 behind Dontrelle Willis. The Brewers lead the Cards 5-1 in the 5th. It looks like the NL Central will close ranks a little tonight. Surpisingly, the Pirates lead the D-Backs 5-2 in the 8th.

Inability to get anyone out doomed the Phillies tonight as they fell to the Braves 10-6. The Braves racked up 13 hits, including six for extra bases, off six Phillie pitchers. Four homers by Rollins, Howard, Werth, and Utley couldn't keep pace. Washington seems to have the Mets in its power, 10-3 in the 9th. Likewise, the Brewers are blasting the Cards, 9-1. The Pirates nosed out Arizona, 6-5.

On "The War" front, I never knew how tough things were at Anzio in Italy, or in Tunisia in the first ground action by Americans. These stories from World War II are not often told. The story about recovery of bacon grease back home was fascinating too. It was touching how "Babe" from Waterbury kept any details of his battle life from his family, telling them in his letters about his life "swimming in the sea" and "waiting in the chow line", when he was probably in a foxhole between shellings. Burns describes a level of involvement and commitment on the home front during World War II that I never experienced growing up during the Vietnam War era, or during my adulthood with any of the various wars of the '90s and 2000s. Still, my dad, who grew up during World War II mentioned that for the most part it was a peripheral part of his life as a teenager, even though his much older brother fought for General Patton in Europe.

I did know about Admiral Nimitz's island hopping campaign in the Pacific, mostly from the Austin Lounge Lizards song "Chester Nimitz Oriental Garden", in which two lovers meet for breakfast in the title garden named for the Admiral who led the famous "island-ha-ha-ha-ha-hopping campaign." (The song is sung as an a capella round in harmony.)

September 25 - Both the Mets and Padres were trounced last night while the Phillies and other contenders had the night off. The Mets lost 13-4 to the Nats in New York. The Giants beat the Padres 9-4 in SF. The Phillies trail the Mets by 2 games in NL East and move into a dead tie with the Padres for the wild card. I'll update the NL pennant race daily during this exciting week, and into the postseason.

Tonite, the Padres continue their series in SF; the Rockies go to LA to challenge Brad Penny; the D-Backs should feast against the listless Pirates; The Cubs travel to Florida; the Brewers host the Cardinals; the Mets continue vs. Washington; and the Phils and Braves start a series in Philly.

On the season's last weekend, the Padres are at Milwaukee; Arizona travels to Denver to face the Rockies; the Cubs go to Cincinnati; the Nationals come to Philly; and the Mets host the Marlins.

Rockies OF Matt Holliday demonstrates the home run swing that's carried his team into playoff contention.

September 24 Update - This update comes a day later than usual Sunday night. I was on the road all weekend, then my computer swallowed the first version I wrote last night (really teacher, it did!) Hopefully I can recover all the incisive analysis, witty lines and salient facts that I recorded yesterday. If so, enjoy. If not, it's Dell's fault (or maybe Blogger's--their vaunted Autosave function didn't save the day).

All four American League playoff teams are essentially set. The Angels and Indians clinched division titles this week. The Red Sox clinched a playoff spot. The Yankees will either catch the Sox for the AL East title or qualify as the wild card. Discussion now shifts to Division Series matchups and pitching rotations. The Yankees hope for a series with the Indians, having been dominated by the Angels for the last couple of seasons. The Red Sox Nation monitors Manny's oblique.

In the National League, the closest division for most of the second half will probably produce the first division winner as the Chicago Cubs opened a 3-1/2 game lead over the Milwaukee Brewers. Five teams in the NL East and NL West, the Mets, Phillies, Diamondbacks, Padres and late-charging Rockies, are fighting for the other three playoff spots--the division titles and the wild card. After Sunday's action, the Mets and Diamondbacks held the best hands with 2-1/2 game leads over the Phillies and Padres, respectively. Wild card looks like the best hope of the other contenders--with the Phils and Rocks trailing the Pads by just 1/2 game and 1-1/2 games. The Rockies are riding an 8-game winning streak, capped by a sweep of the Padres in San Diego.

NL East - That long face you saw midweek was of Mets' manager Willie Randolph, after his season-long division-leading team lost their fifth straight game--another sweep by the Phillies and two ugly losses to the lowly Nats. Three straight wins over the Marlins leave the Mets with the largest chip stack in NL East with just a week of play left. Still troubling for the New Yorkers are the loss of 1B Carlos Delgado to injury; CF Carlos Beltran's knee bruise, and closer Billy Wagner's continuing arm woes. SP Oliver Perez has quietly had a fine season (15-9, 3.32 ERA). The late-season return of future Hall of Fame pitcher Pedro Martinez remains of the game's best stories--Pedro got another win on Friday night, breaking the Mets long losing streak with five strong innings against the Marlins. A home start by Pedro in the playoffs will be a special moment for baseball.

(Breaking News - Mets suffer yet another ugly loss to the Nats by 13-4 in Shea Stadium)

The slugging Phillies lost a little ground to the Mets, but moved up on the Padres in the wild card race. Part-time RF Jayson Werth has become a big contributor with several timely homers and extra base hits. His emergence lessened the damage from injuries to OFs Shane Victorino and Michael Bourn, and crowds the Phillies outfield picture for 2008. The Phils first five hitters, Rollins, Utley, Burrell, Howard and Rowand, all carry .500-plus slugging percentages. I don't think even the Yankees can match that claim. Relief pitching keeps life interesting in Philly--11 innings with one run one game from a crew that's blown several large leads during the year. Staff ace Cole Hamels looked stronger in his second start since coming back from the DL.

NL Central - The homer-deprived Cubs pulled ahead of the homer-happy Brewers this week with what else, a surge of home runs. OF Alfonso Soriano continued his power surge with four more homers, bringing his season total to 31. He looks like a guy who could stay hot in the post-season. 3B Aramis Ramirez and 1B Derrek Lee added other key blasts. The Brewers hit their share of homers (MVP-candidate Prince Fielder has 47; likely Rookie of the Year Ryan Braun has 31) but missed top starter Ben Sheets. Could the Cubs be the Cardinals of 2007--dominating the playoffs despite a lackluster regular season? They've been playing well for several months. Moreso than hitting, their success probably hinges on how ace Carlos Zambrano pitches. At his best, he can win games by himself; his lesser performances are just bad enough to keep the Cubs from winning. He's capable of putting together four or five dominating starts--enough to move the Cubs into their first World Series since 1945. If the Phils don't get in, I'll be rooting for the Cubs all the way.

