The Daily Heat feature will post Tuesdays through Fridays for as long as pennant races are sizzling.
Well, it finally happened for the Arizona Diamondbacks.
On Wednesday night, and for the first time since late August, they gained on the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Three weeks ago, the Diamondbacks increased their NL West advantage by a game, 3½ games up to 4½games up, seemingly cruising despite a handful of flaws that had become a moving – but manageable – target for manager Bob Melvin.
In the next 15 days they lost nine games in the standings, from that 4½-game advantage to a 4½-game deficit. They still weren’t hitting, and they still were getting little consistency from their bullpen, but at least the rotation was strong, particularly the front end.
Turns out, Dan Haren and Brandon Webb the last two nights won consecutively for the first time since Aug. 20-21, and the Diamondbacks play tonight for a four-game sweep of the San Francisco Giants they desperately need. The Diamondbacks leave home for three games in Colorado and four in St. Louis, which doesn’t sound so bad, but they’ve lost 10 road games in a row and scored 22 runs in those games.
The Dodgers, meanwhile, return to L.A. for six against the Giants and San Diego Padres, against whom they are a combined 16-11. And they might do so without Nomar Garciaparra, who has been productive in something of a super-utility role. His left knee gave out rounding third Wednesday, the same knee that put him on the disabled list in July. He felt better Thursday morning, but Joe Torre will be cautious with him.
All the Diamondbacks have to do tonight is beat Tim Lincecum, who stands alongside CC Sabathia, Brett Myers and Roy Oswalt as baseball’s best starters since the All-Star break. In fact, since Lincecum was carried out of that Manhattan hotel room in July because of dehydration, he’s got 102 strikeouts in 78 innings, gaining hard on Webb for the NL Cy Young Award.
The Diamondbacks counter with Randy Johnson, who still knows a thing or two about strikeouts, but has found end-of-career longevity might be found in pitching to contact. Other than a rough go against the Cardinals a couple weeks ago, Johnson has been incredibly consistent since mid-July. Since then, his ERA (2.39) is better than Webb’s (3.31) and Haren’s (4.07).
Spoiler alert: The Astros have lost four in a row and, after a remarkable second half, look about done. Maybe Hurricane Ike knocked them off their game, but, if I recall, the Cubs also were put out, and good teams usually figure a way. Coop’s men have scored four runs in four games and have been outscored, 30-4. They’re going to have to jump two teams – the Brewers and either the Mets or Phillies – to take the wild card and they can’t take too many more hits like Wednesday night, when they lost and everybody else won. Their schedule is kind, however, their final nine games against the Pirates, Reds and Braves. Their chore tonight is Marlins left-hander Scott Olsen, whose erratic season produced a win on Friday, his first in nearly two months. He is tough at home, where his ERA (3.23) is 2½ runs better than it is on the road, and he’s won both of his career starts against the Astros.
Sheets of pain: Sounds bad for Ben Sheets, who couldn’t answer the bell for the third inning in Chicago because his elbow is barking, and the Brewers, who presumably will have to go with Manny Parra for a start or two or more. Sheets’ turn was due to come around Tuesday against the Pirates, then again in the season finale against the Cubs.
Mets bullpen moment of the day: Oh, were it just a single moment. Jerry Manuel required seven pitchers to navigate the final four innings against the Nationals, five to protect a four-run lead in the eighth and ninth innings. Perhaps fatigued from all those round trips to the mound, Manuel looked ahead to Johan Santana’s start in D.C. tonight and concluded, “Nine innings, 170 pitches, we’ll be all right.” He laughed. He had to. Bullpen ERA in September: 3.80.
They’re not alone: A few weeks after an AL scout predicted September would be “bullpen breakdown month,” 15 games were played Wednesday night, and 114 relievers were summoned. That’s an average of 7.6 relievers per game, 3.8 per team. Daily Heat recognizes Aaron Harang, who pitched all nine against the circling-the-drain Cardinals.
Sophomore sphinx: Nice perspective in The Tampa Tribune from Carlos Pena, whose Rays have Evan Longoria as a Rookie of the Year possibility, but no MVP or Cy Young candidates: “You put together all these little parts and you build a pyramid, stone by stone.”
Today: It’s about Santana, who cost the Mets plenty in players and payroll. It’s about September, when aces show up. And it’s about winning when you’re supposed to, like when the opponent is the last-place Nats, and the schedule then brings three games in Atlanta, four against the Cubs and three against the Marlins. It’s a critical afternoon for the Mets in D.C. and against right-hander Tim Redding.