Gotta Start Somewhere

Welcome to the first installment of a new weekly column here at the CCO. I will be focusing on the division that we care the most about….the NL Central. As soon as we open the sports section our eyes go directly past the AL and head straight to the NL standings, in between the east and west. The Cubs Faithful care about the NL Central more than anything else; we care about the so-called worst division in baseball; the division that holds two of the top ten position players in the game in Albert Pujols and Alfonso Soriano. With Carlos Zambrano, Chris Carpenter and Roy Oswalt, the Central also has some top tier arms as well but unfortunately this division is also the home of the defending World Champions, and the runner up from the year before. I say unfortunately for obvious reasons, but it shows that a winner can come from the NL Central. And throughout the year I will document the NL Central, in a column called: The Week That Was in the NL Central. I will obviously focus on the Cubs, but I would like to recap every team and how their play will affect the Cubbies and their goal of a division crown. The Cubs play 26 games in the month of April with 22 of those games against division foes. Who said you cannot win a division in the month of April? Let’s see how this week panned out in the first installment of the week that was….

Lopsided, backwards and unpredictable are a couple of words that would best describe the NL Central after the first week of play. Lets start with our defending World Champions, the St Louis Cardinals. The Cards are a team that many experts predicted to win the NL crown, but I assume that is out of respect. Their outfield is in shambles and their rotation is also somewhat a mess. Kip Wells is their #2 starter, and now with the soreness to Carpenter’s elbow, Wells could become their #1. The Cards started the year at home against the Mets, in a rematch of last year’s NLCS. FYI….the Mets have not forgotten and in turn outscored the Cards 20-2 in route to a three game sweep. The Cards rebounded and took two out of three at Houston over the weekend. After six games Albert Pujols is hitting just .186 (3 for 22) and if Albert continues to struggle this team will struggle. This probably will not last, Pujols is the best this game has to offer but as long as he is hitting .240 the Cubs need to take advantage. The Cards are also without their staff ace, Chris Carpenter. Carpenter has already missed one start and is not scheduled to make his next start on Tuesday. He will meet with team doctors and decide on the next step. If Carpenter is still out and Pujols is still in his slump, the Cubs could use it to their advantage, the two rivals face off twice before the end of the month (4/20 – 4/22 at Wrigley and 4/27 – 4/29 at Busch). At weeks end the Cards are 2-4.

The Cards played the Houston Astros who are off to a horrendous start. The Astros were swept by the much-improved Pirates to start the year. Did I mention the Astros were playing at home? Granted all of the games were pretty close, but the ‘Stros are showing their weakness early….late inning relief and their troubled closer Brad Lidge. Lidge has pitched 1 2/3 innings and as of Sunday night has an ERA of 16.20. The bats have also been pretty silent with a team average of .224. The Astros start a three game series at Wrigley today and the Cubs need to take advantage of their weak bullpen and sleeping bats. I can almost guarantee you that one bat will wake up once Houston’s bus pulls onto Sheffield Avenue….Carlos Lee. In 31 career games at Wrigley he has hit .333 with 12 long balls and 29 RBI’s, can anyone say….Holy El Caballo!!!

The Milwaukee Brewers are also a favorite to win the division and in the latest power rankings topped the Cubs by just one spot but that was before this past weekend. As of today the Brew-Crew are even at 3-3 on the season after playing all six games at home. They took two out of three from the pre-season favorites out west, the Dodgers. Game one featured a complete game two hitter by staff ace Ben Sheets. I think the Brewers are going to cause some problems in the future, their rotation is strong and despite their lack of lefties in the pen, they are also strong. With Derrick Turnbow setting the table and Francisco Cordero closing, a late inning rally will be tough.

The 1st place Pittsburgh Pirates have started the year 4-2, could they be for real? After walk-off HR’s and a sweep of the Astros, the Bucs are on cloud nine, but it is early. This writer thinks the Bucs will be in the basement before the end of April and they will not be renting but paying mortgage. Do not get me wrong I think they are moving in the right direction but not this year….sorry, I may still be bitter about the toilet bowl game at Wrigley last year.

As for the Cincinnati Reds, the team that took two out of three from our beloved Cubs is a force to be reckoned with. Their line-up is strong up and down and their rotation is pretty decent. Could Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo be the best 1-2 punch in the NL Central? The Reds share the lead in the Central with a 4-2 record, granted they will last longer than the Pirates, but I am not sure how long. They are team to keep an eye on….they could cause problems.

And as for our beloved Chicago Cubs, they are 3-3 after week one. They are tops in the NL Central in team batting average at .271. I know the season is incredibly young but I have been extremely impressed with our starting staff, barring a couple of exceptions. Zambrano should not start the opener and we knew the #5 spot in the rotation would be shaky. In their Cub debuts both Ted Lilly and Jason Marquis were lights out. Lilly pitched 7 innings gave up three hits with one earned run. Marquis pitched 6 innings gave up four hits with one earned run. Lilly struck out 9, walked one and got the W while Marquis received a no decision. The bullpen did not help Marquis….we should have walked out of there with a win. As for Rich Hill, he gave up one hit, one earned run and struck out 6 in 7 innings of work. Hill did not give out a free pass all evening and including spring training has not walked a batter this year. Coming into the season the rotation was on the minds of many, it may be early but could this be a sign of things to come? We can only hope. Alfonso Soriano is struggling but this is a non-issue….for now.

I know it is early, but after week one did anybody think the Reds and Pirates would have the early lead? Players are hitting .500 and pitchers have 0.89 ERA’s, I know the stats are inflated and cannot be taken serious. But as the season grows, all of these stats will become more credible and will create the placing in the NL Central.

  • Reds – 4-2/.667
  • Pirates – 4-2/.667
  • Cubs – 3-3/.500 1 GB
  • Brewers – 3-3/.500 1 GB
  • Cardinals – 2-4/.333 2 GB
  • Astros – 1-5/.167 3 GB

As the season goes on this column will take on many shapes, as I will focus on different material every week. Let’s get some NL Central banter going, how do you think things look after week one? Who will be in 1st place after week two? Who will hold the title for most consecutive weeks in the top spot? It’s early but wouldn’t a 5-6 game lead going into May be perfect way to start the summer?

Until Next Week….GO CUBBIES!!!

Quote of the Day

"There are places I remember. All my life though some have changed. Some forever not for better. Some have gone and some remain. All these places have their moments ... " John Lennon/Paul McCartney