NL West - The young and nondescript D-Backs continue to slither toward a very unexpected NL West crown. I think the dismal Giants, having signed Barry Zito in the offseason, got more preseason consideration. The offensively-challenged Padres, already having a tough weekend, had a terrible Sunday, losing 7-3 to the charging Rockies and injuring two starting OFs in the process. Volatile Milton Bradley torn an ACL while arguing with an umpire (well, actually while his manager was hauling him away from a probable physical assault on an umpire). Bradley and other Padres claim that the umpire Mike Winters "baited" him by accusing him of throwing his bat at the home plate umpire Brian Runge after a close third strike call. Earlier in the game, Bradley stepped on fellow OF Mike Cameron's hand as they both chased a deep drive that became an inside-the-park home run for Rockies 3B Garrett Atkins. Along with sweeping the Padres, the Rockies also swept the Dodgers out of playoff contention.

Update - Giants lead Padres 3-2 in the 3rd. Go Giants! Update Two - now it's 9-4 Giants in the 8th, woo hoo! Phils move into wild card tie with Padres' loss.

Three weeks ago I posted my NL MVP candidates. Near the bottom of the list of ten was Rockies' OF Matt Holliday. Today, I'd put him in the top group along with Rollins, Fielder and Wright. Holliday has hit 11 homers during the Rockies September charge to bring his season totals to 36 HRs, 131 RBIs, a .337 batting average, 48 2Bs, 1009 OPS and 113 runs scored. His home/road OPS split has improved to 1159/854. Holliday's surge has put him squarely in the middle of the MVP race, with a chance to win if the Rockies complete their surge to the wild card or NL West crown.

AL East - There's still time, but it looks like the Red Sox will hold on and break the Yankees stranglehold on the AL East title. DH David Ortiz has been hitting like last years' MVP runnerup. Josh Beckett won his 20th game, putting himself at or near the top of the Cy Young list. Still, a potent offense and shorter pitching staff make the Yankees a formidable post-season club--Pettitte, Wang and Clemens are likely to make quality starts; Chamberlain and Rivera can hold leads. Still, the Yankees probably have to win at least one playoff series for GM Brian Cashman, Manager Joe Torre, and MVP 3B Alex Rodriguez to stay with the club in 2008, despite the fact that all three have done great jobs in 2007--Cashman by searching endlessly for pitching help; Torre for managing every game to win, even when his young pitchers were being scorched; and Rodriguez for a monstrous unanimous MVP season--his best ever after being vilified in NY for a slightly subpar (by A-Rod standards) 2006 campaign.

AL Central - It's hard to believe that at midseason the Tigers looked like the best team in baseball. Last week's feint toward wild card contention proved to be a fake, as they now trail the Yankees by a left-for-dead 5-1/2 games. For the rest of the second half they looked more like the lost boys who klutzed their way to a 2006 World Series loss, excepting CF Curtis Granderson, who will finish the season with 20 or more 2Bs, 3Bs, HRs and SBs along with spectacular defense in CF, 120+ runs, a .300 batting average and 900+ OPS. Cleveland's second half surge has carried them to contention for the best record in the AL. They are 51-29 at home and a respectable 41-34 on the road. A potential post-season weak point is dependence on journeyman reliever Joe Borowski as the closer. Borowski has had a breakout season with 43 saves, but he also carries a 4.96 ERA and a career ERA above 4. His best year was 2003 with the Cubs when he saved 33 and posted a 2.78 ERA. That level of performance would be good enough to help the Indians advance in a tough AL draw. Post-season veteran Dave Dellucci (son of a co-worker of mine) is back on the active roster after a bad hamstring injury. I don't know if he'll make the post-season roster.

AL West - The Angels clinched readily and can tune their rotation and lineup for the ALDS. Similarly to the Red Sox, the Angels played well all year, but were able to decisively knock out their challenger (the Mariners, remember?) when given the chance. Of course, the veteran slugging Yankees with their $300 million payroll were slightly more formidable foes than the anonymous M's.

Phils Mystery Mastery of Mets Continues

New York Mets pitcher Pedro Martinez baffled Philadelphia hitters for six innings Saturday at Shea Stadium in New York. The Mets' bullpen and fielders baffled thier fans by letting the Phils come away with a 5-3 win. (AP Photo/Ed Betz)

September 16 Update - The Yankees and Red Sox (surprise!) are finishing the week with tonight's ESPN game with Clemens and Schilling matched in a battle of 40-year olds. (ESPN reports that the matchup sets a Fenway Park record for most combined wins by two starters (354 for Clemens plus 215 for Schilling). It's their last meeting of the season. The Sox will emerge with a 4-1/2 game lead or better going into the last two weeks of the season. Out of contention for AL Central honors, the Tigers put themselves back in wild card contention with a hot streak. The Angels are the only story in the AL West.

In the National League, the Phils overcame six great innings by Pedro Martinez on Saturday and enjoyed yet another sweep of the Mets to move within 3-1/2, but the Padres continue to lead the wild card race. The Cubs and Brewers compete for the AL Central lead daily (though not against each other). The Cards collapsed after the Ankiel story broke. In the West, the D-Backs hold onto the lead, with the Padres and Dodgers in pursuit.

NL East - The Mets left Philadelphia today shaking their heads, but comforted by a 3-1/2 lead in the division. In today's game they helped the Phils to a 10-6 win with a Little League-like 11 walks and 6 errors. The Mets' blunders were more subtle in yesterday's 5-3 Phils win. Pedro Martinez pitched 6 strong innings, bewildering most of the Phillie hitters to get 9 strikeouts and give up no walks (bringing his season ERA down to 1.69 in 16 innings). Along the way, the Phils got seven hits, of which about one was hit well. Two pop fly hits that figured in the Phillies scoring probably should have been caught, as should have Jimmy Rollins' game-winning 2-RBI triple off Jorge Sosa in the 8th inning. Mets CF Carlos Beltran, a culprit in both pop fly hits, broke in on Rollins' drive, then reversed field as the ball sailed over his head for a triple. The misplay also helps Rollins' MVP candidacy. Despite the sweep, David Wright helped his own MVP case by joining the "30-30" club--30 homers and 30 steals.

NL Central - Brewers' 1B Prince Fielder hit his 46th homer of the season, enough to both lead the league and break the all-time Brewers club home run record. Cubs OF Alfonso Soriano found his home run stroke, building his season total to 27 with a Saturday homer that gave the Cubs a win over the Cards. Kerry Wood win out of the bullpen in the same game was his first since 2006. The Cubs lead the Brewers by one game, though both clubs have 72 losses.

