East has NL's best pennant race
The Phillies' return to health and their rotation makes the Braves' lead tenuous
The Reds struggle against winning teams, but their NL Central lead looks safe
Slumping San Diego is lucky to have fewer problems than the Giants and Dodgers
First place: Braves
Contenders: Phillies (3 GB)
The two-time defending NL Champion Phillies have been riddled with injuries this season as all but two members of their starting lineup, two starting pitchers, and their top two relievers have spent time on the disabled list. When Ryan Howard returned from the DL last Tuesday, the Phillies ran out their primary starting eight for the first time since May 21 and just the eighth time all season. More problematically, of the six regulars who were on the DL, only catcher Carlos Ruiz (.309/.377/.496 since July 10) has been productive since his return.
Still, with the gang back together and the rotation reinforced by the deadline acquisition of Roy Oswalt (3-0, 1.53 ERA in his last five starts as a Phillie), this is a dangerous team that's very capable of going on a huge run to take not only the division but -- with a potential postseason rotation led by Oswalt, Cole Hamels (3.31 ERA, 3.52 K/BB, though only 8-10 overall due to 3.47 runs per game of support from his hobbled offense), and leading NL Cy Young candidate Roy Halladay (16-10, 2.27 ERA) -- win a third-straight pennant as well.
Indeed, the Phillies have scored just 4.28 runs per game in August, but they are winning with pitching and defense by holding their opponents to a measly 3.25 runs per game for the month. If their big bats start thumping, look out.
Philadelphia's threat from below makes the Braves' lead, which they've held since May 31, seem awfully tenuous. Neither team has a noticeably more favorable schedule down the stretch, and the two were effectively in lock step in August, with the Braves leading by 3-1/3 games on July 31 and by three on the morning of September 1. Still, the Braves have gone 68-41 (. 624) since April 30, and though they recently lost Chipper Jones for the season and Troy Glaus to a knee injury, utility man Omar Infante has belatedly justified his All-Star selection, hitting .354/.391/.538 since being installed at second base on July 31. Martin Prado took over for Jones at third upon returning from the DL mid-month. Glaus's replacement, waiver-trade acquisition Derrek Lee, hasn't hit much yet as a Brave, but his 3-for-3 showing on Tuesday night presented a glimmer of hope. Glaus, meanwhile, has been playing third and raking in a Triple-A rehab assignment and should return shortly to shore up the offense.
The Braves' rotation was reinforced by the arrival of 2009 first-round pick Mike Minor (3-0, 3.91 ERA in five starts), but he big news in Atlanta has been the recent surge by rookie rightfielder Jason Heyward who, after an injury-plagued season of streaks and slumps, appears to be carrying the team, hitting .488/.571/.878 with four home runs 11 RBIs and 15 runs scored in the last 10 games.
Assuming the Phillies start hitting again, these are the two best teams in the league, and this division could well come down to the season's final weeks as they play six of their final dozen games against each other, wrapping things up with a three-game set in Atlanta. Get your tickets now.
Prediction: Phillies over Braves
First place: Reds
Contenders: Cardinals (7 GB)
This was one of the most compelling races in the majors for most of the season. From mid-May to mid-August, the favored defending division champion Cardinals and the underdog Reds were never more than three games apart atop the division, but since they last held a one-game lead on August 13, the Cardinals have gone 4-12 and fallen seven games behind.
The Cards hold a 10-5 edge in the head-to-head series, but the three-game set with the Reds in St. Louis this weekend will be their last meeting of the season. After that, the Reds have the easier schedule, primarily because they'll face the Diamondbacks, who they swept two weeks ago, for four games. The Cardinals draw the Braves next weekend. The Reds' dirty little secret is that they haven't played well against good teams this season. Fortunately, they have only seven games left against teams with winning records. They also have 13 remaining against the Brewers and Astros. Cincinnati is a combined 13-3 against them thus far.
A comeback in the division now seems like an insurmountable challenge for the Cardinals. Their need to rest rookie starter Jaime Garcia (12-6, 2.33 ERA) down the stretch (Jeff Suppan started in his place on Wednesday afternoon) will make the task even more difficult. Getting sophomore centerfielder Colby Rasmus (.263/.348/.493) back from a calf strain (both parties denied that a feud between Rasmus and manager Tony La Russa played into his recent absence from the lineup) will help, but the Reds can counter that by getting second baseman Brandon Phillips (.290/.343/.458) back from a wrist contusion.
