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Posted: Monday September 15, 2008 4:02PM; Updated: Monday September 15, 2008 4:02PM
John Donovan John Donovan >
INSIDE BASEBALL

Postseason races tighten up (cont.)

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After hitting four home runs and 12 RBIs, Ryan Howard was the top player in baseball last week.
After hitting four home runs and 12 RBIs, Ryan Howard was the top player in baseball last week.
David E. Klutho/SI
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Player of the Week

Four home runs and a man-sized 12 RBIs normally would be enough for a PoTW mention, but the fact that Ryan Howard of the Phillies struck out only five times in seven games last week ... well, hold the cyber-presses, will you? This guy is on fire. The big first baseman had 10 hits in 26 at-bats (.385) as he pushed the Phillies to a 5-2 week. Howard, whose 190 strikeouts are the most in baseball, went three straight games -- Thursday, Saturday and the first of a doubleheader on Sunday -- without going down on strikes. It was the first time he had been whiff-free in three straight since Aug. 9-11. That was the only other time this year, in fact.

Team of the Week

They were dead in the NL East, they were dead in the wild card, and now they aren't. The Phillies' four-game sweep of the Brewers last weekend changed everything. Howard (seven homers, 19 RBIs this month) has been a big factor in Philadelphia's rising, but don't forget the pitching (especially Myers lately), don't forget Jimmy Rollins (.365, .480 on-base percentage this month) and don't forget that they were in almost this same exact position last year. The Mets certainly don't.

Lines of the Week

Cristian Guzman, WAS at NYM, Sept. 10

3 for 5, 3 R, 5 RBIs, 2 HRs

The shortstop was so bad for so long, it's time to give him credit for his second straight good year (.311, .342 OBP). He's one of the few things on the Nats that won't make you turn your head.

Tim Lincecum, SFG at SDP, Sept. 13

9 IP, 4 H, 0 R, 12 K's, 3 BB

The young righty chalked up his first career complete game in his 54th start, lowered his NL-best ERA to 2.43, upped his league-leading strikeout total to 237 ... and then there's the Cy talk.

Carlos Zambrano, CHC vs. HOU at Milwaukee, Sept. 14

9 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 10 K's, 110 pitches

He hadn't pitched since Sept. 2 because of shoulder pain, yet the Bull coasted through one of the hottest teams in baseball at Miller Park to throw the team's first no-hitter in 36 years.

Quote of the Week

"Honestly, it doesn't matter who's throwing against us right now. We're struggling in batting practice."
-- Brewers left fielder Ryan Braun

Series to Watch

Starting on Tuesday in Chicago, the reeling (and, yeah, there are other words for it) Brewers are in Chicago to take on the Cubs in a three-game series that may well decide the Brewers' postseason future. The way things are going with the Brewers, the situation could hardly be more desperate. CC Sabathia opens the series at Wrigley in a Tuesday night game against Ryan Dempster.

Line Drives

• Zambrano's no-hitter against the Astros on Sunday was amazing in a lot of ways. One, it came against a hot team, maybe the hottest in the game. Two, it came from a guy who just two weeks earlier had reported soreness in his shoulder. Three, because of that soreness, Zambrano had not pitched since Sept. 2. Four, Cubs' manager Lou Piniella let him pitch the whole game? I mean, I understand that he was under control and rested and the manager might have been run out of town if he'd have tried to pull him. I envisioned some fist-swapping on the mound if it was going to come to that. But it's amazing that Piniella allowed Z to pitch on, considering what lies ahead for his team. ("What can I do? I was even hesitant to warm someone up," Piniella told reporters.) All in all, it was a stunning conclusion to a wild weekend that ended with the Cubs celebrating Z's no-no in the Brewers' clubhouse in Milwaukee.

• The decision to play the two games in Milwaukee was patently unfair to the Astros, and I don't think anybody can claim otherwise. What were supposed to be home games turned completely the other way as Cubs fans invaded Miller Park, a.k.a. "Wrigley North." But, to paraphrase Piniella, "What can you do?" Major League Baseball evidently investigated several other spots. But a roof was needed for this series, and Miller Park seemed to be the most logical place that didn't have scheduling conflicts. (You don't go running from a hurricane just to get rained out somewhere else this late in the season). It's a total ripoff, and Astros' fans (and manager Cecil Cooper) have every right to be upset. But I don't see what else could have been done in that time frame.