NL West - I've been focused on the Phillies standing relative to the Padres, the current wild card leader, but I expect that the Padres are focused on the D-Backs, who lead NL West by only two games, and have just one fewer loss (66 vs 67) than the Pads. The D-Backs got a nice win today, 6-1 over the Dodgers, in a well-pitched game by five Arizona pitchers. The Dodgers won the first two games of the series. Arizona's star OF Eric Byrnes described the win as "huge."

AL East - It's 1-1 in the 7th at Fenway. Yankees' rookie RP sensation Joba Chamberlain (he of the 0.00 ERA) is on in relief of Roger Clemens. Clemens didn't appear bothered by his recent physical problems. Still, I wonder whether he'll come back in 2008. It seems like his entire half-season has been plagued with nagging injuries, though his record isn't too bad, particularly for a 45-year old, 6-6 with a below-league average 4.18 ERA. He's walked 31 and struck out 68 in 99 innings. The Yanks won Friday night's matchup, 8-7 after trailing 7-2 going into the 8th. The Sox shrugged off the potentially devastating loss and devastated the New Yorkers 10-1 on Saturday afternoon. Schilling continues to pitch in the 8th. Now gives up a 3-run homer to Derek Jeter. Yuck! That's it for Curt. Lowell homer brings Sox to within 2; first earned run off Chamberlain.

Lugo doubles in the third run off Rivera, who then hits Ellsbury in the knee. Pedroia is next. Sox fans sending various hexes and curses toward the mound, ala Harry Potter. Ortiz on deck. Pedroia lays off 0-2 pitch. 96 mph off inside corner, 2-2. High fastball fouled back. Outside fastball fouled off. Hard to see rookie winning this battle. Fastball inside, full count. Missed again inside, ball four. Good job by Pedroia. Ortiz comes to the plate. Sox fans in frenzy. Torre visits Rivera. Ortiz only 2 Ks' in 19 AB's vs. Mariano. Fouled off. Down and away, 1-1. Fastball high, 2-1. Grounder foul, 2-2. Jammed--pop to Jeter at short. Yankees win 4-3.

It was interesting to read Joe Torre talk about setting up his rotation for the post-season--trying to get Andy Pettitte and Chien-Ming Wang (I looked up that spelling) ready with optimal rest. The way the Tigers are coming on, Joe needs to think more about how to get to the playoffs.

AL Central - The Indians lead by 4-1/2. The magic number vs. the Tigers is only 9; the same as the Red Sox number vs. the Yankees. The two teams start a 3-game series in Cleveland on Monday. The beautifully-named Fausto Carmona, only 23 years old, has quietly put together a terrific season, 17-8 record and an AL-leading 3.07 ERA in 30 starts. He was 1-10 with a 5.24 ERA last year. His season compares well to that of teammate C.C. Sabathia, 17-7, 3.21 ERA, who's often mentioned as a Cy Young contender. Veteran castoff Paul Byrd (the Indians are his sixth team in 13 seasons in which he's racked up 97 wins) has done just enough to amass a 15-6, 4.34 ERA record in 174 innings. Indians catcher Victor Martinez will get some MVP votes with an 888 OPS and 102 RBIs.

AL West - The Angels have the lowest magic number in the majors--just six vs the Mariners. They can wrap it up late this week in a four-game series with the M's next weekend. John Lackey and Kelvin Escobar give the Halos two second-tier Cy Young candidates. Vladimir Guerrero will be a top five MVP finisher. The M's nosedived from contention with a stretch of 13 losses in 14 games.

MVPs both NY 3Bs?

Yankee 3B and putative AL MVP Alex Rodriguez demonstrates the ideal power uppercut as he launches home run #51 of the season vs. his old team, the Seattle Mariners. (AP Photo/Ed Zurga)

Note New York Mets' David Wright's level swing as he hits a two-run double against the Houston Astros at Shea Stadium in New York. Could both NY 3B's win MVP Awards? (AP Photo/Ed Betz)

September 9 Update: I got caught up in writing my review of Harry Potter 7 and got a late start here. I'll try to thikn and type fast.

I just about dropped out of sight earlier in the week after the Phillies blew a 8-2 lead in the 8th inning vs. the Braves and a 5-0 lead vs. the Marlins, losing five of six after their dramatic sweep of the Mets. But this weekend's action--a 9-1 win over the Marlins televised Saturday on FOX, and today's 8-5 win over the Fish pulled the Phils to within two games of the Padres in the wild card race, and me back into the land of the living among baseball fans. Still I didn't drop so far out of sight as to miss the amazing show being put on by Alex Rodriguez. Taking just a few hours off for an MRI of his sore elbow, A-Rod built his season stats to include 52 home runs and 140 RBIs, while raising his batting average and OPS to .318 and 1100 respectively. The power figures lead both leagues by nine homers and 17 RBIs and make Rodriguez a lock for his third AL MVP award. A story about possible Human Growth Hormone use by pitcher-to-outfield conversion sensation Rick Ankiel provided yet another negative distraction from good play and tight pennant races.

NL East - The Mets rebounded smartly from their four-game sweep in Philly, winning 8 of their next 9 to go 20 games over .500 and build a 6-game lead over second place Philadelphia. Pedro Martinez pitched another short but effective start today to help the Mets beat the Astros and Roy Oswalt. Martinez is taking his comeback one game (perhaps even one pitch) at a time. The third-place Braves are only 4-1/2 back in the wild card standings, but need to climb over four teams with only 19 games left to play. More .500 ball won't get it done.

NL Central - Just when I conceded this division to the Cubs, the Brewers' yeast activates with seven wins in ten games to take a one game lead. The Brew Crew opened today's win over the Reds with three home runs by the first three batters. Ouch! The defending champ and 3rd-place Cards can't put much together, but don't have as big a hill to climb as the Braves--they're only three games out of first. The Brewers are 28-43 on the road. I wonder if any division winner has ever had a worse road record.

NL West - Like the Brewers and Mets, the Diamondbacks rebounded from their slump to win five in a row and open a 3-game lead over the Padres. Good for them for overcoming the dadlak curse. Good for the Padres for losing 6 of 10 to help the Phillies get back in the wild card race.

AL East - Another Red Sox - Yankees series may be looming in the AL playoffs as the Sox lead AL East by 5-1/2 while the Yankees lead the AL wild card by 4 games. Solid starting pitching and pristeen relief pitching (Papelbon and Okijima's ERAs are both sub-2) keep the Sox on top. Murderous hitting (see above note on A-Rod) and just enough pitching have the Yanks 19 games over .500.

AL Central - One team in between a Red Sox - Yankees ALCS is the Cleveland Indians. The Indians have pulled out to a 6-game lead over the Tigers with a good mix of pitching and hitting. Big C.C. Sabathia (290 lb) is chasing a Cy Young Award with a 16-7 record, 3.24 ERA and just 32 walks (and 182 K's) in a league-leading 211 innings. We can stop mentioning the Twins, now 13 back in the division and 11 behind in the wild card. The Indians hope to feast on the lowly White Sox and Royals in their next two series to solidify their playoff spot.

