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Baseball - National League East Pennant Race


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The Wild, Wild East
AL and NL Eastern divisions tighten up

Rick Gagliano | 7/25/05

Looking for a pennant race? Look no further than the Eastern divisions in the American and National Leagues.

As one might suspect, the Red Sox and Yankees are battling for top honors in the AL East, but lurking just a few games back are the formerly-leading Baltimore Orioles and surprising Toronto Blue Jays. The O's and Jays are 3 1/2 and 5 games behind the Red Sox, respectively. The Yankees are 1 1/2 back and looking longingly at another AL East title.

The National League East is even more crowded near the top, with all five teams within striking distance. Through Sunday's games, the Washington Nationals and Atlanta Braves are tied for the lead at 55-44. The Phillies are 3 back, the Mets, 3 1/2, and the Florida Marlins trail by only 4 1/2 games.

While nobody thought the NL East was going to be a runaway, not many thought it would be this close either. Just a few weeks ago the Mets and Phillies were being given up for dead, but a resurgence after the All-Star break has brought both squads back into contention.

Here's a breakdown of what each team will need to do to win their division:

Washington Nationals: What everybody overlooked when this upstart franchise took root in D.C. was the wisdom and leadership of manager Frank Robinson. For years up in Montreal, Robinson quietly took what he was given (not much) and did his best to put a quality product on the field day in and day out. Now in his new digs with a real fan base and some commitment from ownership, Robinson has actually produced what everyone always knew he could - a contender.

This team is no fluke. The Nationals are one of the deepest teams in the division. The roster is full of capable everyday veteran players and peppered with the essence of role players. Most of the offense comes from Jose Guillen, Vinny Castilla, Brad Wilkerson and recent addition Preston Wilson from Colorado. While these guys won't exactly overpower anybody, they can score enough runs to keep them in games.

Pitching is the Nationals' strong point. Anchored by Livan Hernandez (12-4), the staff has a combined ERA of 3.84, and boasts one of the league's top closers in Chad Cordero, sporting a 1.03 ERA with 34 saves in 37 chances. Cordero is usually lights out if the starters and short men (Luis Ayala and Gary Majewski) can handle the 7th and 8th innings. Ayala has been the steadiest performer of the bunch, compiling a 7-6 record in 54 appearances. His 2.95 ERA is a bit better than respectable and his K-BB ratio is an excellent 31-9.

If the Nationals can continue to get solid performances from any starters other than Hernandez, they'll be in this until the finish. Esteban Loaiza and Tony Armas have struggled at times, but Armas hurled a 7-inning one-hitter on Saturday for his 5th win, so he might be coming around at the right time. John Patterson is one of the best kept secrets in the National League. In 18 starts he's only 4-2, despite an ERA of 2.58 and 107 Ks in 111 innings. Seven times this season Patterson has pitched 5 innings or more, given up 2 runs or less and gotten no decision. With any kind of run support, he could easily be 10-2 right now.

What they need to win: Win their home games in September and October. From 9/2 to 10/2, the Nationals have 16 home games against NL East rivals, including 6 against the Phillies. If they're close and can win 11 or 12 of these critical games, the flag is theirs.

Atlanta Braves: As usual, the Braves are relying on solid pitching to remain in contention. The team ERA of 3.72 is the lowest in the division and third in the National League, behind St. Louis and Houston. John Smoltz has made the transition from starter to closer back to starter without a hitch and leads the team with 11 wins. Tim Hudson, acquired from Oakland in the off-season, was supposed to step in as the ace, but has largely been a disappointment, going 7-5 in 16 starts. After those two, Horacio Ramirez and Mike Hampton have been the most reliable, though Ramirez has struggled with his control and also has allowed a team-high 20 homers.

The closers have been less than efficient, with Dan Kolb and Chris Reitsma sharing the job. Combined, they have only 21 saves and have blown 8 (4 each). Kolb came over from Milwaukee as the #1 closer, but his ERA has hovered around 5.00 all year and he's walked just one less batter than he's struck out (24-25). Without a reliable bullpen, the Braves may wilt in the heat of an extended pennant drive and it's a real problem. They may be looking for bullpen help before the trading deadline.

At the plate, the Braves would be nowhere without Andruw Jones, who leads the team in HRs (32) and RBI (77). After him, the drop-off in power production is severe, with only Adam LaRoche (13 and 56) within shouting distance. The only reason the Braves are still in the hunt is their pitching. Someday, there should be a Hall of Fame spot reserved for pitching coach Leo Mazzoni. He's more than proved his worth over the years.

What they need to win: Find a closer, trade for another run-producing bat. Those are tall orders to fill and the Braves don't really have much to offer in the way of trade bait. Their reign as the supreme team in the NL East may be over.

New York Mets: If ever a team was accused of underachieving, it would be this squad and if they don't win the division, they may be the wild card. Their starting pitching is likely the envy of just about every other team in either league: Pedro Martinez, Tom Glavine, Kris Benson, Victor Zambrano and Kaz Ishii. All of these guys are capable of winning at least 15 games, but only Pedro is close, with 12. Ishii has been especially horrible at 3-8 with a 5.15 ERA. Glavine is excusable, considering his age, but he'll be needed down the stretch. Benson has been solid lately and should continue to improve.