• If the Rays could handle the Yankees at all, folks might be celebrating in the streets of St. Petersburg right now. Well, a couple of people might be raising their cappuccinos at a coffee shop down by Al Lang Field, anyway. The fact is, after an inspiring series win in Boston last week, the Rays lost two of three in New York (they finish 7-11 against the Yankees) and head into the week with a slim one-game lead in the AL East over the Sox. The good news is that the Rays are home again for their last week of Trop cooking for the season. (They're 53-21 at home, the best record in the majors.) The bad news is they have to play two playoff-mad teams; the Red Sox again, Monday-Wednesday, and the Twins, Thursday-Sunday. Nothing is ever easy for the Rays.

• By inspiring, I mean a late homer by Dan Johnson on one night that snapped a four-game losing streak, leading to a 5-4 win that kept the Rays in first place. And a huge homer by Carlos Pena that beat the Sox 4-2 in 14 innings on the next night. That, right there, should have convinced the good people of the Tampa Bay area that they should maybe budget some money for October baseball.

• The woebegone Diamondbacks have some major institutional soul searching to do this winter. I think we're all in agreement now that the team we saw in April and May was nothing more than your garden variety desert mirage. The question: Is this team as bad as what we see now? Since the D'backs last won at least two in a row, back on Aug. 19-21, they are 5-16. Their two-game lead in the NL West has Dr. Jekylled into a 4 1/2 -game hole that, let's face it, they're stuck in for good. In that stretch the D'backs are hitting .228. With a .308 OBP. With 178 strikeouts and only 70 walks. (Those numbers before they lost 2-1 on Sunday.) They didn't pitch well in that period, either (4.82 ERA), but generally speaking they pitch well enough. The lineup is the main culprit. Arizona just has too many supposedly good players who are, to put it bluntly, playing bad ball. They're not all that young and inexperienced anymore, either. Is Stephen Drew going to be better than an average big-league shortstop? Is Chris Young going to be better than just OK? Mark Reynolds? Justin Upton's only 21, so we'll give him some more time. But he has to get better, too. The whole team does. They can't stand pat for '09. That didn't work in '08.

• The Twins have one chance and one chance only. Now six games back in the AL wild card, if the Twins are to get into the postseason, they'll have to win the Central. They begin the week 1 games behind the White Sox, with seven games (at Cleveland, at Tampa Bay) left on an 11-game road trip. They finish with six at home, the first three against the White Sox, Sept. 23-25. That's their chance. If they can get there, that's their chance.

• Two strange streaks came to an end over the weekend. The Braves won their first one-run game on the road in more than a year -- they had lost their previous 29 one-run road jobs -- when they rallied against Santana and the Mets on Saturday night. And the Pirates finally won on a Sunday for the first time since June 15, a streak of 12 straight Sunday losses. That brings an end to the good news about the Braves and Pirates here.

• OK, just to keep you updated. Chipper Jones is rallying! He's at .365, with should-be MVP Albert Pujols of the Cardinals at .360 in the back-and-forth race for the NL batting title.

• Speaking of batting feats, there was a time, not that long ago, that I could see Ichiro Suzuki's streak of 200-hit seasons coming to an end. But after another hit on Sunday, Ichiro now has 195 with 14 games left. So I think his eighth straight season of 200-plus hits is probably assured. And, with 95 runs, make it eight straight years of 100-plus runs, too. And, at .311, eight straight years with a .300-plus batting average. Yeah, I think he's good.

• You're in a close game in the late innings, and your near-playoff team needs a call to the bullpen. You have to pick one guy, and you have only two left. Do you take Milwaukee's Eric Gagne (11 homers allowed, .282 BAA)? Or Octavio Dotel of the White Sox (12 homers allowed, .221 BAA)? OK, wake up. It was a nightmare.

• Say what you will about Alex Rodriguez -- and everyone will -- but with a grand slam on Sunday against the Rays, he has 100 RBIs for the 11th straight season (12th overall) and 100 runs scored for the 13th straight season. He often doesn't hit well when it means the most, but he has the second-best OPS in the league, and the best slugging percentage. I'd take him on my team.

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