NL Central Heat Index, Week #4

My weekly diary of the division's ups and downs

1. Milwaukee Brewers 15-9 (Last week: 2-1 @ Chicago, 2-1 @ Houston)

     Hitting  Team batting average: .267   Runs scored: 110   Home runs: 29   Stolen bases: 13
     Pitching  Team ERA: 3.92   Runs allowed: 113   Walks: 71   Strikeouts: 183
     Fielding  Team fielding %: .979   Errors: 19   Double plays: 24

     If a team can go only as far as its pitching will take it, exactly what is Milwaukee's destination? This week, we saw Jeff Suppan blank Chicago for eight innings, Chris Capuano (4-0) give Houston one measly run over six innings, and Francisco Cordero (0.00 ERA) pick up his league-leading 10th save. We also saw Dave Bush flame out vs. the Astros, the bullpen implode vs. the Cubs, and Claudio Vargas in almost constant trouble (including three bases-loaded jams) vs. Houston. Go figure: Milwaukee has allowed more runs than it's scored, yet is 15-9 and comfortably in first place in the NL Central. Highlight: Prince Fielder hit a pair of home runs to help beat the Cubs on Monday, the third time he's had a multi-homer game at Wrigley Field. The much-injured Ben Sheets had to leave a game vs. the Cubs with a pulled groin, and Ned Yost broke a collarbone while jogging in Wrigleyville. The Brewers have hit 29 home runs, third in the NL, and are 13-0 when they have a lead after seven innings. Tony Graffanino: "We're playing good baseball, and it's funny because we're not doing anything outstanding."

2. Pittsburgh Pirates 11-12 (Last week: 3-0 vs. Houston, 1-2 vs. Cincinnati)

     Hitting  Team batting average: .238   Runs scored: 83   Home runs: 17   Stolen bases: 7
     Pitching  Team ERA: 4.22   Runs allowed: 104   Walks: 79   Strikeouts: 128
     Fielding  Team fielding %: .987   Errors: 12   Double plays: 31

     A week of sweetness ended on a sour note, as the Pirates swept Houston for the second time this month but finished with two lopsided losses to Cincinnati. The back of Pittsburgh's rotation dominated the Astros; Paul Maholm threw a complete-game shut-out, Zach Duke allowed one run over seven innings, and Tony Armas, who started the week with an ERA of 18.90, gave up one run in six innings. Pittsburgh won its fifth straight game when Ian Snell (1.59 ERA) blanked the Reds for seven innings. But when the Pirates needed runs, they couldn't get them. Yes, they beat the Astros three times, but they were out-hit in two of the games. Freddy Sanchez, last season's batting champ, was 1-for-19 for the week. Brad Eldred ended a 0-for-17 streak with a home run vs. the Astros. As fate would have it, Adam LaRoche, hitting .106 at the time, got the game-winning hit in the 16th inning vs. Houston. The only team in the NL hitting worse than Pittsburgh (.238) is Washington (.234). Highlight: Ryan Doumit, called up this week from AAA Indianapolis, went 4-for-4 on Sunday vs. Houston, with a home run, two RBI, and two runs scored. John Grabow returned from the DL, and Xavier Nady missed most of the week while nursing a hamstring injury. Salomon Torres (7.20 ERA) picked up his seventh save, but he allowed runs in all three of his appearances in Week #4. Torres: "When your mind is not in the right place, that's when you have problems."

3. Chicago Cubs 10-13 (Last week: 1-2 vs. Milwaukee, 2-0 @ St. Louis)

     Hitting  Team batting average: .271   Runs scored: 110   Home runs: 19   Stolen bases: 12
     Pitching  Team ERA: 3.61   Runs allowed: 88   Walks: 80    Strikeouts: 170
     Fielding  Team fielding %: .987   Errors: 11   Double plays: 15

     Chicago has the division's top batting average, top fielding percentage, and lowest ERA. The question: Why is this team in Milwaukee's rear-view mirror? It's a question that's bewildered Lou Piniella, who fears that he's put too much pressure on his players. "If I put too many expectations on them as a manager," he said, "I apologize." Maybe it's because the Cubs began the season 0-for-8 in games decided by one or two runs, a streak that ended when they beat St. Louis 5-3 on Friday. Highlight: Jason Marquis beat the Cardinals, who left him off their post-season roster last year, for the second time in 2007, allowing three runs in seven-plus innings. Alfonso Soriano returned to the lineup on Monday, but he still hasn't hit a home run and is batting .262. Derrek Lee is hitting .391, number two in the NL, and he's reached base safely in all 23 games the Cubs have played this season. Aramis Ramirez hit his 200th home run, and Rich Hill, Ted Lilly, and Marquis are among the top 10 in NL ERA. MIA: Mark "the Employee" Prior had shoulder surgery and was declared out for the season, though I can't remember when he was in. The Cubs demoted Wade Miller to the DL, mostly because his pitching was hurting the team.

