Three-Team NL Central Race Starts Final Month of MLB Season

The Brewers, Cardinals and Pirates

While the Milwaukee Brewers have held the lead in the National League Central division for nearly every day this season, going into the final month they are in a first place tie with the St. Louis Cardinals.  The Pittsburgh Pirates sit just two games back of the Brewers and Cardinals entering the final month, as each of these teams has done some things well, and done some other things poorly this season, which has resulted in the race being close.  All three teams have more than one star player offensively, and they all typically play solid defense, but each team has had their lapses this season, which has contributed to poor play at times.  A season ago the Pirates were so good at protecting leads, but much has changed in 2014 as the Pirates have found it a struggle at times when trying to protect a lead within a ballgame.  Both the Brewers and Cardinals have had some struggles along the way when trying to protect leads, but overall they have been above the average in their abilities to close out wins.  Going into the final month, it will be interesting to see which team can put on display more of their strengths and less of their weaknesses as each of the three teams tries to deliver their best efforts in crunch time.

The Brewers

The Brewers strength is the depth of their offense, as they have solid power hitting contributors up and down their lineup, which plays very well in their hitter-friendly home ballpark.  Carlos Gomez, Ryan Braun and Jonathan Lucroy have been the team’s most consistent hitters this season while alternating different spots in the lineup, either at the top or in run producing roles in the middle of the Brewers’ lineup.  While the Brewers do have the starting pitching staff of a true contender, the closest pitcher that they have to being an ace on their roster is veteran Yovani Gallardo.  While Gallardo has kept his team in nearly every ballgame, and pitched a large innings load for the Brewers this season, he had to try to overcome a loss in fastball velocity this season as he has taken on a large innings load in the early stages of his career.  Youngster Wily Peralta is a 15 game winner for the Brewers this season, but recently he has been hit hard as he experienced some late season inconsistencies.  Youngsters Jimmy Nelson and Mike Fiers help to round out the Brewers staff that includes veteran Kyle Lohse, but most of these guys are middle of the rotation starters who need plenty of offensive support in order to win ballgames.  The Brewers bullpen has been solid this season as they have not struggled much to close out late inning leads, and the addition of Jonathan Broxton in a waiver trade with the Reds should help to further stabilize the position of their late inning relief staff.

The Cardinals

The Cardinals strength this season has been their ability to count on veteran pitchers Adam Wainwright and Lance Lynn to earn wins in a high percentage of the games that they start.  For a team that has struggled to score runs at times, it is not very surprising that the Cardinals have a negative run differential this season, but it is surprising that they have a negative run differential even though they are currently ten games above .500.  Matt Adams, Matt Carpenter, Matt Holliday and Yadier Molina have been the most consistent contributors for the Cardinals offense this season, but the shortstop position with Jhonny Peralta leading the Cardinals team in homeruns helps to explain some of their offensive inconsistency.  This season the Cardinals have been near the bottom of the National League in runs scored because they do not hit many homeruns, and they do not steal many bases.  They have done a nice job of closing out victories though, with an outstanding season from setup man Pat Neshek and another solid season from closer Trevor Rosenthal.  If the Cardinals are not able to put together a strong month of September and take a roster spot, the indicators will have been there with the negative run differential and poor offensive effort overall throughout the 2014 season.

