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June 6, 2011

Divide and Conquer, NL Central

Winners' Weekend

by Larry Granillo

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“The season is a marathon, not a sprint."—A thousand writers looking for an easy lead-in to their articles.

The marathon nature of the baseball season lends itself to a number of quirks, one of which is a tendency to stretch small problems into colossal issues that are set to sink the entire season. When Josh Hamilton started off the 2010 campaign hitting .205 in his first 13 games (and .242 as late as April 26), baseball fans everywhere—and, in particular, in the Dallas area—were wondering if he could "break out of his slump" or if he would ever regain his form from 2008. Of course, Hamilton would go on to win the American League Most Valuable Player award and lead his team to the World Series, but no one could know that at the time. All anyone could see was that a star player was slumping, which was regarded as a cause for concern.

We've already seen our fair share of these mildly concerning streaks getting blown out of proportion this season. The early starts of the Rays and Red Sox, for example, probably summoned more combined doom and gloom than anything you could imagine northoftheWall, but those two teams have rebounded in convincing fashion. It doesn't always work out that way, of course. Derek Jeter and Adam Dunn supporters, for instance, are still hoping to see their worries from the start of the season fade away. Considering that we are now in June, there may not be much time left for that to happen.

Many Cardinals watchers have felt the same way about Albert Pujols this season. The player who asked for a $300 million contract over the winter—and whom many see as the best player in baseball—has gotten off to an incredibly slow start. Pujols didn't see his batting average touch .250 until April 16 and didn't get it over that hump for good until May 10. Meanwhile, he ended the month of April with a 758 OPS and saw it drop to 755 by the end of May. He also endured a month-long drought in home runs, seeing 105 at-bats go by between his April 23 and May 23 home runs.

Pessimistic Cardinals fans have, unsurprisingly, attributed Pujols' slow start to his impending free agency. It's hard to live up to the demands of a $300 million contract, they say, even if the pressure is self-imposed. Optimistic Cardinals fans, on the other hand, see the slump as just another bump in the road. Pujols, after all, is the best player in baseball and had one of the best ten-year starts to a career in history, so his natural talent should shine through soon enough.

Is either group right? No one knows yet, of course. What we can say is that Pujols is currently suffering through the worst season of his career, with one key reason being a career-worst batting average on balls in play. From 2001 to 2010, Pujols never had worse than a .292 BABIP over a full season (with a lifetime .315 BABIP). His BABIP in 2011 is stuck down at .257, which suggests that, when the ball starts landing in friendlier spots, things will go better for Albert. It's not all bad luck, though; Pujols has played an active part in his slump. He has never hit ground balls at a higher rate than he has in 2011, knocking the ball on the ground in 47.7 percent of his at-bats. His career high before this year was a mere 42.9 percent. It's much harder to get on base, let alone hit home runs, when the ball is always on the ground.

But perhaps there's reason for hope. Over the weekend, the Cardinals played the Cubs in St. Louis. In the three-game series, Pujols went 6-for-11 with three walks and four home runs. Two of those home runs were of the walk-off variety, sending the Cardinals to a three-game sweep (and the city of St. Louis into a bit of a frenzy). It's the single best three-game block of the season for Pujols thus far, and it helped lift his OPS to a season-best 826. You never know if or when a season will turn around, but Pujols fans have a reason to start hoping after this weekend.

==

St. Louis fans aren't the only ones hoping that this past weekend marked a big turnaround in their team’s fortunes. The Brewers currently sport the best home record in baseball. The team's 21-7 record at Miller Park is the primary reason for the club’s second-place status. Heading into their four-game series with the Marlins in Florida this weekend, the Brewers were 9-19 on the road. Only the Royals, at 6-16, had a worse record while travelling.

There have been many attempts to explain the Brew Crew’s road woes. Maybe the still-young Brewers are energized by Miller Park's large, supportive crowds. Maybe the players prefer the comfort of their own beds. Maybe it’s been the quality of their opponents: at home, the team has seemed to face the back-end of rotations, while on the road, it’s seemed to be all aces. That impression was formed during one particularly bad stretch, when Milwaukee lost seven in a row (on a ten-game road trip) to the likes of Wandy Rodriguez, Bud Norris, Jair Jurrjens, Tim Hudson, and Tommy Hanson.

Whatever the explanation for the team's road woes—perhaps the small sample size of road games is the most likely culprit—the differences have been stark. While the Brewers have a combined 846 OPS at Miller Park, that has dwindled to a worse-than-mediocre 636 on the road. In 28 games at home, they have scored 155 runs, for an average of 5.5 runs per game. Heading into the Florida series, they’d plated only 84 runs on the road in the same 28 games (a perfect 3.0 runs per game).

The difference in home batting average and road batting average (.288 vs. .226) is striking, but that doesn't explain everything. Milwaukee's "isolated patience" (OBP - AVG) has also dropped on the road, from .073 to .057. The Brewers’ isolated power has fared even worse away from Wisconsin, falling from .198 in Miller Park to .127 in all other parks. Not only are the Brewers' bats getting fewer hits on the road, but they are also walking less, and when the hits have fallen, they have fallen as singles all too often. With a home record as impressive as 21-7, Milwaukee’s problems on the road are magnified. Even a .500 record on the road would have put the Brewers in first place.

That’s why this weekend was so encouraging for the Brewers and their fans. After losing a series in Cincinnati on Wednesday on two late-inning home runs from Jay Bruce and Joey Votto, it looked like another poor road trip was in the offing for Milwaukee, but the team’s luck changed in Sun Life Stadium. On Friday, Ryan Braun hit a two-run, pinch-hit home run in the top of the ninth to give the Brewers the 6-5 victory. On Saturday, two runs in the seventh secured the victory.

On Sunday, an 11th-inning home run from light-hitting Josh Wilson completed a comeback made necessary by a five-run inning from the Marlins. In all three games, closer John Axford earned the save while stranding the tying run on third. Those were exactly the types of games people expect a poor road team to lose; if the Brewers can continue to salvage such efforts, their fans will have every reason to hope for first place.

==

In Pittsburgh, the weekend was a positive not for any reversal of season-long misfortunes like those of the Cardinals and Brewers. Instead, it marked the continuation of a season-long positive that kept hope up for Pirates fans. On Saturday, Charlie Morton faced the Phillies in his eleventh start of the year. The righty took on the lefty-heavy Phillies lineup and walked away with a quality start and the victory, allowing two runs and six hits over seven complete innings. The two runs both came on infield groundballs with runners in scoring position. Morton also struck out five of the Phillies' batters while on the hill.

Morton is currently 6-2 with a 2.52 ERA. His 42 strikeouts and 31 walks in 75 innings aren't all that impressive, but he has induced grounders on nearly 64 percent of his batted balls. As mentioned with Pujols above, it's tough for batters to do much when they're always putting the ball on the ground. That batted-ball profile also helps explain how Morton has allowed only two home runs all year, and not a single one since Jay Bruce hit his first of the year on April 15.

A performance like Morton's is hard to keep up for a full year by anyone but the best groundball pitchers, but he's already beaten the odds by sustaining it into June. To hear players tell it, Morton can thank a revamped sinker that returned to his repertoire this year. If Morton can continue to command the sinker as he's done all year and make the necessary adjustments as the season wears on, the Pirates will have a great weapon to help them on their quest to a winning season. After Sunday's loss, they remain two games under .500 but only one game behind the defending division champs. Not everything has come together for Pittsburgh yet, but with Charlie Morton, Kevin Correia, Andrew McCutchen, and the rest of the roster, there's more reason to hope for an even record than there has been during most of the team’s recent losing seasons.

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