Meanwhile, as you may have heard, the Reds called up Cuban fireballer Aroldis Chapman on Tuesday, a day ahead of roster expansion, in order to make him eligible for the postseason. Chapman, a starter working out of the pen with flat-out filthy stuff, could prove to be the most dominant reliever in an already strong Reds pen. Given the ability of Cincinnati's NL-best offense to put up runs, an added ability to protect leads should give the Reds an additional edge.
Prediction: Reds over Cardinals
First place: Padres
Contenders: Giants (4 GB); Rockies (7 GB)
Expected to spend the season in the division's basement, the Padres have stood alone in first place since June 18 and spent only four days below the top since April 20. The time has long since passed that one might have expected a course correction, but San Diego's current five-game losing streak is their longest of the season, and they have just five games remaining against teams with losing records: Wednesday's finale against the Diamondbacks and four in late September against the Cubs.
The Giants, by comparison, have nine games left against losers (three each against the D'Backs, Cubs, and Brewers), and seven head-to-head with the Padres, including the final three of the season in San Francisco. The Padres hold a 9-2 advantage in the season series, which more than accounts for the difference in the division. Of course, another way to look at it is that, when not playing each other, the Giants have a better record than the Padres.
San Diego's early success was based almost entirely on the ability to keep opponents from scoring, but through almost constant tweaking, the Padres have managed to bring their offense up above the league average. Believe it or not, they've scored 4.62 runs per game since the start of July, a rate that would rank fifth in the league had they been producing at that clip that all season. The Giants, a remarkably similar team built around strong pitching and barely enough offense to get by, have similarly worked to upgrade their offense by installing rookie Buster Posey behind the plate and signing seemingly every veteran outfielder who was designated for assignment by another team.
The problem for the Giants is that their pitching isn't holding up. They've allowed 4.93 runs per game in August, and ace Tim Lincecum is 0-4 with a 9.00 ERA in his last four starts, averaging fewer than five innings in those four turns. Barry Zito has been even worse, going 0-4 with a 9.64 ERA in his last four starts. While Lincecum is still striking batters out (20 in his last 19 innings), Zito has walked 10 men and has only eight Ks in his four turns.
Rookie Madison Bumgarner (5-4, 3.76 ERA) has arrived to help solidify the rotation, but the Giants without an effective Lincecum are not a playoff team. The recent poor performances by Lincecum and Zito are a much larger problem for the Giants than the need to control the workload of rookie ace Mat Latos (13-5, 2.29 ERA) presents the Padres.
Prediction: Padres over Giants
First place: Phillies
Contenders: Giants (1-1/2 GB), Cardinals (4 GB), Rockies (4-1/2 GB), Dodgers (6-1/2 GB)
The NL East seems most likely to produce the wild card, simply because of the relative quality of the top two teams in that division. The Giants are obviously right there in the standings, but they led the wild card race for three weeks before the Phillies passed them on August 14 and are headed in the wrong direction as evidenced by their 13-15 record in August. The Cardinals are falling even faster.
The Dodgers are the only one of the five teams listed here that doesn't finish the season playing another contender. (On the final weekend, the Phillies play the Braves, the Giants take on the Padres, and the Cardinals and Rockies meet.) However, the Dodgers are in fifth place in this race, have a losing record over the last three months (39-43 since June 1), and have been without shortstop Rafael Furcal (.316/.380/.492) since early August due to a reoccurrence of his back problems. They've also sent Manny Ramirez and his team-best .311/.405/.510 line to the White Sox in a salary dump.
The Rockies have just six games left against non-contenders (provided you count the Dodgers as a contender). Colorado had a negative run differential (-4) in August, and starting third baseman Ian Stewart (.264/.343/.458) just hit the DL on Monday. Given the depth of the field, I wouldn't take the Rockies or Dodgers too seriously.
My preseason picks in the NL had the Phillies and Reds wining their divisions and the Braves taking the wild card. Five months later, I still expect those three teams to reach the postseason.
Prediction: Braves over Giants
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