The Braves took over first place in the National League East in emphatic fashion this week, sweeping a three-game series over the Phillies at Turner Field. The sweep helped give the Braves a three-game lead over the defending three-time division champions. That being said, the Braves aren't ready to start divvying up post-season shares.
"It's way too early to make a judgment," closer Billy Wagner said when asked if his Braves had asserted themselves as the division's best team. "We know we're a good team. Even if we beat up on the Phillies now, they're too good a team not to break out of it. The division won't be decided until the last week of the season."
If Wagner's prediction holds true, it would make for one heckuva finish. The Braves host the Phillies in a three-game series from October 1-3 to close the regular season and those could conceivably be the final games for Atlanta manager Bobby Cox, who has announced his retirement effective at the end of the season.
Cox, though, said he isn't thinking nearly that far ahead, observing, "You play the schedule. No series is more important than another one. You play to win every series."
Phillies manager Charlie Manuel would like to see his team win a series as it has lost four straight games and nine of its last 11. That is in stark contrast to the Braves' recent roll, as they won their ninth straight game Thursday night by beating the Dodgers 4-3 at Dodger Stadium, also giving them 19 wins in their last 23 games. The usually easygoing Manuel has been questioning his players' intensity and wondering if they are growing complacent, which is why he ordered them to shut off the clubhouse television when he saw a large group of them watching the movie Gran Torino 90 minutes before Wednesday's 2-1 loss at Atlanta.
"I got upset when I walked in and saw everyone looking at movies," Manuel said. "We had a whole audience in there looking at movies and (crap) like that. I thought, 'What the hell? We should be getting ready for the damn game.' I don't like things like that. At 11:30, I told the guys to turn the TV off. I like it when we stay focused.
"When we go bad, that's when we really need to stay focused and on the right path, that's what keeps you there. If you get complacent and satisfied, sometimes because you got a big deal or make more money and know you're set … it's hard for a manager to kick all of the complacency out. I think there's complacency every year that we start the year, especially since we've been to the World Series. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying right now that's the big thing. But I think that we definitely have some."
Complacency shouldn't be on the list of the Diamondbacks' many problems. They have lost 10 straight games, including going 0-9 on a road trip to NL West foes Colorado, San Francisco, and Los Angeles that ended Wednesday, leaving them with a 20-34 record and 12 ½ games behind the division-leading Padres.
The Diamondbacks went scoreless in the final 31 innings of the trip, including back-to-back 1-0 losses to the Dodgers in 10 and 14 innings. Each of the last four losses were walk-offs. The Diamondbacks also scored just 17 runs during the nine games, hit .131 and went 5-for-44 with runners in scoring position.
"I wouldn't wish this road trip on anybody," manager A.J. Hinch said.
The trip left the Diamondbacks red-faced and wondering how it has all gone wrong for a franchise three years removed from going to the National League Championship Series, where it lost to the Rockies, with an impressive corps of young players.
"It's embarrassing," pitcher Dan Haren said. "Everyone is embarrassed with the way we're playing. The amount of talent we have and the way we've started the season off is embarrassing. It's hard to come to the field. It's impossible not to hang your head. You look around here and it's been quiet for nine days. It's not any fun. This group in here has to find a way."
Manager Ken Macha has been the source of derision for many Brewers fans this season. However, general manager Doug Melvin is also taking his share of heat for putting together a team that is 22-32, nine games behind the co-leading Reds and Cardinals in the NL Central and allowing 5.75 runs a game, the second-worst rate in the major leagues, ahead of only the Diamondbacks (5.98). Melvin certainly understands why he is under the microscope.
"We look back at our decision-making process," Melvin said. "We've gone back over all the free-agent pitchers that were available. That's the one thing that people don't always understand. You talk to some free-agent players and some you can't get. You have to look at availability. "People say, 'Why don't you go out and get this guy?' Some guys you talk about in trades have no-trade clauses and we're on the (no-trade) list. So, you've got to look at the availability. That's why it's so important to draft and develop your own pitching."
