NL pennant race heating up

August 4, 2012 

Now that the trade deadline has passed and we know what the rosters will look like for the stretch drive, it’s obvious the Atlanta Braves are going to be in one heck of a pennant race in the NL for the next two months.

The first-place Washington Nationals didn’t really do anything to help their roster, but they could have argued they didn’t really need to. They’ve either led or tied for the NL East lead for all but 10 days this season. Washington is pretty good, with a great pitching staff, a great manager in Davey Johnson and a lineup that is better now with outfielder Jayson Werth back from his injury.

The biggest thing to watch with the Nationals will be Stephen Strasburg. Will Washington shut down the ace pitcher after 160 innings, as they have threatened to do? Most believe it’s a smokescreen. Why would you not allow your best starter to pitch when you need him the most?

But here’s another question about Washington. Teams that are pretty new to first place sometimes hit a slump in August. If that happens to the Nationals, can they dig themselves out of a hole? What if Atlanta catches the Nationals? Those Washington players have never really been in a race before, so will they collapse, or are the Nationals good enough to avoid the dog days of a summer slump?

In the NL Central, Cincinnati has been red-hot (pun intended) the past three weeks. They were 18-3 since the All-Star break entering Saturday’s game against Pittsburgh. The Reds just added Jonathan Broxton to the bullpen, and putting him with Aroldis Chapman gives Cincinnati two unbelievable flamethrowers at the end of the pitching staff.

Remember the last time Cincinnati won the World Series, in 1990? They had Rob Dibble, Norm Charlton and Randy Myers -- three outstanding relievers who threw heat. That franchise is hoping for the same luck with the same formula this year.

Pittsburgh teased us last year with a strong first half, but the Pirates flattened out and became the same old Pirates after that long, 19-inning loss in Atlanta on July 26. So far this season, Pittsburgh has not really hit a roadblock. They are right with Atlanta as the two wild-card leaders right now, but it will be a test to see if the young Pirates, who have never been in a pennant race, either, can keep up the pace.

Don’t forget about St. Louis. While the Cardinals are back a bit in the NL Central, they started Saturday only 3½ games back in the wild-card race. Does St. Louis have another late-season run planned? Even without Albert Pujols, the Cardinals have the core talent to make a push for the playoffs. We learned last year not to count St. Louis out.

The NL West is going to be a lot of fun to watch. San Francisco and Los Angeles are in a tight race, and now Arizona has climbed into the picture, as well. The Giants added Hunter Pence and the Dodgers added Shane Victorino before the trade deadline. Those two former Phillies could be big factors in the race, as both should help those two teams score more runs.

Atlanta is going to have to play better against Washington in the final six games between the two teams. They are 4-8 against the Nationals so far, with three to play in Washington in three weeks and then three in Atlanta in mid-September.

But let’s be honest. Even while the Braves have been very, very good since the All-Star break, this has been a season of ups and downs for Atlanta. The key for this pennant race for the Braves might simply be Atlanta being hot at the right time.

That might seem simple, but think about it. We’ve seen the past few weeks how good the Braves can be, so what would happen if they played like this in late September and into October? They might just have a good chance to do something special.

Listen to “The Bill Shanks Show” from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WPLA Fox Sports 1670 AM in Macon and online at www.foxsports1670.com. Follow Bill on Twitter@yahoo.com.

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