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Power Rankings

Everything points to Cubs in NL Central

Posted: Tuesday August 19, 2003 1:48PM; Updated: Thursday August 21, 2003 6:16PM

By Dan George,

They've lost two in a row and five of their last 10. They've been trailing the first-place Houston Astros for most of the last two months. When they tried to trade for slugger Rafael Palmeiro, he flat-out turned them down. Twice.

Yessir -- the Chicago Cubs may have the rest of the National League Central right where they want them.

First of all, they're 8-5 against the Astros this season, including three victories in four games last week at Wrigley Field. They take on the 'Stros three more times this week in Houston, starting Tuesday night.

The Cubs, No. 11 in this week's Power Rankings, are a less impressive 3-6 so far against the St. Louis Cardinals, with whom they're tied for second in the NL Central, a half-game behind Houston. But you gotta like Dusty Baker's team's chances in their final eight meetings with the Redbirds.

Yes, the Cards have Albert Pujols, who just may be the NL's Most Valuable Player this season, and a terrific bunch of hitters in general. But even before he fractured his hand, St. Louis ace Matt Morris was having an off season, and 14-game winner Woody Williams is 0-3 in his last four starts.

The Cubs, by comparison, boast the division's best pitching. Ranking first and third in the NL in strikeouts, Mark Prior (11-5, 2.65 ERA) and Kerry Wood (11-9, 3.40) get most of the pub, but Carlos Zambrano (11-8, 3.07) and Matt Clement (10-10, 3.93) are more than solid.

That could be the difference, especially against the Astros, who have one ace (Roy Oswalt) on the DL and another (Wade Miller) still groping for the form that helped him go 31-12 the last two seasons.

If not for key injuries to center fielder Corey Patterson and second baseman Mark Grudzielanek and a slow start by right fielder Sammy Sosa, the Cubs might already be leading the pack. But credit GM Jim Hendry for quickly trading for Kenny Lofton, Aramis Ramirez and, after Palmeiro's second rejection, Randall Simon. And Sosa has been on a tear, hitting .309 with 22 homers and 54 RBIs since the end of May.

Another thing in the Cubs'favor? The schedule. Their final 22 games come against the Milwaukee Brewers, Montreal Expos, Cincinnati Reds, Pittsburgh Pirates and New York Mets. Only the Expos have a winning record.

The Astros, meanwhile, play 16 of their 26 September games on the road, where they are six games under .500. And their 10 home games come against the San Francisco Giants, Cardinals and Brewers. In addition to the Astros, the Cards get a nice dose of the Arizona Diamondbacks down the stretch.

Yep, everything points to the Cubs. Which may be the only thing working against them.

