If National League a tossup in second half, runner-up Marlins World Series bound

by Donald Brickner, Staff Writer

The National League season is a toss-up. The team that ultimately wants it bad enough ­ and actually has the horses to pull it off ­ will go to this year's World Series.

At this point in time, that team appears as if it will be this year's season-ending NL East runnerup Florida Marlins ­ who won't even win the Eastern Division. But when the Marlins defeated the Yankees two seasons ago, they were the runnerup in the NL east then (behind the Atlanta Braves), so they're used to waltzing into championships through the side door.

The Marlins are the kind of club that historically doesn't wake up until after the All-Star break. Despite having already won two World Series in their brief history, they've yet to ever win a division title.

In any event, Florida is the kind of team that can (and will) take down the powerful St. Louis Cardinals in the National League playoffs who, in the end, aren't even as good a team as they were last year. The Cards just don't have the starting pitchers (once again) to return to the Series. They were embarrassed (and would have been again) by the Boston Red Sox ­ who will win their second straight (however inappropriately-named) World Championship this season.

Here's a look at how the National League teams should finish in the second half this year:


National League Central

1. St. Louis Cardinals - The Cards' ever-overachieving starting rotation, coupled with its lame new middle infield defense of David Eckstein and Mark Grudzielanek and Larry Walker's back difficulties, will be this team's undoing come playoffs time. They'll again likely have the best won-lost record in the league this season (although it won't be by much). Yet a too-late run by both the Cubs and, yes, the Astros, will have already chopped the Cards' egos up in the Central prior to them facing the Marlins in the NLCS first round ... where they'll lose.

2. Chicago Cubs - Wait 'til next season will apply once again to these still-lovable losers, but only for the balance of this season (expect next year's Cubbies to not only win the NLCS, but to defeat next season's Texas Rangers in the World Series). The loss of Nomar Garciaparra this year, along with ongoing health problems in what's still the scariest starting rotation in the league (and maybe in all of baseball), will still not keep this team from battling for a wild card playoff spot (against the Marlins) right up until the end of the year. But, alas: the Cubs will pull up short.

3. Houston Astros - Surprise! So, "we" were all ready to blow off this season's 'Stros as some sort of bad dream, were we? Well, don't be so quick to dismiss this franchise. Last year's team performance, even going as far as the NLCS, wasn't the fluke it now appears to have been. First of all, the rotation has three top drawer starters (Roy Oswalt, Andy Pettitte and the Rocket ­ who's going noplace else; Roger Clemens will remain an Astro until he retires). Expect this club to go out and grab at least one major bat prior to the trading deadline this season ­ when they'll make a too-little (and-way-too-late) run for a playoff spot.

4. Cincinnati Reds - This team has so severely underperformed in the first half, it's almost sure to surprise a lot of the people with its improvement by season's end ­ and the Reds should make some interesting trades after this year's All-Star break. Team morale has probably never been lower than it is right now because, frankly, baseball people in both leagues expected some marked improvement in Cincinnati (despite its limited budget) that never materialized. Ken Griffey, Jr. is almost sure to be moved ­ finally ­ as part of yet another facelift.

5. Milwaukee Brewers - A likeable and surprisingly competitive (.500 level) team, only a marked absense of punch in the lineup and its perennial pitching limitations will keep ­ and likely continue to keep ­ the Brew Crew from moving up to the next plateau. Few following the team are likely to mind, however ­ because for the first time in this team's National League history (remember, it was once an AL team), it genuinely doesn't, well ­ stink.

6. Pittsburgh Pirates - Ibid. See Brewers, above.


National League West

1. San Diego Padres - Wow ­ who doesn't just love the blazes out of this club, which has been smartly built-up by way of cost-effective trades, patient management and an astute front office (second only to Theo Epstein's Red Sox ­ whose front office actually cut its teeth in San Diego). As for the Padres fans ­ who regardless of performance view Padres players as their very own pet humans (lucky enough to share "paradise" with them) ­ they will support this season's "Pods" in a very kissy-kissy fashion right into the first round of the playoffs, where the team will lose. But, oh, the fans will stand and cheer ­ even if the Padres get swept by the Braves, which is the team they'll be facing.

2. Arizona Diamondbacks - Injuries have again decimated what, even without Randy Johnson, might have tied this season's Cubs as the most dangerous team, top to bottom, in the NL. As it is, the D-backs have done well with the additions of the likes of Troy Glaus ­ but when underrated closer Brandon Lyon (who was on his way to an incredible year) went down, the promising pitching staff collectively dropped its shoulders in dispair and became toast. Without the Unit (who just may get himself traded back to Arizona ... well, it could happen), this was a terrific club heading into spring training ­ and it's sure to be a pre-season contender again next spring.

