With a little over six weeks until the end of Major League Baseball’s regular season, there are eight NL teams at or over .500 and within four games of at least a wild-card berth. And even the league-leading Cubs have some concerns. We focused on the AL on Wednesday, and today we turn our attention to the NL. Here’s what should worry each NL contender the most:
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Cubs: The blip in the bullpen
Sure, searching for potential flaws on the majors’ best team – one that has a 12 1/2–game lead in its division and has won 14 of its past 16 games – is akin to pointing out that the homecoming queen has a small pimple on the back of her neck. But if there’s one area of concern, it’s the bullpen. The Cardinals exposed this potential problem over the weekend with back-to-back late-inning rallies. Former closer Hector Rondon is pitching his way back into form after experiencing triceps soreness, and setup man Pedro Strop in on the DL with a meniscus tear. Of course, it helps to have Aroldis Chapman as an option.
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Nationals: The slumping superstars
Washington is sitting pretty with an 8 ½-game lead in the NL East, but its unanimous MVP is still trying to find his swing and its Cy Young Award contender is scuffling. Harper went from being an impossible out early in the season to almost an automatic out by July, when he hit just .176. He has picked it up recently, though his towering homer Wednesday was his first since July 20. The news wasn't all encouraging Wednesday, as Strasburg had the worst start of his career. In his past three outings, the ace has allowed 19 earned runs in 11 2/3 innngs.
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Dodgers: The aching rotation
The Dodgers have defied expectations since losing ace Clayton Kershaw, whose return date remains unclear. The more pressing concern is settling on a starter on a daily basis. Right-hander Brandon McCarthy (hip) just went back on the disabled list, and Brett Anderson (wrist) nearly joined him after lasting just one disastrous inning in his season debut. Meanwhile, Rich Hill (blister) still hasn’t made his Dodgers debut. They’ve benefitted from the Giants’ collapse and also have a bit of a cushion in the wild-card race. They’ll need it.
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Giants: Its odd-numbered year performance
By now, you know San Francisco has won the past three even-year World Series titles (2010, 2012, 2014). And you’ve undoubtedly heard that it is a major league-worst 9-21 since the All-Star break and that its eight-game NL West lead has evaporated. There are plenty of places to assess blame, but the bullpen is the most obvious. Giants relievers have blown 21 saves (third-most in the majors), and Sunday’s implosion was a particularly ghastly collapse. After jumping out to a 7-1 lead over the Orioles, the Giants lost, 8-7, after closer Santiago Casilla coughed up the lead. And that came just as it appeared the relief corps was steadying itself.
Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY SportsEd Szczepanski
Cardinals: The jam-packed trainer’s room
Matt Holliday had surgery on his fractured thumb, and reliever Seth Maness is having Tommy John surgery – and that was just the news this week. St. Louis’ disabled list also includes All-Star SS Aledmys Diaz, 1B Matt Adams, SP Michael Wacha and RP Trevor Rosenthal, to name just a few. Luckily for the resilient Cardinals, they have tremendous depth in the majors and minors (right-handers Alex Reyes, Luke Weaver). The Cubs are out of reach and a wild card will be, too, with a few more bumps and bruises.
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Marlins: The Giancarlo Stanton void
Good luck with replacing this bat. Although Stanton struggled much of the season, he was surging (.560 slugging percentage, 18 RBI in 20 games since July 23) before suffering his season-ending groin injury Saturday. His mere presence in the lineup made the Marlins more formidable. And you can’t replace that with a waiver pickup in mid-August, meaning it might be a blessing in disguise that Alex Rodriguez remains on his couch. So, instead of a 41-year-old A-Rod, Miami will turn to a 42-year-old Ichiro.
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Pirates: The slumping superstars (Part 2)
That the Pirates even remain in contention is amazing. After all, they sold (Mark Melancon, Jon Niese, Francisco Liriano) at the deadline and all but waved the white flag. However, they’ve won nine of 12 since falling to .500 and are just a game out of the wild-card chase. Amazingly, they’ve done it without much help from CF Andrew McCutchen and SP Gerrit Cole. McCutchen, who was benched earlier this month, has shown signs of life lately but has just two homers and nine RBI since July 29. And Cole has been even more confounding, posting a 6.00 ERA and a 1.80 WHIP in three August starts and failing to pitch six full innings in any of those outings.
Getty ImagesDylan Buell
Mets: The holes in their bats
Since manager Terry Collins went berserk in that postgame news conference, the Mets actually have hit better, scoring 32 runs in six games. However, that’s such a small sample size, especially considering they still rank 29th in the majors in runs per game. Yoenis Cespedes’ eventual return will help, but others must step up in the meantime. And we’re looking at you, Jay Bruce. The deadline pickup has been a dud so far, hitting .186/.273/.322 with two homers and six RBI in 15 games with New York.