Up and down the lineup, these Mets are dangerous. After leadoff hitter Jose Reyes - who leads the league in stolen bases (36) despite a dull .295 on base percentage - opposing pitchers have to find their way though Carlos Beltran, Mike Cameron, Cliff Floyd, Mike Piazza and David Wright, the 2nd year 3B who has provided an extra dose of offense with 14 HRs and 50 RBI to go with his .294 BA. Besides maybe the Cardinals, there isn't a better lineup 2-6 in the league.

Despite all the positives, the Mets are still 3 1/2 back and they have nobody to blame but themselves. This is just a team that needs to find the right chemistry and a long winning streak will quickly follow. If any team in the NL East can pull away from the rest, it's the Mets. Their only weak spot may be in the bullpen, where Bradon Looper has been adequate, getting 22 saves in 26 opportunities. Short relief is dependent on the arms of Roberto Hernandez (1.13 ERA and 43 Ks in 44 innings) and Aaron Heilman (66 Ks in 72 innings). Either of these guys can provide an inning or two at any time.

What they need to win: Bludgeon your opponents. Win more games 8-6, 10-4, etc. This lineup is loaded, so the Mets need to win games against weaker pitchers. If they win more than 50% of those games and most of the games Benson or Martinez start, the division is theirs for the taking.

Philadelphia Phillies: This team is doing it with mirrors. Their big thumper, Jim Thome, has been nagged by injuries and is currently on the DL. Not that it mattered much, as Thome has not performed when he's been even relatively healthy. His .207 average, 7 homers and 30 RBI are an embarrassment. He'd likely be doing everyone a favor by staying injured and giving the team an excuse for failure.

The bright spots for the Phillies have been Bobby Abreu, Pat Burrell and 2nd baseman Chris Utley, who has 14 knocks and 54 RBI to go with his .312 BA. Abreu has 21 homers and Burrell, 18, so the Phils aren't exactly hammering the ball.

Of the starting pitchers, only Brett Myers (8-5, 3.42 ERA) has been solid. Vicente Padilla, Cory Lidle and Jon Lieber have been up and down while the Phillies' ace, Randy Wolf, has been lost for the season due to injury.

The Phils have one of the top closers in the league in Billy Wagner, who has put up exceptional numbers despite limited chances. Wagner is 3-1 with a 2.09 ERA. He's struck out 49 while walking only 14 in 47 innings. He's converted 21 of 23 save opportunities. If the starters besides Myers can get through the sixth inning, they have a shot in most games, but that hasn't been the case, and that does not bode well for the remainder of the season.

What they need to win: Hope that Thome comes back and hits 30-35 homers in August and September. With their pitching, the Phillies don't stand much of a chance despite being in the thick of things right now.

Florida Marlins: Similar to the Mets, the Marlins are loaded with talent in both pitching and at the plate. Having traded Al Leiter away, the starting five is now Josh Beckett, A. J. Burnett, Dontrelle Willis, Brian Moehler and rookie Jason Vargas. All five have ERAs under 3.50, while Willis and Beckett lead the team in victories with 13 and 9, respectively. This is a starting staff that can go deep into games and if they get hot, the Marlins could rise from last to first in the blink of an eye.

At the plate, outfielder Miguel Cabrera is having an MVP-like season, batting .350 (2nd in the league), with 23 homers (8th) and 74 RBI (7th). Right behind him in the lineup is Carlos Delgado, with 21 homers and 85 RBI. Leadoff man, Juan Pierre, is having his usual solid season, swiping 31 bases, though only hitting .277.

The Marlins get plenty of help throughout their lineup from the likes of Juan Encarnacion, Alex Gonzalez and Luis Castillo, all solid veteran players. Third baseman Mike Lowell has not measured up this season. After slumping down the stretch badly last year, Lowell has only knocked in 43 runs on a paltry 6 homers. His batting average is a career low .234. Manager Jack McKeon has already demoted Lowell to sixth or seventh in the lineup, and if he doesn't start producing, he could be out of a job, with either Cabrera moving back to the hot corner or Lenny Harris taking over. Either way, McKeon has options.

In the late stages of games, the Marlins look to Todd Jones, who has recorded 16 saves in 18 chances. Jones' ERA is a minuscule 1.49 and his K-BB ratio is exactly 3-1. He's dependable, and the middle relievers, especially Jim Mecir and Guillermo Mota, can get most games into the ninth.

What they need to win: The Marlins need to keep their hands on A. J. Burnett, whom they've been bandying about as trade bait for the last month. A. J. will be necessary down the stretch in September, even though he will be a free agent at season's end. Florida has the most balanced lineup in the division and just needs to settle into playing sound, fundamental baseball. A little extra production from Lowell and catcher Paul LoDuca will keep them right in the thick of things.

On Thursday, July 28, I'll take a look at the AL East contenders: the Yankees, Red Sox, Orioles and Blue Jays. VIEW ARTICLE HERE.