The Pirates

The Pirates strength this season has been their ability to get on base as a team, with a National League leading .329 on base percentage going into the final month of the season.  Offensively the Pirates are led by young stars in centerfielder Andrew McCutchen and second basemen Neil Walker, but unlike in past seasons they have a strong complement of secondary stars behind them.  While corner infielder Pedro Alvarez has had a disappointing season, Josh Harrison has emerged as the Pirates starting third basemen and leadoff man, along with another strong season from left fielder Starling Marte.  Former Blue Jays top prospect Travis Snider, has had a breakout season as a power hitting outfielder in Pittsburgh, and he is not alone as the Pirates have five players on the roster to hit 10 or more homeruns so far this season.  They also have several others threatening to reach and pass that total in the final month of the season.  The Pirates starting pitching staff has suffered from season long inconsistency, but the recent return of the pitching staff’s young star in Gerrit Cole, has seemed to have a stabilizing effect on the pitching staff.  Last year’s Pirates team was nearly unbeatable when they had a lead going into the later innings of a ballgame, but this year has been the complete opposite as the Pirates have only completed 38 saves in 61 opportunities to lead the league with 23 blown saves on the season.  Not all of these blown saves have resulted in losses for the Pirates, but if the Pirates fall short of their postseason goals in September, the relief pitching issues they have will likely have been a factor.

Conclusion

With three very good baseball teams in the National League Central for a second straight season, the division could once again feature three teams that qualify for the postseason in the final month.  However with two second place teams from the other National League divisions, which are right in the middle of the wildcard race, it is less likely that three National League Central teams will make the playoffs this season.  With this being a factor, all three teams will be giving it their best effort to win the division title outright rather than having to rely on other teams for help in order to clinch a wildcard berth.  This race creates the best level of competitive baseball over one month of the season, and the fans of National League Central teams will get to witness first hand which team has it and which teams will ultimately fall short of the division crown.  With less than thirty games to go, the season long marathon now turns into a sprint for the finish line.

Can the Oakland A’s Win the AL West?

Although the game is under protest by the Oakland A’s and manager Bob Melvin, as it stands now, the LA Angels own a 4-3, 10th inning walk-off win against their division rivals. This translates to an 80-53 record for the Angels and a two-game lead over the A’s at 78-55.

The game is under protest due to a ninth inning obstruction call that went against Oakland and was upheld by umpire Greg Gibson and crew chief Gerry Davis. Howie Kendrick collected the game-winning RBI with a sacrifice fly in the 10th off A’s reliever Ryan Cook (1-2).

The A’s did put up quite a fight in the game, typical of their outstanding season. After struggling through the first three innings, staff ace Sonny Gray retired the next 12 batters to finish with seven innings, allowing three runs off six hits and three walks. Gray’s season record is an impressive 13-7 with 3.03 ERA and 1.21 WHIP over 178 innings pitched.

But the A’s are struggling as a team since the All Star break. They are 19-19 since the break and have lost 11 of their last 17. The A’s still maintain a 5-1/2 game lead on the top Wild Card spot over Detroit and Seattle. LA has won seven of ten and appear to be the hot team right now, although the loss of staff ace Garrett Richards could diminish their chances of staying on top.

Although the acquisition of starter John Lester from Boston has certainly improved the A’s pitching staff and their team overall, the loss of Yoenis Cespedes has hurt the offense. In 24 games with the Red Sox, Cespedes is batting .280 with four doubles, four home runs and 20 RBI’s. Although not staggering numbers by any stretch, the A’s could use his bat right now.

Derek Norris is leading the team offensively with a .270 BA. Josh Donaldson is leading in power numbers with 26 homers and 88 RBI’s, but is only batting .255. The offense will have to pick it up in September to support the pitching staff if they want to challenge the Angels for the AL West crown.

Cardinals Grab Former Closer Axford For Bullpen Security

The St. Louis Cardinals added depth to their bullpen for September and the playoffs by acquiring John Axford from the Milwaukee Brewers. The Cards will send the Brewers a player to be named later. Axford, 30, led the NL in saves in 2011, but has struggled ever since. Last year, he had 35 saves but also blew 9 save opportunities. He also had an ERA of 4.67 and WHiP of 1.442, much worse than his previous year’s 1.95 ERA and 1.140 WHiP.

Axford started this season as the closer, but quickly lost the job as he blew a save and lost two other games within the first week. Since then, he has been mired in a middle-relief role trying to figure things out. For the season, Axford is 6-7 with a 4.45 ERA and 1.555 WHiP. He has 54 strikeouts in 54.2 innings. His strikeout rate is at a career low. He’s also allowed more hits than innings for the first time in his career.