AL West - This once-tight race between the Angels and Mariners now has the Angels with the largest division lead at 8 games as the Mariners continue to plunge through the standings. The team with the better record between the Indians and Angels (who lead by one game) will likely play the Yankees in the Division Series, while the trailing team will get the Red Sox.

Special Feature - NL MVP Handicapping

FOX baseball analyst Joe Girardi tooted Phillies' SS Jimmy Rollins' horn on Saturday for the NL MVP award. Here's my view of the "wide open" race for this award.

The Mets have three potential candidates - 3B David Wright, SS Jose Reyes, and CF Carlos Beltran. Wright has been solid all year, while Reyes got in trouble with his manager for not hustling and Beltran has been hot and cold with the bat while missing his usual 20 or so games with injuries. Wright's 944 OPS and 30 steals in 34 tries, while scoring 96 and knocking in 92 make him the Mets top guy, and a top five guy in the league. In just another season or two (or maybe now) Wright will be the Mets' all-time best 3B, a position they've struggled to fill over the years (remember Lenny Randle?)

The Phillies have two other candidates besides Rollins. 2B Chase Utley was the award frontrunner until a HBP-induced broken hand kept him out of the lineup for four weeks. 2006 MVP Ryan Howard is having another fine season, but probably not enough for top five MVP status. Rollins is having a remarkable season--881 OPS with 77 extra base hits, 28 steals, a league-leading 120 runs scored, 26 HRs, 79 RBIs and 139 games started at short out of the team's 142. He's hit both leadoff and third (briefly while Utley was down). Like Wright, Utley is a pure ballplayer, who leaves everything he has on the field every night. He leads the NL in batting average at .339, and has 90 RBIs and 83 runs despite missing about 30 games. I'll put both Rollins in the top five, with Utley in the top ten with a chance to get back in the race with a huge September.

Chipper Jones has been the Braves best player. His OPS is 1015, but he's missed 20 games. Still he's top ten material for sure. Edgar Renteria has had a fine season for the Braves, but well short of Rollins.

The Marlins have two of the league's best, talentwise and for production, 3B Miguel Cabrera and SS Hanley Ramirez. They sport 963 and 946 OPSs respectively. I'll give the nod to Ramirez, who's producing from the shortstop position and has 46 steals in 58 attempts. Only the Marlins' sad record dilutes Ramirez' candidacy--still a potential top five finisher. Cabrera is young and a wonderful hitter, but slow and a marginal fielder.

In the AL Central, I count two candidates, one each on the Brewers, Cards. Brewers' 1B Prince Fielder, just 23 years old, has 43 HRs and has been a monster with the bat all year. He's played in all but three games (suspensions, I think) and has a 1002 OPS. Rookie 3B Ryan Braun has a 1005 OPS but only 93 games played. Let's give him Rookie of the Year. Cards perennial MVP candidate Albert Pujols has quietly assembled another MVP-caliber season--987 OPS and on pace to exceed 100 in runs, RBIs, and walks. Astros LF Carlos Lee has done just what the Astros hired him to do, but his 851 OPS isn't quite high enough.

In the West, frenetic D-Backs OF Eric Byrnes has been their best player all year. We'll include him in the top 10 for an 850 OPS, 90 runs and 42 steals in 48 attempts. Pitching has carried the Padres into playoff contention--no MVPs among their position players. The Rockies feature exciting OF Matt Holliday, whose 954 OPS looks pretty good until you see its Coors Field inflated aspect--OPS of 1096 at Coors; just 803 on the road. Holliday hangs in at the bottom of the top ten. Like the Padres, the Dodgers are riding their pitching. Jeff Kent is their best hitter, but can't command MVP attention when his stats are short of Chase Utley's despite Kent playing 15 more games. The disappointing Giants' best player has been a 43-year old sore-kneed OF with a league-leading 1059 OPS, of course, it's Barry Bonds.

Top Group

1) Wright
2) Rollins
3) Fielder
4) H. Ramirez

Second Group

5) Utley
6) Pujols
7) Byrnes

Third Group

8) C. Jones
9) Holliday
10) Reyes

Outside, Looking In

C. Lee

I might be picking Wright to avoid seeming prejudiced toward a Phillie. MVP voters like HRs and RBIs, which favors Fielder. If the Brewers win the NL Central, I think Fielder will win. Rollins' chances improve if the Phils get the wild card spot. Wright's team is secure in the playoffs. He wins MVP if the Phils and Brewers are playing golf in October.

Buchholz Gem Bolsters Boston

Boston Red Sox's Clay Buchholz pitches with two outs in the ninth inning to the last batter of his no-hitter, Baltimore Orioles' Nick Markakis, at Fenway Park in Boston, Saturday, Sept. 1, 2007. The Red Sox won 10-0. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)

September 3 Update - Here's an abbreviated MLB update. The weekend was occupied with driving, Scrabble, eating and sleep. I also finished two books (a biography of Roberto Clemente and Jodi Picoult's "Plain Truth") and will include those in my August book reviews.

Division leaders in the NL East and all of the AL divisions responded to pressure and extended their leads. The Red Sox lead the Yankees in AL East by 7 games after a week that featured a no-hitter by rookie pitcher Clay Buchholz in his second major league start (shades of Burt Hooton), and a couple of high scoring wins over the Blue Jays. The Yankees may have lost Roger Clemens for the season. Clemens left Sunday's game to get an MRI on his elbow. The Yankees still hold a 1-game lead in the AL wild card race. The Devil Rays take the dishonor of being the first team eliminated from division contention, as they now trail Boston by 26 games with only 24 to play--despite a stretch of 8 wins in 10 games.

The Indians extended their AL Central lead over the Tigers to six games. Kenny Lofton's career has come full circle as he is again a Cleveland Indian, the team for which he starred in the '90s (he actually came up with the Astros in 1991). The 1994 strike season was his best--.349 batting average with 948 OPS, with 105 runs and 60 steals in 112 games. Lofton has played for 11 MLB teams, including three stints wtih the Indians. That commercial about not knowing where his bags are going is pretty much on the mark. The Tigers are still in the wild card hunt if they can start winning. The Twins appear dead in the water.

The "dadlak jinx" struck the Seattle Mariners (the M's being the subject of last week's research). Their win today over the Yanks snapped a 9-game losing streak that pushed them 6-1/2 games behind the Angels in the AL West. Still, the M's trail New York by only one game in the wild card standings.

