Key week looming in NL East
This could be a season-defining week in the still-undecided National League East. Right now, the Phillies are staggering. The Mets are playing their best ball of the year. The Marlins are sticking around. The Braves, the one-time king of the division, are ... I don't know. What the heck are the Braves doing?
It's hard to get a good read on anyone in the East, the most tightly contested division in baseball. The week ahead, in which each of the four contenders have key intradivision series, may finally offer some much-needed clarity.
Here's a shorthand look at the good and the bad for each of the four teams:
They have hitting studs in Chase Utley, Pat Burrell, Ryan Howard (when he hits the ball, anyway) and reigning NL MVP Jimmy Rollins. They have lights-out pitchers in guys like lefty Cole Hamels and closer Brad Lidge, and better-than-average arms in ageless Jamie Moyer, new pickup Joe Blanton and relievers J.C. Romero, Ryan Madson and Chad Durbin. Only the Cubs score more runs a game. And the Phils are fourth in runs allowed per game. They're the only team in the East with a winning record on the road.
BUT ... in the last six weeks, they're just 14-20. They've seen a 3 1/2 game lead evaporate. Since June 8, their hitters are getting on base at a miserable .319 clip. Right fielder Geoff Jenkins, in his first season in Philly, is hitting a miserable .127 in 26 games in that stretch.
Fourth in runs a game and in runs allowed a game, the Mets have worked through their early season misadventures into a tie with the Phillies atop the division. Just 34-35 under fired manager Willie Randolph, the Mets are 19-11 under new skipper Jerry Manuel, and have won 11 of their last 13. Every hitter that's supposed to be hitting is -- Jose Reyes is batting .325 with a .388 OBP under Manuel -- and their pitching staff has proven just good enough to get them back in the race.
BUT ... Johan Santana, as good as he's been (3.10 ERA), hasn't been as dominant as many assumed he'd be. Pedro Martinez (3-2, 6.25) has been awful in his return from injury. The rest of the rotation is barely average. And the bullpen, with a 3.85 ERA, is better only than the Nationals in the East.
With the best record against the East of any team in the division (21-15) and the only winning record in one-run games in the East (15-12), the Marlins enter the week only a half-game behind co-leaders Philly and New York. An offense that scores 4.86 runs a game, third in the NL, paces the Marlins. That's mainly All-Stars Hanley Ramirez and Dan Uggla, though third baseman Jorge Cantu (.291, 18 homers) is vastly underappreciated.
BUT ... Ricky Nolasco and Scott Olsen are nice enough pitchers, but they're hardly ace material. Injuries (to Andrew Miller, Anibal Sanchez and Burke Badenhop, for three) have decimated a staff that allows 5.11 runs a game. Only the Rockies and Pirates give up more. And those 21 wins against the East? Ten have come against the Nationals.
Third baseman Chipper Jones and catcher Brian McCann are having years befitting their All-Star selections, and Mark Teixeira is coming on (.329, nine homers and 21 RBIs in his last 22 games). The revamped pitching staff hasn't missed much with John Smoltz and Tom Glavine on the shelf. With Tim Hudson and Jair Jurrjens leading the way, Braves pitchers give up only 4.2 runs a game, third in the league. The bullpen has been a revolving door, but it works most of the time.
BUT ... Jeff Francoeur (.233) has regressed. Injuries at shortstop and center field have hurt, and left field is a problem. The Braves have the worst road record in the East, and they're only 6-22 in one-run games, worst in baseball. Worse yet: a losing record (26-27) against sub-.500 teams.
A lot can change in a week. All four contenders in the East -- with the Braves 6 1/2 games out in fourth place, no division is closer -- have telling tests ahead.
The Braves, in perhaps a must-have week for their postseason hopes, play at Florida and at Philadelphia. A poor showing in those series could cause them to pack it in, and maybe even offer up first baseman Teixeira before the July 31 trade deadline.
The Marlins, after their three-game series against Atlanta, travel to Chicago to take on the Central-leading Cubs in a four game weekend series. The Cubs have the best record in the game, and the best home record.
The Mets host the Phillies for three games beginning Tuesday night in Queens, then play three against the still-surprising Cardinals, who own the best road record in the NL. And the Phillies get the Mets in New York (the Phils are the only team in the East with a winning record on the road) and the Braves back in Philadelphia.
Are we finally due a little separation, a little clarity, in the muddled NL East? Or are we simply up for more of the same?