Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Pitching takes over NL's first half

Gaze over the pitching staff for the National League's All-Star roster and that will surely acknowledge the ballclubs making a case for a potential playoff push in the second half.
Starting pitchers have set their place at the table and are not the only ones making headlines at the All-Star break, with several other National League storylines picking up steam such as managerial changes, bankruptcy in Hollywood and possibly the Pittsburgh Pirates putting to rest a string of 18 consecutive losing seasons.
Strong arms have led Philadelphia, San Francisco and Atlanta to the top of the heap in the Senior Circuit, while the Phillies, Giants, Brewers and Cardinals are currently leading their respective divisions. Milwaukee and St. Louis are tied atop the NL Central. So far the Phillies have lived up to their offseason billing as the best team in baseball courtesy of a formidable rotation led by ace Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels.
All three hurlers will represent the Phillies in the All-Star Game and are joined by San Francisco starters Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Ryan Vogelsong and black-bearded closer Brian Wilson. This season the defending World Series champion Giants are using exactly what led them to a title a year ago: Stingy pitching and opportune hitting. Atlanta has taken a page out of San Francisco's recipe book for success with All-Star pitchers Jair Jurrjens, Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel enjoying breakout seasons.
The Braves currently lead the NL Wild Card and have been right on the Phillies' tail in the NL East. Standing 3 1/2 games off the pace in the division, the Braves have received big boosts from starters Tommy Hanson, Brandon Beachy and sometimes Derek Lowe. Jurrjens, however, is the cream of the crop in Atlanta's rotation with an NL-leading 1.87 earned run average and 12 wins (12-3). Jurrjens is one win behind New York Yankees lefty CC Sabathia for the major league lead in victories, while Angels ace Jered Weaver owns an MLB-best 1.86 ERA. Jurrjens was beaten out by Halladay for the starting nod Tuesday night in the Mid-Summer Classic.
"It would have been a super honor to get the start," Jurrjens said. "But, you know, it's Halladay. You cannot go wrong with him. Like I've been telling people, I had my mind set that there was a chance I wasn't going to get it. When I got the news, I wasn't surprised about it."
Giants skipper Bruce Bochy made the decision to start Halladay, but also opted to take Kimbrel, who leads the majors in saves (28) and reliever strikeouts (70). Bochy tabbed Kimbrel over Hanson because he wanted to have more depth in the back end of the bullpen. Bochy, of course, added his own closer in Wilson to the NL All-Star roster since he's been able to close out games for San Francisco's talented rotation, which is the main acumen for its three-game lead over Arizona in the National League West. The Giants are fourth in the majors with a 3.19 ERA, while Philadelphia and Atlanta are first and second with earned run averages of 3.02 and 3.11, respectively.
Perhaps the biggest surprise among the ERA leaders is Pittsburgh. With a 3.44 earned run average, good enough for eighth in the majors, the Pirates are striving to finish above .500 and reach the postseason since the 1992 campaign. The nearly 20-year drought has left fans disenchanted with a franchise that has shipped off the likes of Aramis Ramirez, Jason Bay, Freddy Sanchez and several others throughout the years. This year it's been All-Star Kevin Correia (11-7), Charlie Morton (7-5) and Jeff Karstens (7-4) keeping the Pirates within striking distance in the NL Central, as the Bucs sit just one game behind both Milwaukee and St. Louis in the standings.
Correia, who is one of four NL Pitchers with at least 11 wins, reliever Joel Hanrahan and center fielder Andrew McCutchen will represent the Pirates in the All-Star Game. Pittsburgh hasn't had three representatives in the mid-season extravaganza since 1990, when Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonilla and pitcher Neal Heaton were selected. The Pirates need more than just their three All-Stars to make a significant stride in the second half because Milwaukee, St. Louis and Cincinnati will not go down without a fight. Those three NL Central foes possess better hitting, a challenging task in which the Pirates will find it hard to overcome in the upcoming weeks. Pirates general manager Neal Huntington has a plan in store to make a run.
"There's two reasons you have a deep and talented farm system," Huntington said on the club's site. "The first is the direct impact that they're going to have here in Pittsburgh at the major league level. The second reason you have a deep and talented farm system is to make trades to add to your major league club when you don't have the right piece."
Getting players off of the disabled list will help too, as reliever Joe Beimel could be activated as soon as Friday. Beimel has been shelved since late May with left elbow inflammation and will be a great "addition" to the bullpen with Hanrahan already turning heads with a career-best 26 saves at the break. McCutchen has been leading the hitters with 54 RBI, 14 homers and a .291 batting average. Neil Walker leads the Buccos with 59 runs batted in to go along with eight homers and a .264 average. Shortstop Ronny Cedeno could be activated off of the DL soon as well and has been out since early July with a concussion. Young talent such as Alex Presley, Chase d'Arnaud and Mike McKenry could see their time in western Pennsylvania dwindle in the months to come.
DOING THEIR BEST WITH WHAT THEY HAVE
Two managers have been embroiled in their team's financial crisis, a pair of skippers may be too old to bear the rigors of bench duties and two more have their clubs on the verge of postseason potential.
Don Mattingly and the demise of the bankrupt Los Angeles Dodgers sent ripples through the baseball world for several reasons. Mattingly is one of baseball's legends from his playing days with the New York Yankees and bolstered his resume under the tutelage of the great Joe Torre. Primarily a sponge working under Torre with the Dodgers, Mattingly has had to deal with the franchise's money woes and a 41-51 record at the break.