In the NL East, the Phillies closed to within two games of the Mets with a 4-game sweep in Philly, but have since lost three games back with three losses (two to FL and one to ATL) while the Mets won three. Pitching and hitting are again out of synch for the Phils, who lost 7-6, 12-6 and 5-1. They're within wild card range--three back of Arizona (another dadlak jinx victim?), but the same story in 2006 came to a sad ending. The Mets welcomed back future Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez, who made his first start of the year on Sunday after rotator cuff surgery. He got the win and his 3,000th career strikeout--a very good day after almost a year of rehab. It's hard to guess whether his shoulder will hold up, but Martinez is beloved by Mets' fans and should provide at least an emotional boost for as long as he can stay healthy.

In the NL Central, three teams stumble toward a 2006-like finish, where 83 or so wins may be enough to win. Despite being just four games over .500, the Cubs lead the Brewers by 1-1/2 games and the Cards by 2.

The Padres took over first from the D-Backs this week with wins in both SD and Phoenix. Greg Maddux got his first ever win in Phoenix today, after 11 career starts--something you'd never figure from a guy with 343 career wins. Maddux has an 11-9 record and 3.79 ERA this year. He hasn't walked a batter in almost 50 innings. Another season is certainly imaginable for this durable future Hall of Famer. (In Maddux's 1994 and 1995 seasons with Atlanta, he posted a combined 35-8 W/L record with 20 complete games, 6 shutouts and a 1.60 ERA. He surrendered just 297 hits, 55 walks and 12 home runs in 411 innings.) With their experience, the Pads should prevail in the NL West, though they only lead by one at the moment. The Dodgers and Rockies are lurking 4 and 5 games back respectively.

Rangers Onslaught Overshadows Both O's and Pennant Races

Sometimes numbers tell the story best of all, as in the Texas Rangers' 30-3 rout of the Baltifore Orioles this week. The Rangers total was the most runs scored in American League history and the most in any major league game since 1897.

Texas Rangers' Ramon Vazquez, second from right, wraps up the scoring with a three-run home run during the ninth inning in the first game of a doubleheader against the Baltimore Orioles, Wednesday, Aug. 22, in Baltimore.Vazquez hit two home runs and drove in seven runs in the 30-3 Texas win. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

August 26 Update - What a difference a week makes. After last week's string of great individual performances by the likes of Diamondback pitchers Brandon Webb and Micah Owings, the collapse of a pitching staff in a ho-hum game between non-contenders tops this week's MLB news. Staked to a 3-0 lead after three innings, the Baltimore Ravens (I mean Orioles) defense (I mean pitching staff) gave up 30 points (I mean runs) to the Houston Texans (I mean Texas Rangers) in the next three quarters (I mean 6 innings (including two shutout frames)) to lose 30-3.

Here are some statistical records and highlights.

1) 30 runs are most by one team in any game since 1897, and in the entire history of the AL.

2) The Rangers became the first team to have two 9-run innings in the same game. All of the Rangers runs were scored in four innings- 5, 9, 10 and 6 in the 4th, 6th, 8th and 9th respectively.

3) The Rangers smashed 29 hits, the most by one team since the Brewers got 31 in a 1992 game.

4) The Rangers became the first team since 1979 to have four players with four or more RBI's (the Phils did and won that game 26-23).

5) Two Rangers went 4-6 with 2 HRs and 7 RBIs apiece. Jason Saltamacchia and Ramon Vazquez batted 8th and 9th respectively. The last three batters in the Rangers lineup totaled 13 hits.

6) Orioles pitchers recorded 11 strikeouts--the same number recorded by AL strikeout leader Eric Bedard in Monday's game. Of course, Bedard gave up only 5 hits and 2 runs in the O's win.

7) Two Oriole pitchers surrendered 8 or more earned runs in 2 or fewer innings of work. In fact, all 30 runs were earned as the one Oriole error didn't figure in the scoring. Ouch to their ERAs.

8) The O's pitchers took the beating in stride--no HBPs for the Ranger batters.

9) The Rangers only played one sub--Travis Metcalf for Michael Young, who was nursing an injury from Tuesday's game. Metcalf hit a grand slam home run in his only AB (he walked in another plate appearance).

10) The Rangers hit six HRs--the highest season total for any of the home run hitters was Ramon Vazquez with 7.

11) Sammy Sosa (with 600+ lifetime homers) didn't play for the Rangers.

12) Ranger reliever Wes Littleton may have gotten the easiest save ever (came in with score 14-3 then got 16 more runs as "insurance"), but he pitched 3 scoreless innings in the process to protect the honor of his craft.

AND IT WAS THE FIRST GAME OF A DOUBLEHEADER. The Rangers won game Game Two 9-7. 39 runs in a doubleheader is probably a record too.

The week's other top story is the return of David "Boomer" Wells--enough to make me a Mets fan. Due to many injuries to the Dodgers' pitching staff, Wells signed with the club and is starting tonight in Shea Stadium. San Diego is still paying his salary, except for a prorated portion of the major league minimum for the rest of the season. I guess the Dodgers couldn't go wrong at that price, even with the risk that Wells is as washed up as his 14+ ERA in his last four Padre starts (5.58 for the season) indicates. (Breaking news--Wells just beat out a bunt for a base hit and is trailing by just 2-1 in the 5th. Now a hit by Furcal. Wells advances to second. Wells scores from third on another hit--congrats all around in dugout. Now the Dodgers lead 3-2. Now Loney is picked off third and the inning ends with a weak fly ball. Wells' night ends after five innings--he leaves with a 6-2 lead, in line for a win. It's still 6-2 Dodgers in the 9th. Looking good for Boomer. LAD wins, 6-2. Wells' run scored was the 7th of his career.)

The hottest teams over the last ten games aren't any of the division leaders. The heretofore lowly Reds and Giants have both won eight of their last ten. In the Reds' case it was enough to move them out of last place (and even to the fringes of contention in the weak NL Central) and drive the Braves deep into the wild card race. The Giants are still last by eight games in NL West, but their streak dropped the once-dominant Milwaukee Brewers back to .500, and in increasing danger of missing the playoffs altogether.

Still, better than any of the live action this week was the recount of the 1971 World Series between Baltimore and Pittsburth in "Clemente: The Passion and Grace Baseball's Last Hero" by David Maraniss. What a series by Clemente, who suffered food poisoning the night before Game One. Roberto batted .414 with hits in all seven games, two doubles, a triple, two homers, accompanied by stellar fielding, baserunning (his hustle on a dribbler back to the mound turned the Series in the Pirates favor), and throwing, all at age 37. In one of baseball's greatest tragedies, Clemente died in a plane crash just over a year later while delivering relief supplies to earthquake-ravaged Nicaragua.

