1. Can two kids out of Class AA take the Marlins to the playoffs?
There's been so much talk about Jeff Francoeur in Atlanta or Ryan Zimmerman coming up to the Nationals, but the National League East could well be decided by two players straight out of Florida's Class AA team in Carolina. Their top prospect, Jeremy Hermida, made his major league debut on Wednesday night by slamming the third big league pitch he ever saw into the stands for a grand slam. Thus he became the first player in 107 years to hit a grand slam in his first major league at-bat.
The 21-year-old right fielder will probably split time in the outfield and be a valuable left-handed pinch hitter down the stretch. By bringing him up on Wednesday he will be postseason eligible. The Marlins love his 111 walks in Carolina and think he could be an immediate star in the majors.
The next day the Marlins called up shortstop Robert Andino, who probably won't play as much, given the position belongs to Alex Gonzalez. But he will get something of a chance because Florida is also treating this like an audition for next year. Gonzalez is a free agent. Andino is more of a free swinger than Hermida but had 21 stolen bases in 26 tries and could steal an important base in a tight pennant race. Remember Dave Roberts in Boston last year?
2. Are the Braves confident enough in their bullpen?
The Braves have had problems with their relievers this year, so much so that their lead in the National League East has seemed precarious. But in recent days their trade-deadline pickup, Kyle Farnsworth, has been dependable enough as a closer to let the Braves feel good enough about their bullpen to worry about other things.
Which is why in the days before Sept. 1, the big move wasn't to pick up another reliever but instead trade for left-handed bench player Todd Hollandsworth, who is known as a reliable pinch hitter.
Of course Atlanta's bullpen rewarded the team's renewed faith in it by giving up four runs in five innings to the Nationals last night.
3. Is Albert Pujols the best player in the National League?
So much of this season has been about Derrek Lee, the Cubs' first baseman who had been marching toward a triple crown. But as the August heat came, Lee began to wilt -- at least as much as a .344 hitting first baseman with 39 home runs and 94 RBI can wilt. He has fallen off the triple crown pace so much, however (14 behind in RBI, four back in home runs), that the attention is not being pushed toward Pujols, the Cardinals' first baseman.
He is all but certain to once again hit better than .300 hit 30 home runs and drive in more than 100 in each of his first five years in the major leagues. No one has ever done this before.
In fact, only three players -- Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio and Al Simmons -- have even had 100 RBI in their first five seasons.
"When you're talking about the best five years in major league history, how's that not huge?" Cardinals Manager Tony LaRussa told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "Whether it's 100 RBIs, the .300 batting average or 30 homers, it's huge. It's historic. We're not going to be cool about that one. We just saw history. I don't think you see history in this game that often. When you see it, you applaud it."
Strangely, Pujols has never won an MVP award, something that might finally change this season.
4. Why will the Phillies miss the playoffs?
Philadelphia leads the wild-card standings, but of course those change every day. And while the Phillies have ridden the bats of Ryan Howard and Bobby Abreu and received inspired performances from players like Jon Lieber and Billy Wagner, there are reasons they may be the worst-suited of all the wild-card contenders to actually make the postseason.
First, they have the hardest schedule. Starting next Tuesday the teams they face are teams that have handled them well all year. They have a .421 winning percentage against their remaining clubs, slightly worse than the Nationals' .435 and the Marlins' .474.
They also play 12 of their last 15 on the road. And leadoff hitter Jimmy Rollins just hit .188 in August. They also have two rookies, Robinson Tejada and Eude Brito, in the starting rotation.
5. Can anybody win a road game?
Already this was a season of great parity, where one division champion in the National League might not even win half its games and the winner in the other might fall short of 90 wins. But the inability of teams to win on the road this year is startling. In the NL, only St. Louis, at 43-24, has a winning road record. Everyone else is below .500, including the East-leading Braves, who are 33-35. Since divisional play began in 1969 this has only happened once -- Cincinnati in 1975 was 44-37 while everyone else was below .500.
In the American League there are six teams with winning road records. Three teams in baseball this year have yet to win their 20th road game. Colorado has 19 road victories, Tampa Bay 18 and Kansas City 17.
There are at least three other National League East teams with a decent shot at .500. Atlanta, Philadelphia and Florida are all three below .500 on the road.