MLB Power Rankings
Rank LW Team
1 1 Atlanta Braves
Gotta love Kent Mercker's mindset. When they reacquired the former Brave (1989-95) last week, he was ecstatic. "I guess they think with a 12-game lead," he said, "I can't screw it up." Well, that puts him ahead of Roberto Hernandez.
2 3 New York Yankees
If Joe Torre hasn't had enough of Jeff Weaver yet, the fans sure have. The struggling starter (6-9, 5.78 ERA) was posted for sale last week on eBay. The prank ad listed him in "fair to good condition. Shows minor wear. Hair freshly feathered. Talent not included."
3 4 Seattle Mariners
Freddy Garcia is wearing earplugs this season, but not because of negative crowd response to his 10-12 record. Both of his eardrums were perforated during team flights last year. Garcia, who plans to have offseason surgery, insists his balance is OK. "I can still dance good," he said.
4 2 San Francisco Giants
GM Brian Sabean ignored ex-Giant third baseman Bill Mueller over the winter, instead signing Edgardo Alfonzo to a four-year, $26 million deal. Alfonzo is hitting .253, with 7 homers and 49 RBIs, while Mueller is .325-15-61 for the Red Sox and making a whole new group of fans wonder why his name is pronounced "Miller."
5 5 Boston Red Sox
After his 5-1 victory Saturday, Pedro Martinez is 11-0 lifetime against the Mariners with a 0.96 ERA. That's right up there with Globetrotters vs. Generals, Roadrunner vs. Wile E. Coyote, Jeremy Shockey vs. discretion.
6 6 Oakland Athletics
Ken Macha's team is only 16-14 since the All-Star break. So when can we expect that patented finishing kick? ... Anyone? ... Bueller?
7 8 Philadelphia Phillies
Jose Mesa blew another save Sunday, then smashed a clubhouse table and shoved a reporter after the game. You know, sometimes it really is better to have an interpreter.
8 7 Florida Marlins
Mark Redman fussed about a possible conflict of interest when umpire Jim Wolf, whose brother Randy pitches for the wild-card rival Phillies, made calls on three close plays in a Marlins loss. The word "petty" comes to mind.
9 9 Houston Astros
Jeriome Robertson, Mike Gallo and three other Astros had to wear dresses from Chicago to Cincinnati as part of traditional rookie hazing. "This is a grandma's dress," Robertson said. "Gallo's dress looks nice because it's a sun dress, but I looked like I was going to a baking contest."
10 11 Kansas City Royals
Before throwing a simulated game last week, Jose Lima insisted he needed to hear the national anthem first. Manager Tony Pena and pitching coach John Cumberland did the, uh, honors. And Lima isn't even left-handed.
11 15 Chicago Cubs
Kerry Wood has back-to-back complete game wins against the Dodgers this season, and Mark Prior has consecutive complete game wins against the Marlins. Before this season, Rick Sutcliffe was the last Cubs pitcher to beat a team back-to-back, in 1984. If, you know, you're looking for an omen.
12 12 Arizona Diamondbacks
With all due respect to Dontrelle Willis, Brandon Webb may be the NL's top rookie pitcher this season. Webb is 7-6 to Willis' 11-3, but boasts a better ERA (2.56 to 3.18) and more strikeouts (127 to 105). Hard to beat that "D-Train" thing, though.
13 14 St. Louis Cardinals
Matt Morris was supposed to come off the DL Sunday . but that was before he sprained his ankle jumping down some steps while running for a hotel elevator last week. "My landing wasn't the best," said Morris.
14 13 Los Angeles Dodgers
Rickey Henderson was talking the other day about Dontrelle Willis, who also hails from Oakland, Calif. "He's from my neck of the woods," said Rickey. "I was probably his idol growing up." Be he ever so humble, there's nobody like Rickey.
15 16 Minnesota Twins
Taking two out of three from the Royals would have been more impressive if they hadn't just lost three of four at home to the Indians. Getting shut out for 22 consecutive innings by a fourth-place team isn't the way to win the division.
16 17 Montreal Expos
Do they really want to move? So far this season, the Expos are 32-17 in Montreal, compared to 10-6 in Puerto Rico. Only the Braves and Giants have better records at home.
17 10 Chicago White Sox
After losing three of four to the Angels last week in Anaheim, they are 9-33 on the West Coast since 2001. And just for good measure, they also dropped all three games to the Rangers in Arlington over the weekend.
18 19 Toronto Blue Jays
Roy Halladay's Cy Young once-gleaming candidacy is showing a little tarnish. The right-hander is 16-5 with a 3.53 ERA overall . but just 1-3 with a 5.06 ERA over his last four starts. Esteban Loaiza, anyone?
19 18 Colorado Rockies
It's tempting to say their wild-card hopes are done if first-half sensation Shawn Chacon is shut down for the season with a bad elbow. But the fact is that Chacon (11-8, 4.60 ERA) is 0-5 with a 6.56 ERA since June 23. But what the heck . they're done.
20 21 Anaheim Angels
They may have reverted to form on the field, but it isn't showing up at the turnstiles. Averaging nearly 38,000 a game . only the Yankees and Mariners are better in the AL . the Angels are on pace to draw more than three million fans for the first time.
21 20 Baltimore Orioles
Did you catch Jack Cust falling down not once but twice the other night trying to score? Same thing happened to a friend of mine one time in Little League. Yeah, it really was a friend, wise guy.
22 22 Pittsburgh Pirates
Julian Tavarez says talk that he's doctoring the baseball with a foreign substance hidden on the bill of his cap is ridiculous. ''Some people like skinny women. I like fat women. Some people like young women. I like older women. Some people like poor women. I like rich women,'' Tavarez said. ''Some people like clean hats. I like my dirty hat.'' Whew. Glad we were talking about hats.
23 24 Texas Rangers
So A-Rod thinks center fielder Alex Sanchez is the missing piece in the Texas rebuilding program? This is the same Alex Sanchez who has turned the Tigers around, right?
24 23 Cincinnati Reds
Thursday was poster night at Great American Ball Park. Fans got pictures of Adam Dunn (hitting .217 at the time), Austin Kearns (out for the season with shoulder surgery) and Aaron Boone (traded to the Yankees). OK, who left out Jim Bowden?
25 25 Cleveland Indians
Officials suspect last week's big power outage may have originated in Cleveland. Matt Lawton's .248 batting average was their first clue.
26 26 New York Mets
Art Howe is juggling his rotation so Tom Glavine doesn't have to face the Braves again in Atlanta next week. The former Cy Young winner is 0-4 with a 10.35 ERA in four starts against his old team. And the nightmares, well, they're horrible.
27 27 Tampa Bay Devil Rays
It took four months, but Tampa Bay fans finally got to see some classic Piniella. The Rays' skipper threw his cap twice during a clash with umps, then kicked it five times until it flew into the dugout. "The hat was just laying there," Piniella said. "It was begging for it."
28 28 Milwaukee Brewers
A crowd of 14,147 showed up at Miller Park last Thursday . to see the Class A Beloit Snappers beat the Appleton Timber Rattlers 4-2. The gathering was larger than 16 of the Brewers' home games this season. And no mascots were hurt.
29 29 San Diego Padres
They knocked him around pretty good last week, but the Pods still have their eye on the Braves' Greg Maddux, who becomes a free agent after this season. "We tried to get Maddux's numbers up so we don't have to pay him as much next year," said Phil Nevin. "We want him in San Diego."
30 30 Detroit Tigers
How about Bobby Higginson throwin' down on the umps after getting tossed last week? "Maybe when I'm done playing I'll run across a few of these guys," he said, "maybe somewhere out in a bar and I'll be able to do a lot more than I can do right now." Uh huh. Al Franken and Bill O'Reilly will have a love child before Higgy gets another close call from the boys in blue.

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