On to the divisions.

NL East - The Mets are looking more like the division winners every day. Both the Braves and Phillies challenged, but were thrown back by their pitching woes. The Mets will lead by 7 full games with 33 to play if they hold on against the Dodgers tonite. The Phillies salvaged a foothold in the wild card race today with a 14-2 trouncing of the Padres. Two home series against the Pads and Dodgers yielded only two wins for the Phils, and a couple of fiercesome losses, 15-3 to LA and 14-3 to SD. They have a chance to move up on the Mets in a 3-game series in Philly this week. Mark Texeira has hit 9 homers since coming to the Braves, but the Braves pitching hasn't held up.

NL Central - Someone will definitely win this division. Right now, the Cubs have to be favored, but the Brewers are still just 1-1/2 back and the Cards are down by 2. Even the mostly cellar-dwelling Reds are within 6-1/2. Another 8-2 streak could put them in the thick of things. Albert Pujols hammered five homers in about a week to drive the Cards comeback. The Cubs and Brewers play a big series this week. No wild card for this division.

NL West - Brandon Webb gave up a run in inning 43, but still won the game. The Diamondbacks had a good enough week to hold onto a 3 game lead over the Padres, with the Rockies and Dodgers in better wild card than divisional shape. Keep watching above for updates on the Dodgers-Mets game tonite.

AL East - In a parallel to the NL East, the Red Sox were challenged briefly by the Yankees, but have since rebuilt their lead to 7-1/2 games as the Yankees struggled in series with both the Angels and the Tigers. Tim Wakefield and Josh Beckett each have 16 wins for the Sox. Wakefield is a particularly good story as at 16-10 he's recorded decisions in all of his starts--shades of Phil Niekro. The Yanks and Sox start a three-game series in NY on Tuesday.

AL Central - Like the NL Central, this division was crying for a winner. It may have found one in the Indians, who played well enough (7 wins in 10 games) to open a 2-1/2 game lead over Detroit. The Twins started their move and have closed to only 3 games behind Detroit. Again like the NL Central, it looks like only the champ AL Central wi1l make the playoffs.

AL West - The Angels beat the Yankees 2-of-3 in an exciting series in Anaheim. They've moved to 22 over .500 for the second best record in baseball. They have a big series at second place Seattle this week. The Mariners are only 1-1/2 games behind. Speaking of the Mariners, here's the promised research results on this little-known-outside-the-Pacific-Northwest team.

Unlike the Diamondbacks, the Mariners have played a fairly stable lineup. They also have the best international scouting in the game.

C-Kenji Johjima from Japan
1B-veteran Richie Sexson
2B-young Jose Lopez from Venezuela
SS-I'll-have-to-copy-the-spelling Yuniesky Betancourt from Cuba
3B-one-time Dodger star Adrian Beltre from the Dominican
LF-Raul Ibanez from NYC
CF-the one you know, Ichiro
RF-Jose Guillen, also from the Dominican
Jose Vidro from Puerto Rico fills the DH role.

For such a diverse group, performances are remarkably consistent--OPS's range from Suzuki at 840 to Lopez at 657.

Pitching innings have been spread across many arms. Only Felix Hernandez, Jerrod Washburn, and Miguel Batista have pitched more than 140 innings. Batista leads the staff with 13 wins. Jared (make that Jeff) Weaver, a Cardinal hero from 2006, has pitched 112 mostly ineffective innings in 20 starts.

Relief pitching is the Mariners' greatest strength. Five of their top six relievers in terms of innings have ERAs below 3.60. Closer JJ Putz has been the best in the bigs all year--1.35 ERA and 37 of 39 saves. To go along with the saves, Mariners relievers have a combined W-L record of 26-14. No single reliever has pitched more than 60 innings, so no one is likely to wear out. The Mariners' formula appears to be to get just enough hitting and pitching to take the lead into the seventh, then let the bullpen secure the win.

Pitchers Rule the Week; and One of Them Hits Too!

Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Micah Owings watches the flight of his second home run against the Atlanta Braves on Saturday, August 18. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

August 19 Update - What a great week for individual performances by pitchers! Reigning NL Cy Young Award winner Brandon Webb extended his consecutive scoreless inning streak to 42--likely the most since Orel Hershiser set the record in 1988. His AL counterpart, Johan Santana, set a club record today with 17 strikeouts in eight innings of work against the Rangers. John Smoltz became the all-time Atlanta Braves strikeout leader, passing Phil Niekro. August 21 Addition - Buried in the White Sox dismal season has been a record-tying streak of 41 consecutive batters retired by Sox closer Bobby Jenks. Royals' outfielder Joey Gathright broke the streak Monday night with a clean single leading off the ninth inning. Jenks completed the inning for his 34th save. Giants pitcher Jim Barr set the record in 1972. To my knowledge, the record for consecutive batters retired in one game is 36 by the Pirates' Harvey Haddix in 1959. The Pirates lost the game on an error in the 13th inning.

But most impressive was the batting line of Arizona Diamondback starter Micah Owings (see photo above) in his win over the Braves on Saturday night--5 4 4 6 2B, HR 2 (3). You read it right, that's four hits, including a double and two home runs with four runs scored and six RBIs in five at bats. Owings also pitched seven innings, surrendering just three hits (all homers) on a night when the ball was flying out of The Ted. Owings two homers both travelled more than 400 feet, the second one more than 440 feet. The eleven total bases were the most by a pitcher in 50 years (predating my career as a fan) and pushed Owings' slugging percentage to .568, tops on the Arizona club. If Owings' pitching career falters (he's 6-6 with a 4.70 ERA this year), he could consider doing the Ankiel. I told you I would learn more about the Diamondbacks this week.

A comparable game I can recall (I listened to it live on the radio) happened in 1970 when Phillies starter Rick Wise hit two home runs on a night where he also pitched a no-hitter against the Cincinnati Reds. There's no statistical way I know of to gauge the greatest baseball performance ever, but this has to be in the running--both Babe Ruth the pitcher and Babe Ruth the slugger on the same day--the Babe probably had one that was close. This game was the main reason Phillies fans were upset when Wise was traded for Cardinals' lefty Steve Carlton. Carlton won over the fans with his first of four Cy Young seasons in 1972, an amazing performance where he won 27 games and posted a 1.98 ERA and 300+ strikeouts for a team that won only 59 games all season. Current FOX motormouth Tim McCarver was "Lefty's" personal catcher that year.