Mattingly hasn't allowed the ownership situation affect his clubhouse either. Dealing with lineup changes, injured players and paying more attention to detail with pitching are only a few responsibilities under Mattingly, who has the luxury of sending first-time All-Star Matt Kemp to the outfield on a nightly basis. Kemp is one of the league leaders with 22 homers and 67 RBI, and has built a strong 1-2 punch in LA's lineup with Andre Ethier. Kemp, an MVP candidate, shared his thoughts on what Los Angeles needs to do in order to be the hunter and not the prey.
"We have all the ability in the world. I feel my team can compete with anybody in the National League or American League," Kemp said during All-Star festivities. "We need to get more big hits with runners on base. We have to score more runs. That's what we have not been doing."
Scoring runs is what New York Mets All-Star shortstop Jose Reyes is all about this season for manager Terry Collins. Collins, whose boss is also dealing with financial strife, has his club one game over the .500 mark at 46-45 and 11 games off the lead in the NL East. Reyes' resurgence coupled with injuries to both David Wright (back) and Ike Davis (ankle) have been hot topics for the Mets. Reyes is another NL MVP candidate and is first in batting average (.354), runs (65), hits (124) and triples (15), and sits second in total bases (185). It will be tough for Collins to get his club in position for a playoff run regardless of how well Reyes and Company plays.
The Florida Marlins decided to bring back former World Series-winning manager Jack McKeon when Fredi Gonzalez suddenly opted to resign. McKeon is no spring chicken and his Marlins are dead last in the NL East standings at 14 games off the pace. The lack of production by Hanley Ramirez is certainly killing the offense, as the shortstop is batting only .242 with eight homers and 37 RBI. Gaby Sanchez, Mike Stanton and Logan Morrison have been carrying the offensive load, but that will not bring back ace Josh Johnson, who's currently on the 60-day disabled list with right shoulder inflammation.
Speaking of inflammation, Jim Riggleman was so irked with the Washington Nationals he decided to go the resignation route, opening the door for former New York Mets World Series champion skipper Davey Johnson. The game hasn't passed the cerebral Johnson even though his offense may reveal otherwise. Jayson Werth took bags of money from the Nationals in the offseason and in return he is hitting to the tune of .215 with 10 homers and 31 RBI. The pitching staff will always struggle until Stephen Strasburg returns and currently Danny Espinosa leads the club with 16 homers and 52 RBI. Mike Morse has come on as well with a team-best .306 average, 15 homers and 49 RBI.
Hurdle and Brewers manager Ron Roenicke are enjoying life right now with both of their squads making a positive push for postseason play. Not only are the Pirates and Brewers turning heads in a tight NL Central race and possible suitors for big bats or arms at the trade deadline, but they have MVP-type players on the roster. McCutchen, Correia and Walker are the big dogs in the Steel City, while sluggers Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun have been keeping Milwaukee in contention. Fielder, a pending free agent, has cracked 22 homers and driven in 72 runs this season to go along with a .297 average. Braun already inked a big extension this season and is currently dealing with a balky calf. He is hitting .320 this season with 16 homers and 62 RBI.
HERE'S WHAT TO LOOK FOR IN THE SECOND HALF
Can the Phillies maintain major league baseball's best record with sporadic hitting throughout the remainder of the season? That remains to be seen for the current NL East leaders, who have been getting by easily with Halladay, Lee and Hamels. Roy Oswalt and Joe Blanton were a part of that vaunted five- man rotation until injuries caught up with the right-handers. Philly still has Ryan Howard to lead a handful of big hitters, including Chase Utley, Raul Ibanez, Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino. The 'Flyin Hawaiian is currently on the disabled list with a thumb injury.
Philadelphia must keep its distance from both the Braves and Mets in the second half because both clubs have enough firepower to overthrow the Phillies when things start to get rough. Braves All-Star catcher Brian McCann and youngster Freddie Freeman have been taking care of business in the batter's box, while Reyes is an MVP candidate and Carlos Beltran seems back to his old dominant ways. The Mets are hoping healthy returns are in store for Reyes (hamstring), Wright and Davis so they can join the All-Star Beltran.
"Right now, we're playing good baseball. I like where I am," Beltran said at the All-Star Game. "I'm having fun, and we just hope to continue to improve."
It's kind of odd not to see Albert Pujols or Chris Carpenter on the NL All- Star roster, but for St. Louis' sake Matt Holliday, Lance Berkman and Yadier Molina are handling the load for veteran skipper Tony La Russa. Pujols is back after making a quick return from a wrist fracture, cementing his legacy as a team player. Berkman has been a huge surprise for the Cards with his .290 average, 24 homers and 63 RBI -- all team highs. Kyle Lohse and Jaime Garcia have been relegated to co-aces of the St. Louis staff in the heat of a Central Division battle. The inconsistent Reds are four games out and are bound to make a strong case in the next few weeks under Joey Votto and Jay Bruce, while Pittsburgh is still dreaming of making the playoffs. Houston is arguably the worst team in baseball and the Chicago Cubs don't appear to be heading anywhere soon either.
Kirk Gibson is another Manager of the Year candidate with Arizona, which has turned it on to pull within three games of San Francisco for NL West bragging rights thanks to the help of Justin Upton and Ian Kennedy. The Giants are a tough team in both pitching and fielding, but could use more pop at the plate. Veteran Miguel Tejada and Aubrey Huff have been shouldering the load and Pablo Sandoval has been consistent since returning from hand surgery.
Never count the Rockies out since they're known for late-season miracles. Even with Carlos Gonzalez's numbers down from a year ago due to injury, the Rockies are still dangerous with him, Troy Tulowitzki and the aging Todd Helton. The Rox need Ubaldo Jimenez to get back to his 2010 form. The Dodgers are in all sorts of trouble except for Kemp and young ace Clayton Kershaw. LA making a case for the playoffs this season seems impossible, however.

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