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Laboring is National pastime

September 02, 2007|Bill Shaikin | SUNDAY REPORT

Labor Day is here, yours to enjoy with beaches, barbecues and baseball.

Not necessarily in that order, as Bud Selig might say. The commissioner likes to use Labor Day to measure the vitality of the sport. He preaches hope and faith, and salvation through revenue sharing.

If your team is in a playoff race on Labor Day, he delivers, at least on his scorecard. So let's go to the scoreboard: At the end of August last year, 19 teams were within seven games of a postseason berth. At the end of August this year, 18 teams were within seven games of the playoffs.

Well done, Bud.

Americans love freedom of choice, and Selig and Co. offer fans a distinct choice. Choose between the American League, with its handful of really good teams, and the National League, with parity running rampant and not even one really good team.

No really good team? Holy cow, the Cubs are in first place!

The Chicago Cubs do lead the NL Central, in search of their first World Series championship in 99 years. They're also four games over .500.

They play in Wrigley Field, so they can always spook opposing pitchers with slugging.

They've hit the fewest home runs of any team in the majors since the All-Star break. Alfonso Soriano and Aramis Ramirez, who hit a combined 84 homers last season, are on pace for 45 this season. The Cubs rank second in the NL in starters' earned-run average, with Rich Hill, Ted Lilly and Carlos Zambrano all ranking among league leaders in strikeouts. Zambrano just signed a five-year, $91-million contract extension, but in his last four starts he's 0-4 with an 8.14 ERA.

Weren't the Milwaukee Brewers running away with the NL Central?

The Brewers led the division by 7 1/2 games at the end of June, but they were 20-34 in July and August. Milwaukee leads the National League in home runs, including a league-leading 39 from Prince Fielder and 25 from rookie-of-the-year-to-be Ryan Braun.

Ace Ben Sheets returned from the disabled list and beat the Cubs last week, but he sat out for six weeks, during which Jeff Suppan and Chris Capuano combined for 16 winless starts. Capuano, an All-Star last season, has lost 12 consecutive decisions -- and his spot in the rotation.

That should be a good race, since the Brewers haven't been to the World Series in 25 years and the Cubs haven't been there in 62 years.

But the St. Louis Cardinals got to the World Series last year, and won, after winning the NL Central with 83 victories. They beat up on the Brewers, Dodgers and San Diego Padres last month, and they're lurking in a race that could again be won at four games over .500.

Are the New York Mets panicking?

Call it what you want, but the Mets are about to activate Pedro Martinez this week, after 11 months of rehabilitation from rotator cuff surgery and 18 minor league innings -- none above Class A -- with a fastball clocked at 84 to 88 mph.

The Mets lost five games off their NL East lead last week, four in a sweep by the fast-closing Philadelphia Phillies. Closer Billy Wagner lost the series finale, capping a four-outing stretch in which he gave up seven runs, 11 hits and four walks in 4 1/3 innings.

The Phillies?

Just hit, baby. They have a patchwork starting rotation beyond injured ace Cole Hamels. They started the season with Hamels, Jamie Moyer, Freddy Garcia, Adam Eaton and Brett Myers. They started September with Moyer (5.08 ERA), Eaton (6.23), Kyle Kendrick (3.89), Kyle Lohse (4.54) and J.D. Durbin (5.14).

But the Phillies lead the league in runs, with Chase Utley tops in batting average, Ryan Howard in runs batted in and Jimmy Rollins in runs scored. The oft-maligned Pat Burrell is batting .353 with 13 home runs since the All-Star break, and Jayson Werth has rebounded from two injury-plagued seasons with the Dodgers to bat .398 after the break and push Shane Victorino for playing time in right field.

If the Mets and Phillies are 1-2 in the NL East, does that mean that trading for the biggest bat of all did not help the Atlanta Braves?

Not so far. They won the trade deadline sweepstakes for Mark Teixeira, the one impact player available. They did not post a winning record in August, although Teixeira hit 10 home runs and drove in 32 runs in his first 27 games with the Braves.

He also inspired a hilarious fan song, a sort of baseball-themed episode of "Wayne's World," chock full of goofy rhymes with a name pronounced "teh-share-uh." You can check out the video on YouTube by searching for "Mark Teixeira tribute." The Braves even brought in these guys -- and their couch -- to play the song before a game.

Will they play Turner Field again in October?

They might. That's the beauty of the NL, where the Braves can be marginally better than .500 and still in the thick of division and wild-card races. Every team in the NL West is in the division and wild-card races too, except the San Francisco Giants.

So here we are at the bottom of the column, and you haven't even mentioned the American League.

Not much suspense here, or parity. The Angels, Boston Red Sox, Cleveland Indians and New York Yankees appear bound for October, with the Detroit Tigers and Seattle Mariners as longshots.

And what ought to be the biggest series on the final weekend of the season?

San Diego at Milwaukee. Just as we all figured in April.


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