NL East - The Mets swept the Nationals while both the Phils and Braves dropped two of three in their most recent series (the Phils blowing 4-0 leads in both losses to the Pirates). The result is that the Mets hold the largest divisional lead of any team--5 games over the Phillies. Tom Glavine continued to fool 'em on the outside corner to gain his eleventh win against six losses on the season and 301st win of his career, moving him ahead of both Lefty Grove and Early Wynn on the career win list. Carlos Beltran is back in the Mets' lineup and hitting well.

NL Central - The long-anticipated advancement of the Cubs to first place happened this week, not so much due to great play by the Cubs as by the continuing struggles of the Brewers. Milwaukee lost two of three to the lowly Reds and seven of their last ten to fall one game behind the Cubs. 1B Prince Fielder was suspended for three games for aggressive actions against an umpire. He appealed, so I'm not sure if he's served the suspension or not. The Brewers play the Diamondbacks next.

The Cubs are no sure thing, but should be in decent shape when Soriano comes back. We missed a chance to enjoy some of this race on ESPN as the Cubs-Cards game from Chicago tonite was rained out after three innings. The Cubs won the first two games of the series, cooling the Cards fire--earlier in the week they swept the Brewers to move with 2-1/2 of first; this despite being outscored by 66 runs on the season.

NL West - Barry Bonds' march toward his final home run total thunders on--Barry hit his fourth homer since breaking the record on August 7. 800 might be within reach. Barry downplayed thoughts of his playing beyond next year. But oh yeah, I can write about the other NL West teams, to the extent that I know much about them. The Diamondbacks lead the division by four games over the Padres after another good week that features two trouncings of the Braves in Atlanta. The D-Backs also reduced by one the number of their players I can name by releasing Byun-Yung Kim. Kim has had any number of fresh starts since his 2001 World Series problems--maybe Tampa Bay comes next. Pitcher Micah Owings (from Tulane in New Orleans) made himself known with his arm and bat. Other Arizona regulars are 1B Conor Jackson (vet Tony Clark also gets some time), 2B Orlando Hudson (a Gold Glove winner, it turns out), SS Shaun Drew (brother of J.D.), 3B Matt Williams--no check that, split between M. Reynolds, Jeff Cirillo and Chad Tracy, C's Chris Snyder and Miguel Montero, and OFs Eric Byrnes, Chris Young (what a gazelle!), and a varied cast in right that probably includes some of the infielders. Pitchers are the aforementioned Webb (who needs to keep his pitching career on track; he's 3-55 with 24 K's and no walks as a hitter) and Owings (needs to work on strike zone judgement--just one walk in 44 ABs), lefty Doug Davis, and veteran HR-surrenderer (and sometimes hitter) Livan Hernandez. All-Star Jose Valverde anchors the bullpen with 37 saves and 60 K's in 50 IPs. Kim's release wasn't a big surprise after 84 innings in which he allowed 12 homers and 59 walks.

Luis Gonzalez knicked heretofore unhittable Mariano Rivera with a bloop single to drive in Jay Bell with the winning run in the bottom of the ninth in Game 7. The D'backs won the 2001 World Series with a 3-2 victory. (Jed Jacobsohn/Allsport)

Here are some names I remember off the 2001 World Champs -- pitchers Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling, of course. Also poet-pitcher Miguel Batista and the unfortunate Kim. Around the IF were 3B Williams, SS Jay Bell, 2Bs Tony Womack and Craig Counsell, and 1B Mark Grace. Damian Miller did most of the catching. MVP candidate (runnerup?) Luis Gonzalez played LF (this was the year Bonds hit 73 HRs), Steve Finley played CF; Danny Bautista, Reggie Sanders and Dave Dellucci shared RF. This was a veteran team built to win the pennant, compared to 2007's kids, who are turning the future into this year.

Luis Gonzalez's series-winning hit off heretofore unbeatable Mariano Rivera was the deciding blow, but more telling was Tony Womack's pulled double right in front of it, also off Rivera, down the right field line. Never a great hitter, Womack was terrible by this point near the end of his career. It was shocking that he should get such a hit off Rivera, and made up for the various walk-off homers (most improbably by Scott Brosius) hit by the Yankees in their three wins. This series remains my second all-time favorite to the Phillies' 1980 defeat of the Royals, in which I had a more personal rooting interest.

I promised more on the resurgent Rockies this week, but got distracted with that trip back to glory days at the BOB (Bank One Ballpark--now the good old CF--Chase Field--sounds like a better name for a law firm). The Rocks are 7 out of first, so this can wait. Matt Holliday is on my list of NL MVP candidates, which I'll write about later.

AL East - Sorry, I got a little off track there. The Yankees are keeping the pressure on the Red Sox. They're still four games behind; ten games closer than they were at about this date in 1978 when they stormed back to force and win a one-game playoff on a home run by Bucky "F#$%ing" Dent. The Yankees and Roger Clemens of all people pulled off the defensive play of the week, foiling a double steal attempt when Clemens intercepted the catcher's throw to second and ran down the Tigers' Brandon Inge between third and home. Not bad at all for a 44-year pitcher, and emblematic of the bravado that the Yankees bring to their games. Tim Wakefield looks to advance the Sox' cause when he pitches against the D-Rays in St. Pete on Monday. He has an 8-0 record and 2.33 ERA in the Juice Box.

AL Central - The Tigers continuing woes against the Yankees and others allowed the Indians to reclaim first despite playing uninspiring ball themselves. The Twins are closer to the division lead than to the wild card (behind even the Blue Jays in that race) and still could contend, though time is running out to gain 6 games on two teams.

AL West - The Angels and Mariners are just two games apart and have the 2nd and 3rd best records in baseball (Mariners' manager McLaren for Manager of the Year--maybe the first winner ever to take over in midseason). Winning play aside, the Angels look like giant lollipops in their cherry red jerseys and white pants. The Angels have the best home record in baseball (40-17) and host the Yankees next--another hopeful sign for the Red Sox.

Ankiel's Position Switch Feels So Good

Cardinals' OF Rick Ankiel, back in the majors as an outfielder after a spectacular flameout as a pitching phenom in 2001, takes a curtain call in St. Louis after his second home run of the game Saturday vs. the Dodgers (AP Photo/Tom Gannam)

August 12 Update - My running message on Major League Baseball got unwieldy, so I decided to start a new one.

Here's the link to the old message if you need to see something there.

My Bonds poll closed with 2 for and 6 against Barry breaking the record. Proving himself impervious to our opinions, Bonds of course broke Aaron's HR record on Tuesday night and hit two more later in the week (including one into McCovey Cove) to raise his career total to 758. This will make it all the harder for Aaron to recapture the record if Bud Selig convinces him to come out of retirement and play as a DH for the Brewers.