With Jim Henderson now firmly entrenched as the closer in Milwaukee, the Brewers decided to move on from Axford. For the Cards, he provides them with some security in the pen and a guy who can still strikeout batters. He’s a low-risk pickup for the rest of the season and isn’t going to cost them a real prospect or much money the rest of the year (he’s owed about $1 million for the rest of the season.) If he doesn’t pan out, they will just non-tender him at the end of the season and let him sign elsewhere.

Cards GM John Mozeliak had this to say about the move today: “John is a reliever that offers experience as both a setup man and closer. He’s also a pitcher who brings familiarity with the N.L. Central, pennant race baseball and the postseason.”

Axford will join the team tonight as they start a road series with division rivals Pittsburgh. Currently, the Cardinals are one game up on the Pirates in the NL Central.

Ryan Braun Reportedly Contacted Multiple MLB Stars to Discredit Urine Collector

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On Saturday, I wrote a piece about Ryan Braun seeking redemption from MLB officials, fellow players and fans. Well, Jeff Passan at Yahoo Sports posted an article Sunday evening detailing Braun’s attempts to get other star players to back him publicly in early 2012. He apparently told the other players that the urine sample collector for his failed drug test, Dino Laurenzi, Jr., was a known anti-Semite and a Chicago Cubs fan. Braun is Jewish and plays for the Milwaukee Brewers.

Per Yahoo Sports’ sources, Braun was looking to have star players such as Troy Tulowitzki, Joey Votto and Matt Kemp stand with him in solidarity. He did this initially when he thought he might lose his appeal, but still sought their support after he was able to successfully appeal his positive drug test in 2012.  At his first press conference at spring training that year, he even invited these players, and other non-teammates, to attend. None of them showed.

To try to gain sympathy from the other players, Braun went out of his way sully Laurenzi’s reputation. He told them that he heard that Laurenzi was an anti-Semite, implying that he tampered with the urine sample to produce a positive test. He also stated that Laurenzi was a long-time Chicago Cubs fan, and was not fond of the division rival Milwaukee Brewers, thus offering another implied reason why he’d tamper with the sample.

In Braun’s press conference after his successful appeal, he definitely seemed to imply that the sample collector had tampered with the urine sample. This excerpt says it all: “When FedEx received the samples, it then creates a chain of custody at the FedEx location where he eventually brought my sample to,” Braun said in the statement. “It would have been stored in a temperature-controlled environment, and FedEx is used to handling clinical packaging. But most importantly, you then would become a number and no longer a name. So when we provide our samples, there is a number and no longer a name associated with the sample. That way there can’t be any bias — whether it’s with FedEx, while it’s traveling, at the lab in Montreal, in any way — based on somebody’s race, religion, ethnicity, what team they play for, whatever the case may be. As players, the confidentiality of this process is extremely important. It’s always been extremely important, because the only way for the process to succeed is for the confidentiality and the chain of custody to work. Why he didn’t bring it in, I don’t know. On the day that he did finally bring it in, FedEx opened at 7:30. Why didn’t he bring it in until 1:30? I can’t answer that question. Why was there zero documentation? What could have possibly happened to it during that 44-hour period? There were a lot of things that we learned about the collector, about the collection process, about the way that the entire thing worked that made us very concerned and very suspicious about what could have actually happened.”

If Braun is really interested in showing contrition and apologizing to the people he lied to and deceived, he needs to make a special point to speak directly to Laurenzi. This is a man he unfairly maligned and took unnecessary shots at, all in an attempt to continue to deceive everyone. Braun was selfishly looking out for his own interests, and didn’t care about possibly destroying another man’s life in that quest. The Braun apology tour is supposed to start as early as Monday. He better start it off by begging forgiveness from Laurenzi.