4. Cincinnati Reds 11-13 (Last week: 1-2 @ St. Louis, 2-1 @ Pittsburgh)

     Hitting  Team batting average: .246   Runs scored: 109   Home runs: 26   Stolen bases: 19
     Pitching  Team ERA: 3.80   Runs allowed: 109   Walks: 55   Strikeouts: 174
     Fielding  Team fielding %: .979   Errors: 19   Double plays: 22

     Cincinnati can't find a rhythm. The Reds are hitting, but not quite enough. They're pitching, but not quite enough. They win a couple, they lose a couple. Aaron Harang is 4-0, Eric Milton is 0-4. Bronson Arroyo has pitched into the seventh inning in five starts and still doesn't have a win to show for it. In games this week, the Reds scored 10, 2, 5, 1, 8, and 9 runs. Fresh after signing a contract extension, Ryan Freel was given a two-game rest after his batting average dropped to .253. Edwin Encarnacion got two hits on Saturday and three on Sunday, raising his batting average to .221. Highlight: Alex Gonzalez went 13-for-25 in Week #4, including a pair of home runs and six RBI, and his batting average soared from .241 to .329. Matt Belisle (3-1) pitched the first complete game of his career, allowing one run on five hits to Pittsburgh. Ken Griffey hit his first home run of the season and number 564 of his career, moving ahead of Reggie Jackson into 10th place on the all-time list, but he spent most of the week on the bench due to hard-to-spell illnesses (diverticulitis and pleurisy). The Reds have stolen 19 bases, third in the NL. The Reds shipped Rheal Cormier out of town and recalled Brad Salmon from AAA Louisville. Jerry Narron: "It seems like other ball clubs are getting hits when they need them, and we haven't."

5. St. Louis Cardinals 10-13 (Last week: 2-1 vs. Cincinnati, 0-2 vs. Chicago)

     Hitting  Team batting average: .249   Runs scored: 81   Home runs: 16   Stolen bases: 6
     Pitching  Team ERA: 4.06   Runs allowed: 104   Walks: 73   Strikeouts: 134
     Fielding  Team fielding %: .982   Errors: 16   Double plays: 22

     Where are you, Chris Carpenter? St. Louis gave up 30 runs in Week #4, an average of six per game, and its starting rotation was the problem. Against Cincinnati, Kip Wells gave up eight runs (including three home runs) in less than five innings, and Randy Keisler dug his team a 4-0 hole. Against Chicago, Anthony Reyes allowed a big inning in his fourth consecutive start, and Adam Wainwright, who's 0-2 (with an ERA approaching 10.00) in his last three starts, let the Cubs post seven runs in one inning. Braden Looper (1.91 ERA) has emerged as the team's only dependable starter. Tony La Russa took out some of his frustration on a local newspaper, refusing to talk to its reporters because of an article critical of the Cubs. Keisler, who was filling in for Carpenter, was sent to AAA Memphis. Highlight: In Thursday's comeback win vs. the Reds, five players got two or more hits, and relievers Brad Thompson, Russ Springer, Ryan Franklin, and Jason Isringhausen combined to allow one run in more than five innings. Albert Pujols hit home run number 256, passing Ken Boyer for second all-time in St. Louis history. St. Louis is 3-9 at home in 2007. Adam Kennedy: "The last couple of games, we haven't played very well." On Saturday against the Cubs, Josh Hancock pitched three innings, allowing one run and two hits. Hancock died in an auto accident after the game. La Russa on Hancock's death: "Trust me when I tell you, this is brutal to go through."

6. Houston Astros 10-13 (Last week: 0-1 @ Philadelphia, 0-3 @ Pittsburgh, 1-2 vs. Milwaukee)

     Hitting  Team batting average: .245   Runs scored: 99   Home runs: 20   Stolen bases: 13
     Pitching  Team ERA: 4.01   Runs allowed: 104   Walks: 80    Strikeouts: 158
     Fielding  Team fielding %: .984   Errors: 15   Double plays: 20

     Without question, Houston is the streakiest team in the NL Central. The Astros started the season 1-5, then went 8-1, and most recently lost seven straight. For the second time this season, they were swept by Pittsburgh, even though Woody Williams, Matt Albers, and Wandy Rodriguez delivered quality starts. The Astros' bats went soft vs. Pittsburgh, as they scored only six runs in 34 innings. Lance Berkman (.253) hasn't hit all year, and Carlos Lee's batting average has fallen to .250. Craig Biggio, Morgan Ensberg, and Adam Everett are all hitting .250 or worse. After the seventh loss, the team's top brass went looking for a fall guy and found him in Chris Burke, sending him and his .219 batting average to the bench. It's possible that Burke's fate was sealed on Tuesday vs. Pittsburgh, when he misplayed a fly ball, costing the Astros a run, and botched a hit-and-run play, erasing a baserunner. Still, his demotion angered some Astros; Berkman called it a "horrible move" and said, "I think it sends the wrong message to the team." Highlight: In Wednesday's 16-inning loss to Pittsburgh, the Astros' bullpen threw eight scoreless frames before allowing the winning run. Brad Lidge made four appearances this week without allowing a run. MIA: Berkman appeared to be playing in a fog, as he made awful base-running blunders in consecutive games vs. Milwaukee. Houston brought up Hunter Pence from AAA Round Rock to replace Burke in center field, and Rick White, who compiled an ERA of 1.54 in 11-plus innings, went on the DL with a strained oblique.

     My error: Last week I reported that Pittsburgh's road record was 7-7. In fact, it was 7-6.

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