NL Central makes convincing case as baseball's best division
Posted: Monday May 31, 2004 12:33PM; Updated: Monday May 31, 2004 4:48PM
If Ken Griffey Jr. can stay in the lineup despite moments like this, the Reds might have a chance to win the NL Central.
By the time Memorial Day rolls around, we're supposed to know something about the pennant races. With the first two months of the season sitting on the curb, waiting for pickup, we're supposed to at least have an idea.
Well, you figure out the National League Central. It's an absolute, unmitigated mess.
Or a rousing success, depending on your point of view.
There is not a more surprising, more screwed-up division in baseball. The Reds, as Exhibit No. 1, sold off everything that wasn't nailed down last year in a despicable payroll purge and returned with almost nothing but leftovers. Now they lead the division.
The Cubs, who some actually picked to win the World Series -- this season, even -- have this hoity-toity pitching rotation that is the best in the division, as expected. But their revamped bullpen is the worst. And the Cubs barely have their noses above .500. They're tied for third place.
The Brewers and Pirates, as pretty much everyone expected, are at the bottom of the division. But Milwaukee is 25-23 and Pittsburgh is 23-23, putting them both only two games out of first place in that AILC (All-Important Loss Column).
The Central isn't a race this year. It's a pile-on. It's an eye-gouging, wedgie-giving, spit-in-your-eye, mud-wrestling extravaganza.
It'd be easy to dismiss this division as a simple pool of mediocrity, a pathetic example of where parity has taken us. The truth is, the Central is the bully of the NL. Or it's at least holding its own. There is not a team in the division that has a losing record against the East or the West.
How can you figure it? The Brewers haven't had a winning season since 1992. They have a payroll that Alex Rodriguez uses for per diem. But they have a 5-2 record against the Cardinals. Lyle Overbay, part of a bounty of players the Brewers got by trading Richie Sexson to the Diamondbacks, is hitting .337 with 28 extra-base hits, more than Jim Thome, Sammy Sosa, Ken Griffey Jr. or Barry Bonds. And Milwaukee's pitching, with Ben Sheets as the leader, is decent; only the Cubs and Astros have a better team ERA than the Brewers in the division.
The Astros, with Roger Clemens pitching like he's 22 again (7-0, 2.38 ERA), looked awfully strong through six weeks. Lance Berkman (.346, 13 homers, a .495 on-base percentage) is playing like an MVP candidate. But the Astros have lost seven of their past 10 -- all of them in-division, including a four-game sweep at the hands of the Reds.
The Cards have an everyday lineup that other teams would die for. Yet that lineup is only fourth in OPS -- the trendy stat that is a combination of on-base and slugging percentage -- in its own division. Behind the Pirates, for goodness sakes.
Oakland reliever Arthur Rhodes blew back-to-back save chances last weekend, the second coming when he and catcher Adam Melhuse got their signals crossed, resulting in a wild pitch that allowed Cleveland to score the winning run. The mistakes enabled the Indians to complete their first sweep of the A's since 1999, which is also the last season Oakland missed the playoffs.
Somewhere around nine hours after Rob Mackowiak's wife, Jennifer, gave birth to their first child, the proud Pittsburgh papa hit a two-out, grand slam in the ninth inning to beat the Cubs in the first game of a doubleheader. In Friday's second game, the Pirates' utilityman hit a two-run homer in the ninth to send the game into extra innings. The Pirates won that one, 5-4. Saturday he smacked a three-run homer and a two-run double in another Pittsburgh win, giving him 11 RBIs in three games. You know, that kind of weekend only comes along every nine months or so.
"I don't give a [expletive] if he's a Hall of Famer or not. I don't think I'll forget it. I don't know what the hell he was staring at. I don't know if he was questioning the intentional walk before that or what. You just have to make a note of something like that."
-- Marlins pitcher Josh Beckett on Ken Griffey Jr.'s stare into the Florida dugout after hitting a homer last Tuesday
Pittsburgh's payroll (about $40.2 million) is higher only than Milwaukee's ($27.5 million) in the division. And Pittsburgh had its own problems, a mini-drama with troublesome outfielder Raul Mondesi. But the Pirates got rid of him and called up minor leaguer Daryle Ward, who had been discarded by the Dodgers and Astros. Ward promptly hit for the cycle. He's hitting .377 in 17 games with six homers. Right fielder Craig Wilson has an OPS of 1.054. Shortstop Jack Wilson hit .256 last season, but now he's batting .352, fourth in the league.
The favored Cubs are missing pitching ace Mark Prior and his sidekick, Kerry Wood, and Sosa is out with back spasms after a sneezing episode. LaTroy Hawkins has blown a couple of saves. Derrek Lee went through a 1-for-20 slump. The Cubs lost three of four to the Pirates.
And no one can explain the Reds. Their starters' 4.56 ERA is 12th among 16 NL teams, and better only than the Pirates in the Central. Their rotation features Cory Lidle, Paul Wilson, Aaron Harang and Jose Acevedo. Among them, they have just 10 seasons with at least 15 starts -- and only two of those produced winning records. Yet none has a losing record so far this season. Wilson is 7-0.