3. Los Angeles Dodgers - Despite their own injury issues (Eric Gagne) and morale problems, the Dodgers were another team with high promise heading into spring training this year despite having made what, on paper, anyway, were some really shaky off-season deals. The failure of the starting rotation is maybe the biggest surprise this year, as sinkerballing innings-eaters Derek Lowe and Jeff Weaver appeared primed to regain their heretofore-tainted reputations, and lead the team to the playoffs. But the lineup is a strange one at best, and one suspects the Dodgers' front office really doesn't have much in the way of vision.

4. San Francisco Giants - Barry Bonds will likely return before the end of the season, but it will not amount to much of a splash (no pun intended), no matter what. Moises Alou was acquired to provide some serious protection for the prospective all-time home run champ (and first-ballot Hall-of-Famer), but this team doesn't seem to have much of a feel for shaking up either its lineup or pitching staff in any meaningful way. At least we were spared an endless media feeding over Bonds, whose yesterday's-news' performance-enhancing issues simply won't have as much bite next year.

5. Colorado Rockies - This is the most disrespected franchise in baseball ­ partially deserved, but partially unjustified, as no one has yet to figure out a way to field a contending team in a mile-high, non-humid environment where pitches (that fail to break correctly) end up socked out into the ski country someplace. If something doesn't change for the Rockies in terms of altering their frustrated (hopeless?) outlook, don't be surprised if Elvis sightings don't begin taking place in Coors Field, both up in the stands ... and out on the field. Baseball in Coors Field is low comedy simply begging for release.


National League East

1. Atlanta Braves - This isn't that much of a team, but it will finish in first place, anyway ­ just as it usually does ­ if for no other reason than because of future Hall of Fame manager Bobby Cox and the most astute judges of personality cohesiveness in baseball. Nothing about this club is below average, either, and so motivation works in Atlanta. And while they will meet and beat the Padres in the playoffs ­ few other expectations are likely to surface ­ but they will then get knocked out of the playoffs by the Marlins who, as so often has been the case, have the Braves' number ­ and both teams know it.

2. Florida Marlins - This is a championship-calibre team once again on almost every level ­ except in its bullpen, when journeyman Todd Jones (having an undeniably spectacular season to date) is the closer. Neither Jones nor the rest of the patchwork bullpen is of championship calibre ­ and if Jones is still the guy closing the door come playoffs time, the Marlins will be in trouble: for even if they make it through the NLCS unscatched, any of the top three AL playoffs teams (Red Sox, Yankees and Angels) would chew these relievers up, and spit them out (note: Jones was actually released by the Red Sox prior to last season). Still, if they shore up the 'pen ­ this team will rock.

3. Washington Nationals - Never a bad team to begin with, the former Montreal Expos brought in some good talent in the off-season and, coupled with all of the enthusiasm and support they've been encountering in the nation's capitol so far this year, they're flying high ­ even if it's largely just on adrenaline. So might they suffer a significant setback then in the second half? Well, duh.

4. New York Mets - Talk about underachievers this season. Even with the pronounced additions of Pedro Martinez (on a pace to seriously contend for the NL Cy Young Award this year) and the strangely subdued so far Carlos Beltran (who might have been happier had he stayed in Houston, where he was on the threshhold of unabashed idolatry), the Mets have performed well below par, with even Mike Piazza still as yet to come alive. One is inclined to suspect, moreover, that if something wasn't seriously wrong behind the scenes in Queens, this season's Mets might have made it into the World Series. But with peculiar front office behavior coupled with cynical media coverage everywhere the Mets travel, who needs enemies?

5. Philadelphia Phillies - This is not a last-place team compositionally in this division or any other. The remarkable scenario in the AL East is this: not one team is likely to finish below .500 come season's end ­ and when's the last time that's happened in anyone's baseball memory? Someone has to finish last (technically), of course, and every team in this division is a prospective candidate ­ just as each is a potential division-winning contender. Slugger Jim Thome, who can carry a team when he's on, has struggled through the first half, just as the Phillies similarly have underperformed overall. Yet like the Mets ­ something's just not right in Philly. This is a team maybe in more need of psychoanalysis than it is of trades.

Teams making the Natinal League divisional playoffs this year:

St. Louis, San Diego, Atlanta and Florida (wild card).

The NL Championship Series:Atlanta versus Florida

The winner:


World Series:

Florida versus Boston

World Series Champion:


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