In attempt to develop some of that young pitching, the Brewers hired Rick Peterson as pitching coach in the offseason. Peterson has been touted as a pitching guru in some circles but hasn't made much of an impact, and Brewers fans are also calling for his head. Melvin, though, says the fans need to be patient.
"It's been two months," Melvin said. "You can't change coaches every two months. I think we're all puzzled by this. I think the pitchers who aren't performing are puzzled."
Both GM Ken Williams and manager Ozzie Guillen stressed how important the month of June would be for the White Sox when they opened their current nine-game homestand on Tuesday. However, the White Sox promptly lost two of three to the Rangers as their frustrating season continues.
After coming into the season believing they would be strong contenders for the American League Central title, the White Sox are 23-30 and eight games behind the division-leading Twins. However, Williams insists he is not ready to start breaking his team apart and looking toward the future.
"Listen, you've got June, July, August, and September," Williams said. "I would hope that, in the end, the results will be more commensurate with the talent. I can't place any deadlines on that, because I believe in these guys. I have no plans to do anything right now except watch. If there's a tweak that can come here or there, if something makes itself available, then you know our history."
Williams' history has always been to be aggressive in the trade market in an attempt to bolster the White Sox. However, even Guillen admits that if the White Sox don't turn things around soon that Williams might become a seller as the July 31 non-waiver trading deadline approaches.
"This is a big, big, big homestand for us," Guillen said. "We have, like, a month in Chicago. It's a big homestand. Hopefully we'll play well, and on this homestand we're going to show the fans, Kenny, (assistant GM) Rick (Hahn), and (board chairman Jerry Reinsdorf) how good we are or how bad we are. Then they can start making decisions. To me, we're going to see if we are going to add or subtract people."
MLB Rumors and Rumblings: Diamonbacks owner Ken Kendrick has given general manager Josh Byrnes the authorization to tear apart the entire roster if need be, meaning that anyone and everyone could be available in trade for the right price. The Rangers would love to land catcher Chris Snyder. … While the Cubs are willing to trade Derrek Lee to the Angels and plug Xavier Nady in at first base, they do not plan wholesale changes anytime soon because they feel the NL Central is a winnable division. However, if the Cubs fall out of contention, players such as left-hander Ted Lilly, second baseman Ryan Theriot, third baseman Aramis Ramirez, and left fielder Alfonso Soriano will be put on the trading block. … Look for the Nationals to make a serious bid to trade for the Astros' Roy Oswalt after the right-hander said he would waive his no-trade clause to go to Washington. … The Orioles could fire manager Dave Trembley as soon as this afternoon and replace him with third-base coach Juan Samuel on an interim basis, though they would hold over looking for a permanent replacement until after the season. If the Orioles decide to start selling off parts, look for the Mets to make a serious run at right-hander Kevin Millwood and the Braves to have interest in outfielder/first baseman Luke Scott. … If the Red Sox are willing to eat a large chunk of his salary, they should be able to trade third baseman Mike Lowell, as the White Sox, Rangers, and Mariners are reportedly interested.
Scouts' takes on various MLB players:
Phillies right fielder Jayson Werth: "He's been struggling some in the last few weeks but he'll be fine. His swing gets a little long at times because he gets full extension with those long arms of his. That makes him susceptible to good fastballs, but he always finds a way to tighten that swing back up."
Indians right-hander Fausto Carmona: "He's made a nice little comeback compared to where he was at last year and he's gotten himself into a lot better shape, but he's not the same guy who won 19 games in 2007. His sinker doesn't have that same bite it did back then and he doesn't strike guys out. If I were the Indians, I'd try to trade him right now since he might not rebuild his value any more than this."
Tigers right-hander Armando Galarraga: "I'm not ready to call this guy a rising star off one outstanding start against a bad team like the Indians, but I do like what I've seen since he got called up. He' pounding the strike zone, getting ahead in the count and working quickly. I think if he stays healthy he can be a good No. 4 guy in the rotation, maybe a No. 3."
Rangers designated hitter Vladimir Guerrero: "It was a helluva pickup by (GM) Jon Daniels in the winter because I thought he was done last year and so did a lot of other baseball people. The ball is jumping off his bat again. He's putting himself in serious position to win Comeback Player of the Year."