A sometimes-powerful lineup featuring NL hitting leader Casey (.392) and a rejuvenated power stroke from Griffey (12 homers) has the Reds in first place. They are 16-11 in the division, even though their team OPS is fifth, ahead of only the Brewers.
The NL Central may yet end up as a three-team race. The Astros, Cardinals and Cubs still have better pitching than the other three teams in the division, at least on the surface. The Cubs will have Prior back soon, and if Wood only misses a couple of games, they'll be tough. Ditto with the Astros if Andy Pettitte doesn't miss too much time. The Cardinals are right there.
The Pirates and Brewers will fade -- won't they? -- and though the Reds will continue to hit, it's important to remember they started 34-32 last season. They went 35-61 the rest of the way.
Still, at this point of the season, the NL Central is a lot harder to call than it should be. Only once since division play began in 1969 has one division finished with every team at .500 or better. That was in 1991, when the California Angels finished last in the American League West at 81-81. (The Twins won the West at 95-67 that year.)
Could that be the Central this year?
We may have to wait until Labor Day to find out.
All right. So maybe the Giants aren't quite dead. Nine victories in a row shows that they have something left. But let me point this out: Their nine wins have come against four teams, only one of which (the Cubs) has a winning record. The last eight have come against the Expos, Diamondbacks and Rockies, losers every one. Starting Monday, the Giants play 14 straight road games -- against the D'backs, Rockies, Devil Rays and Orioles. Not a winning team in that bunch, either. We'll see.
The Yankees crushed the Orioles last week by a combined score of 41-17 in sweeping three midweek games. The Orioles' ace, Sidney Ponson, was riddled in the last game, giving up eight fifth-inning hits -- six with two outs -- in an 18-5 loss. The refund windows at Camden Yards are now open.
In five games last week, the Cardinals' Albert Pujols was 8-for-17 (.471) with three homers, five RBIs and five runs scored. That's not good news for the rest of the division.
The Devil Rays got off to such a bad start after that season-opening trip to Japan that infielder Geoff Blum had a clubhouse attendant get rid of all the T-shirts commemorating the event. The Rays are 7-3 since.
Alex Rodriguez has been on base at least once every game for the Yankees since April 17, a stretch of 38 games, a personal best.
The only thing worse than William Hung doing Take Me Out to the Ball Game during the seventh-inning stretch of Sunday's Rangers-Blue Jays game in Toronto -- and it was bad -- is the off-key howling from baseball purists about it.
Uncork a bottle of bubbly: Thursday is the one-year anniversary of Sosa's broken-bat moment of shame.
Comments, questions or obviously unfounded criticism? To e-mail Donovan, use the form below.
Got quite a few comments on my E-Bag bit last Friday -- the big Bag runs every Friday, if you haven't been paying attention -- on injured players who gut it out ... and those who don't. The response has led me to this conclusion: y'all are a hard-hearted lot sometimes.
"Badge of courage?" Don't make me sick. These guys are making millions for doing what? Playing a ballgame. We're supposed to give them credit for playing hurt? If I was making their money I would play with one arm. These guys are, for the most part, prima donnas who have never had a real job. I wonder if they would be so heroic if they were only making $30,000 a year instead of millions. -- Dave Smith, Danville, Va.
Well, Dave, that's kind of my point. Unless a player can't play -- or if by playing he'd be hurting his team -- he ought to be out there. Simple as that. I would give maybe six games off a year to an everyday player just to refresh the mind and body and keep guys ready for the stretch run.
Adrian Beltre should get bone spurs more often -- he has never played better! Maybe he should have rested some of those games since they lost 11 of 13 anyway. I dislike J.D. Drew just as much as the next Phillies fan -- not enough to throw batteries at him, but a lot -- but Chipper Jones has brass ones seeing that he has played in only 29 of 48 games! -- B. Green, Philadelphia
A couple comments on this, B. -- if that's your real initial. I shudder to think where the Dodgers would be without Beltre. Think Diamondbacks. As far as Jones goes, he went on the DL this season for the first time since early in the 1996 season. He's played at least 153 games every year since 1995. I don't think you can rip him, either. Everybody's different, as Jones said. The fact is, there are guys who play hurt and those who don't.
You must be drinking your own makin's. Players like Frank Thomas and Barry Bonds use any excuse to DH, not play day games after night games, no doubleheaders, etc., all while making millions a week. They should play every day they are alive. What phonies. -- Robert T. Lynch, Wheatfield, Ind.
Wellll, Bob, (burp), I'm with you. Play 'til you drop, I say. Forget the fact that the season is 162 games long and you wanna have (burp) -- 'scuse me -- guys fresh at the end, not all wore out. Tore hamstrings! Heck, we didn't even have hamstrings when I was growin' up. I say play, you money-grubbin' pansies! (Burrrrrrrp!)