By Michael Cooper
With the All-Star break just three days away, players and coaches alike are no doubt ready for a few days off. While they may have relaxation on their mind, there’s no time to relax these weekend. The games still count – especially for teams playing division rivals. There are two big Central Division matchups in both leagues – the Chicago Cubs will look to cut into the St. Louis Cardinals’ lead in the NL, while the White Sox and Twins will battle for second place in the AL Central. There’s no time to rest for any of these clubs if they hope to make the playoffs.
The Main Event
Cardinals at Cubs: The Cubs were picked by nearly everyone to breeze through the NL Central Division. But at the midway point, they’re 3.5 games back of the Cardinals with a .500 record. They’ve struggled offensively, scoring just two more runs (338) than they’ve allowed (336), to the point where manager Lou Piniella is getting tired of answering questions about it. “I don’t know what’s happening with our offense,” and “Go ask the hitting coach” were his answers to his club’s poor hitting after its loss on Tuesday.
Several key players who played a major role in last year’s playoff team have had disappointing seasons so far. Alfonso Soriano is hitting just .230 and is being moved from the leadoff spot to the No. 5 hole to hopefully bring a surge to the heart of the order. Milton Bradley, the club’s major offseason acquisition, is batting just .236 and has found himself in Piniella’s doghouse. Reigning NL Rookie of the Year Geovany Soto is batting just .230 and could miss time with a strained oblique – just another injury to the Cubs. Aramis Ramirez’s return on Monday marked just the second time all season Piniella has had his opening day lineup – which shows just how lucky they are to still be in the NL Central race. A few wins against the Cardinals this weekend could be just what they need to right the ship after the All-Star break.
Meanwhile, the Cardinals have rebounded from a losing June. They took two of three from second place Milwaukee this week, improving to seven games over .500 (47-40). They’re still scoring more runs (386) than they’ve allowed (358) and have nearly identical records at home (24-20) and on the road (23-20). They’re a consistent baseball club that is winning despite injuries to key players during the first half (Ryan Ludwick, Chris Carpenter, Kyle Lohse, Troy Glaus, etc.).
Last night, erratic Joel Pineiro pitched a three-hit, complete-game gem in a victory over the Brewers — a sign of good things to come. After a tough start, Pineiro’s ERA has kept dropping over the last few months — 3.76 in April, 3.92 in May, 2.65 in June and 1.65 in two July starts. He adds another arm to go with Carpenter, Adam Wainwright and All-Star closer Ryan Franklin. With these arms, the Cardinals offense—aside from Albert Pujols—can struggle and still stay at the top of the NL Central.
Pitching matchups: Friday — Chris Carpenter, RHP (6-3, 2.32) vs. Rich Harden, RHP (5-5, 5.35); Saturday — Brad Thompson, RHP (2-5, 4.92) vs. Ted Lilly, LHP (8-6, 3.32); Sunday — Adam Wainwright, RHP (9-5, 3.09) vs. Randy Wells, RHP (4-3, 2.48).
White Sox at Twins: These two AL Central squads are still solidly in the mix for the playoffs, despite sitting around .500. The White Sox are 7-3 in their last 10 games, but still find themselves 2.5 games behind division leader Detroit. They’ve done great on the mound, ranking second in the league with a 4.02 ERA. But offensively, they’ve struggled, ranking eighth overall with a .262 batting average. While the trade for Jake Peavy fell through, the White Sox may start looking for a bat down the stretch to help them score some more runs.
The Twins, however, are in a different boat. They’ve struggled on the mound with a 4.28 ERA, seventh-best in the AL. Outside of surprising Nick Blackburn (7-4, 2.94), no other Twins starter with 12 or more starts has an ERA under 4.38. They’ll need the pitching to step up this weekend to climb back into second place in the AL Central. This is a big series for the Twins, especially after losing their sixth straight game to the Yankees on Thursday. Two wins would put them over .500 at the break and right in the rearview mirror of the Tigers.
Pitching matchups: Friday — John Danks, LHP (7-6, 3.76) vs. Nick Blackburn, RHP (7-4, 2.94); Saturday — Gavin Floyd, RHP (6-6, 4.33) vs. Glen Perkins, LHP (4-4, 4.38); Sunday — Mark Buehrle, LHP (9-2, 3.14) vs. Scott Baker, RHP (6-7, 5.31).
For your viewing pleasure
Here’s a schedule of this weekend’s nationally televised games:
Saturday: Cardinals at Cubs or Yankees at Angels, 4:10 p.m., FOX; Braves at Rockies, 8 p.m., MLB Network.
Sunday: Dodgers at Brewers, 2:05 p.m., TBS; Cardinals at Cubs, 8 p.m., ESPN.