PLAYER TO WATCH
Carlos Beltran, OF, New York Mets
The Mets have been without their All-Star center fielder since his Jan. 13 knee surgery. In his first game back, Beltran went 1-for-4 and was caught stealing in New York’s 2-0 loss to Tim Lincecum and the Giants on Thursday. Angel Pagan (.311, 6 HRs, 40 RBI) has filled in well for the injured Beltran, but the Mets need their three-time Gold Glove winner in the field and at the plate to catch the Braves in the NL East or to grab the highly competitive NL wild card.
1. Beckett back? » Red Sox ace Josh Beckett says he’s healthy and ready to return to the rotation … and Boston needs him. Tim Wakefield is not getting the job done. The knuckleballer allowed seven runs in two innings against the Rangers on Thursday to bump his ERA to 5.65 and drop his record to 3-8. The Red Sox have overcome injuries to score the most runs in the majors, but they need pitching help to make a run at the Yankees and Rays. What Boston doesn’t need is for Beckett to have a 7.29 ERA, like he did in eight starts to open the season.
2. What are the Brewers doing? » Wasn’t it just two summers ago that Milwaukee was trading for CC Sabathia? Maybe the Brewers realized that was their last best shot at a title because it’s been downhill ever since. Now the team is talking about trading away both first baseman Prince Fielder and outfielder Corey Hart. Entering the second half of the season, those were two of the five best home-run hitters in the game. Simple economics, though, as Milwaukee rebuilds. Hart is a one-dimensional player who could help the Brewers get younger. Fielder is another story. He is a Scott Boras client who’ll want top dollar when he becomes a free agent after the 2011 season. But given his — ahem — frame, Milwaukee likely won’t pay it. Time to cash in its biggest chip.
3. Why defense matters » Chicago Cubs. Baltimore. Cleveland. Pittsburgh. Washington. What do they all have in common? Awful defense and — more importantly — records way below .500. Pitching and hitting get all the attention. But nothing helps a team get better faster than good old-fashioned glove work. It’s why you want the Nats’ opponent to hit the ball right at third baseman Ryan Zimmerman (eight errors) — and not at shortstop Ian Desmond (21 errors). It’s not foolproof. The Tigers and Dodgers both make a ton of errors, but are still contending. But they’re doing so in spite of their defensive woes. Of the eight teams in a playoff position entering the second half only Texas (13th) and Atlanta (19th) ranked outside of the top nine in fewest errors committed.
SERIES TO WATCH
Padres at Braves, Tuesday-Thursday
No one expected Atlanta and San Diego to be leading their divisions at this point in the season. The Padres have relied heavily on their pitching staff with a league-leading ERA. The Braves pitching staff is fourth in the majors in ERA, but are getting more offensively than their NL West leading counterpart. Troy Glaus, Jason Heyward, Martin Prado and Brian McCann have all had solid years at the plate. But if Chipper Jones starts hitting, the Braves could run away with the NL East.
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