The season could finish with six last-week pennant races accompanied by razor-close wild card races. First place margins in the AL are 4, 1/2, and 3-1/2 games. In the NL the leads are 3-1/2, 1-1/2 and 3 games. The wild card race is tied in the AL and headed toward a 1/2 game or 1 game margin in the NL. Early dominators like the Red Sox, Tigers, Mets and Brewers have come back to the pack, while early trailers like the Yankees, Mariners, Phillies and Cubs have caught up. Most teams have fewer than 50 games left to play.

NL East - The Braves and Phillies continued their back and forth battle for second tonite in the ESPN game with the Phils winning 5-3. Ryan Howard hit a 3-run homer and Jimmy Rollins hit his 15th triple and scored his 100th run of the season tonite, advancing his late run toward MVP consideration. Rollins has been a key to the Phillies staying in the race without Chase Utley, their best player up to the time he was injured. The game tonite featured some great catches by Aaron Roward and Andruw Jones and two great run-saving throws by Braves' RF Jeff Francouer. The Phillies benefitted from a courageous umpiring call when Braves' SS Yuvel Escobar was caught on a shadow tag of second base on DP throw. The throw was late and what seemed like a double play off the bat turned into no outs and two on. Two batters later, Howard lofted a HR to left field.

The Mets continue to tread water in a patched ship as they cover for injured CF Carlos Beltran and injured 2B Jose Valentin, and await the return of future Hall of Fame pitcher Pedro Martinez. David Wright and Jose Reyes work on their MVP credentials while unheralded John Maine and Oliver Perez lead the pitching staff.

Neither the Marlins nor Nationals are contenders, but they're not pushovers either. The Nationals ran off a nice winning streak and host the Phillies this week. The Marlins took two of three from the Mets and are fourth in the NL in runs scored with SS Hanley Ramirez and 3B Miguel Cabrera both having outstanding offensive seasons.

Brewers rookie 3B Ryan Braun has been tearing up the league since his call-up from AAA in May (no photo credit available)

NL Central - Lackluster play by both the Brewers and Cubs have allowed the Cards of all teams to hang in the race. Even at 55-60, the defending champs are only 5-1/2 games out of first. The Cards enjoyed the call-up of former pitching phenom Rick Ankiel, now playing as a slugging outfielder. After 32 HRs in Memphis, Ankiel hit three in his first weekend as a Cardinal position player. Cards' manager Tony LaRussa, having been in St. Louis for Ankiel's meltdown as a pitcher, was emotional about his return, calling it the second happiest he's been as a Cardinal, after their world championship last year. Ankiel's comeback is a much-needed feel good story for the game.

The Brewers are enjoying their own phenom--3B Ryan Braun. The 23-year old rookie from University of Miami (FL) is having an amazing season--22 HRs (including a game-winner of the Astros' Brad Lidge on Saturday), 59 RBIs, 54 runs and a .346 batting average and 1.051 OPS in just 69 games. Against lefties his OPS is a "check for math errors" inducing 1.559 with 11 homers in 77 ABs. The Cubs have backslid after their big run from the second division, losing 7 of their last 10. Losing Alfonso Soriano to injury seems to have really hurt.

NL West - With the Bonds stuff out of the way, we can concentrate on who's up and who's down. Up are the Arizona Diamondbacks, winners of 15 of their last 19 games and division leaders by 3 games. I've been studying up on them today, having recognized that I could only name about six players from their roster while they have the best record in the NL at 67-52. This is a very young team with 10 players being no older than 25. They have one player, Randy Johnson (on the DL) who at 43 is older than two of their other players (OFs Justin Upton-19 and Chris B. Young-23) combined. They may still be due for a fall, as even with the great W/L record, they've surrendered 516 runs and scored only 496--the stuff of a .500 ballclub rather than a pennant winner. They blew a 5-1 lead and lost to the Nationals at home this evening.

Heading the other way are the star and salary-studded Dodgers, now in 4th place, trailing even the Rockies after a 28-inning scoreless streak and 8 losses in their last 10 games, including a 12-2 thrashing from the Cards today. In the last couple of years the Dodgers have acquired high priced free agents Rafael Furcal, Juan Pierre, Jeff Kent and Jason Schmidt. For all of that they're 3 games over .500 and struggling to score runs. Their runs scored and surrendered are about the reverse of the D-Backs - 514 to 496, with about the record you'd expect with that ratio. The LADs may need to make some changes to turn things around with so few games left. More on the resurgent Rockies next week. I have to do some studying first.

AL East - The cannon fire you hear is from the Yankee warship as it steams toward the Red Sox Nation. Holding an 8 wins in 10 games pace, the Yanks moved to 15 over .500 and within 4 games of the nervous Sox (at least their fans are nervous). They've scored a ML-high 695 runs, getting MVP-type seasons from Rodriguez (now at 39 HRs and almost sure to win now that the Yanks are back in the race), Jeter and Posada. Their pitching staff is in its best shape of the year, with veterans Mussina, Clemens and Pettitte all talking regular turns and relative youngster Wang leading the staff in wins and ERA. They could use a fifth starter, having apparently given up on expensive Japanese import Igawa, whom they're trying to move in a waiver deal to San Diego despite having paid $26 million to his Japanese team for negotiating rights. Mariano Rivera, pounded early, has his ERA under 3 and has posted 18 saves. Yankees' GM Brian Cashman is talking new contract for his veteran closer.

The Red Sox haven't been terrible, but .500 ball has been steadily losing ground to the Yanks since the All-Star break. Ortiz being in and out of the lineup with a hurt shoulder hasn't helped. Weak first-half hitters Drew, Lugo and Crisp and coming around. So far the trade deadline acquisition of closer Eric Gagne hasn't gone too well with Gagne blowing two saves. Tampa Bay's team is terrible, but OF Carl Crawford has been terrific, winning two Player of Week awards in a month.

AL Central - No change here as the first-half chargers, the Tigers and Indians, continue to struggle while the "looming" Twins can't stay above .500, say nothing of entering the pennant race. Tigers' OF Magglio Ordonez, still an MVP candidate with 98 RBIs and a .355 batting average, homered twice in one inning against Oakland tonite. The win put the Tigers back in first as the Indians were swept by the Yankees.

AL West - Both the Angels and Mariners are playing well. The LAAs are just a 1/2 game off having MLB's best record (owned by Red Sox at 70-47). The Mariners are tied for the AL wild card at 65-50. Ichiro doesn't want to talk any more about his new contract, which requires the Mariners to buy him a Mercedes or a Jeep. Apparently the Chevy Taco (I mean Tahoe) that he won as All-Star MVP wasn't good enough. Maybe I was right about that right-hand drive issue.

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