NL East: Last to first can apply to anyone

Jun 21, 2005 1:46 AM

Logjam! That would sum up the National League East this season, one of the tightest races in recent memory.

Last week, the Mets were in last place despite being a .500 team. The Washington Senators/Expos/Nationals (take your pick) ripped off a 10-game winning streak to take over first place. This from a team that was a doormat for years before moving to Washington from Montreal over the winter. The Phillies have got hot and are right on the heels of the Nationals. The Florida Marlins are one of the top teams statistically in baseball with the second best pitching staff ERA and the third-best batting average in the NL.

All these clubs are trying to take advantage of a slump by the banged-up Braves, who are still in the mix for the division title and keeping their record streak alive. The Braves have been division champs every year since 1991, a truly remarkable run. That streak could run out, however, with so many competitive teams alive in the NL East. The one stat that stands out is pitching: Four of the five NL East teams are currently ranked in the top six in ERA. Since pitching is key to making it to the postseason, the NL East appears to offer a competitive race all summer.

NATIONALS: While SS Christian Guzman has been a bust, many of the other new players brought in have produced. That group includes OF Jose Guillen, 3B Vinny Castilla, and former Yankee Nick Johnson, who has quietly had a great season (.325, 8 HRs, 40 walks). Veteran Livan Hernandez (9-2) is the ace of a suspect starting rotation, but the bullpen is outstanding with Luis Ayala and Chad Cordero (21 saves, 1.06 ERA).

A key appears to be starter John Patterson, who has a great fastball and has pitched well thus far, despite just a 3-1 record. If he can eat up innings and solidify the starting rotation, Washington could have its first pro postseason baseball appearance since 1925. A recent 15-2 run has helped Washington turn a +23 percent return on investment (ROI) at the betting window.

PHILLIES: So where did these guys come from? An underachieving group from 2004 looked slow out of the gate this season. Pitching is certainly not the strength of this team, ranking 11th in the NL. However, the Phils can mash the ball behind sluggers Pat Burrell, Mike Lieberthal, Jim Thome and Bobby Abreu. The offense really slugs at home in their new hitter-friendly park, and notice the Phillies started 22-10 "over" the total at home.

In the AL the Orioles are trying to win with offense more than starting pitching, and the Phillies are trying to mirror that in the NL.

MARLINS: This is such a talented all-around team that it’s difficult to explain their recent slump. The pitching staff is young and hard-throwing with Josh Beckett, A.J. Burnett and Dontrelle Willis. The offense is deep and balanced, with speedsters Juan Pierre, Luis Castillo along with sluggers Miguel Cabrera, Juan Encarnacion and newcomer Carlos Delgado.

On the way to winning the World Series two years ago, the Marlins led the NL in steals. This season they are ranked 12, so Pierre and Castillo need to create a bit more havoc on the base paths.

METS: Speaking of stolen bases, the Mets lead the NL in steals. This is a high priced team that actually is playing below expectations. Mike Piazza is a shell of his former self due to age. The bullpen is poor and the starting pitching is aging and inconsistent, with the exception of newcomer Pedro Martinez. Pedro may not have the best ERA in baseball yet, but he’s having a historic season allowing just 52 hits in 95 innings with 107 Ks. If he keeps up that kind of hits allowed per innings pitched, it will be one of the greatest in baseball history for a starter.

The Mets need to get something far better from the other starters (Zambrano, Glavine, Ishii), however, who have all disappointed.

BRAVES: Atlanta was off to a 27-19 start before injuries started to take its toll. The offense has slumped badly without Chipper Jones, currently batting .248, second to last in the NL just behind the Astros. Starter Mike Hampton was enjoying a brilliant season until going on the shelf, too, teaming with John Smoltz and newcomer Tim Hudson to form a devastating starting rotation. Still, if they can get healthy, there’s no reason the Braves can’t be in the running for yet another NL East title.