Big News Rocks the NL Central Division

The pages of last week's sports news described three signature developments concerning this year's race in the National League Central division. An injury in St. Louis, a contract in Houston and the

Jun 7, 2006 at 2:06 pm

The pages of last week's sports news described three signature developments concerning this year's race in the National League Central division. An injury in St. Louis, a contract in Houston and the sudden appearance of consistent pitching in Cincinnati might have cleared the summer for an open contest with a surprising finish.

Not even a week ago, the division set about repeating its recent history as the St. Louis Cardinals blistered to the NL's best record while the Houston Astros endured their usual May slump with little hope of catching the leaders no matter how well they play down the stretch. Meanwhile, the Reds affected the collapse so confidently predicted by so many, dropping 12 of 17 games before finishing a series in Chicago.

But it all began to change on May 31. First, the Astros announced an agreement with seven-time Cy Young winner Roger Clemens to return for the second half of the season, re-uniting the club's pitching rotation and bringing to the clubhouse a sense that the inevitable and necessary final piece of their club finally is in place.

The Astros have hit with so little conviction during the past month that one wouldn't have been surprised if Clemens decided they weren't worth his trouble. But the front office offered The Rocket all the flexibility he can wangle out of working in his hometown, and a prorated salary of $22,000,022 convinced him to make the Astros whole once more.

One would have thought Clemens joined the Reds from the immediate upsurge in their starting rotation, which enjoyed consecutive quality starts from Eric Milton, Aaron Harang, Bronson Arroyo and Elizardo Ramirez. The final three triggered the club's first three-game sweep in Houston since 1999 last weekend, keeping the Reds within three games of first place, where the weather began to draw heavy.

The storm gathered around Albert Pujols, the most potent offensive force in baseball. Playing defense on June 3, Pujols strained a right lateral oblique muscle, bringing manager Tony LaRussa to hope for a miracle that would put him back in the lineup within a couple weeks. The Cardinals still aren't sure how long they would miss Pujols, but they might limp through the next several weeks without their best run producer.

To patch up, the Cardinals placed injured centerfielder Jim Edmonds at first base, but Edmonds is within a hair of joining Pujols on the disabled list with problems of his own.

One of the questions to be asked when considering Most Valuable Player is: Where would his ball club be without him? The question has never been put to the test on Pujols because he never went to the disabled list in his first five-plus seasons. But the voters never have doubted doom for the Cardinals in his absence, placing him among the top five in the MVP vote every year of his career.

Is Pujols really that valuable? One imagines the Cardinals never wanted to find out, and now they're about to.

But Cardinals starters Mark Mulder, Jason Marquis and Jeff Suppan are running ERAs around 5.00. The Cardinals can thank Chris Carpenter, Sidney Ponson and their bullpen for leading the NL in staff ERA. They'll pitch without as many leads or comeback possibilities while Pujols is missing.

Leads and comeback possibilities have made their usual few appearances during the first two months in Houston. Meanwhile, blown leads have intensified the foul weather.

Closing reliever Brad Lidge continues to be baffled by the momentary choice between his 97 mph fastball and 90 mph slider, especially when he can't put either over the plate. Two young talents in the back of the rotation, Taylor Buckholz and Wandy Rodriguez, pitch like young talents, which means inconsistently. And Andy Pettitte isn't his usual self.

The Houston offense, which took strides toward walking to set up home run pitches in April, lost track of the program in May. Willy Taveras, Adam Everett and Preston Wilson are among the easiest outs in the National League. Without Morgan Ensberg and Lance Berkman, the Astros are even more punchless than the Cardinals without Pujols.

The Astros have encouraged lenience from their public after roaring finishes in the past two years. The Houston media is up in arms, lacking the courage or foolhardiness to make pronouncements after The Houston Chronicle placed a tombstone and a report of the Astros' death on the sports cover last June 1 only for the Astros to win the first pennant in their history. But history can't change the fact that the Astros are dreadful right now.

Into this milieu steps Clemens with the promise that he'll bring the missing intangibles back to the clubhouse. The general drift about Clemens in Houston is that he doesn't win games so much as he wins seasons.

The gamble on Clemens is precisely that he will take the Astros deep through the playoffs, which is where he will pay for himself. Thus, the good sense behind bringing him back in late June rather than April or May. Aged 43 years last fall, Clemens clearly wore down in October. To prevent the certain relapse for a pitcher his age, he'll come back to pitch only four months, if the Astros last that long.

To win the wild card spot, though, Houston would fight through seven clubs, with the Reds on top of the heap as of June 6. Along with the NL's most potent hitters, the Reds go out there a couple times per week with a pitcher who actually might win a game for them. And sometimes one wonders if the Reds might be lucky.

But it is desirable that the Reds maintain their good pitching. A quick look at the NL pitching leaders shows Harang fourth in NL strikeouts with 80 and Arroyo second in ERA at 2.40.

It's been a long time since Reds starters were at the top of the league pitching stats. If it holds up, it could be the biggest news this year in the NL Central.