5 National League Players Who Need to Have a Big Week

Ian Casselberry@iancassMLB Lead WriterMay 14, 2012

5 National League Players Who Need to Have a Big Week

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    The picture is beginning to come into focus in the National League.

    Two of the three division races are tightening up, with the Washington Nationals being overtaken by the Atlanta Braves in the NL East, while in the NL Central, the Cincinnati Reds are entirely visible in the St. Louis Cardinals' rear-view mirror. 

    So we're concentrating on those two divisions for this list this week. Several teams are facing important series that could play a role in how these races play out. And those teams have hitters or pitchers that have to come through and contribute toward some wins. 

    Here are five National League players who really need to have a good week for their respective clubs.

Jake Westbrook, St. Louis Cardinals

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    With a 1.76 ERA that ranks fifth in the NL, St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Jake Westbrook has been one of the season's early surprises. 

    Much like his team, however, Westbrook has benefited from facing lesser competition in the NL Central and hasn't truly been tested yet this season. Five of Westbrook's six starts have come against teams with records currently under .500. (But let's give him credit for holding the Cincinnati Reds to one run at Great American Ball Park.)

    Later this week, the Cardinals venture out of the NL Central for a West Coast road trip. To make a good showing against the top two teams in the NL West, the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants, St. Louis needs to keep getting good pitching. That starts with Westbrook, who has starts on Monday and Saturday. 

    Westbrook gets an NL Central team to begin his week, facing the Chicago Cubs at Busch Stadium. But he's not likely to get much run support, as Ryan Dempster and his league-leading 1.02 ERA pitch for the Cubs. On Saturday, if everything holds to schedule, Westbrook will have to face the Dodgers with Clayton Kershaw pitching for them. 

    Getting matched up against two aces is a tough draw for Westbrook. He'll have to be sharp to keep the Cardinals competitive in those games. 

Jon Rauch, New York Mets

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    As I wrote about earlier on Monday, the New York Mets are likely contemplating making a change at closer. At the very least, Frank Francisco needs a break after giving up five runs in his last two appearances and attempting to take out his frustration on umpires.

    If Mets manager Terry Collins takes Francisco out of the closer role for the time being, the expected replacement is setup man Jon Rauch. Though Bobby Parnell looks to be a better candidate, based on his strikeout stuff, Collins will likely opt for experience as a ninth-inning stopper, which Rauch has with the Nationals, Twins and Blue Jays.

    While Rauch hasn't been blowing hitters away, striking out only seven batters in 15 1/3 innings, he's been one of the Mets' most reliable relievers this season. Rauch has compiled a 2.93 ERA, allowing five runs total. 

    The 6'11" right-hander also has 59 saves in 88 opportunities over his 10-year major league career. While many would roll their eyes at the idea that Rauch is preferable as a closer because he has experience in the role, the Mets need someone reliable to replace Francisco, not a reliever who might melt down under pressure. 

    If Francisco (or Parnell) blows a lead or two in the ninth this week, that lack of confidence could throw the pitching staff out of whack and result in losing more games the Mets can't afford to lose right now. Sure, Rauch could fail in the role. But Collins would then have the opportunity to go back to a calmer Francisco (which he's probably going to do anyway). 

    For now, the Mets need a steady hand. And it's the one connected to Rauch's massively tattooed arm.

Ryan Zimmerman, Washington Nationals

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    Just when you think the Washington Nationals can't suffer another major injury to a position player, someone gets seriously hurt and further tests the depth of their roster. 

    On Saturday, the Nats lost catcher Wilson Ramos for the season with a torn ACL. With him go a .752 OPS, three home runs and 10 RBI. Superstar numbers, no. But there's a solid bat that a Nats lineup starved for runs needs in the lineup every day.

    That puts more of a burden on the hitters still standing to help keep the Nationals offense afloat, let alone improve on a 122-run total that's the third-lowest in the NL. 

    This shouldn't fall on rookie Bryce Harper. He's still trying to figure out the major league game, which appears to be catching up with him. (Of course, Harper isn't helping himself by whacking himself in the head with his bat. D.C. Sports Bog has images of the damage.) 

    The Nationals need their cornerstone player to begin swinging a bat that helped earn him a six-year, $100 million contract extension. Zimmerman's .235/.337/.333 slash average with one homer and seven RBI isn't even close to the kind of production they need from him, especially now.

    Adam LaRoche can't keep doing this thing by himself. Maybe facing the Padres and Pirates this week will help get Zimmerman's bat going. 

Homer Bailey, Cincinnati Reds

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    When last we saw Homer Bailey on the mound, it didn't go so well for him. Facing the Milwaukee Brewers, Bailey was rocked for six runs and six hits in 3 2/3 innings, easily the worst of his six starts this season.

    Though Johnny Cueto has been outstanding and Bronson Arroyo has been dependable, the Reds need another starting pitcher to come through if they're going to challenge the Cardinals in the NL Central. The Cards look vulnerable after getting swept by Atlanta and having their division lead reduced to 2 1/2 games.

    Unfortunately, the Reds have a difficult schedule that might make it difficult for them to capitalize on the reeling Cardinals. The Braves, Mets and Yankees are lined up for Cincinnati this week. 

    Bailey is set to pitch twice this week and has a tough draw, facing the Braves and Yankees, two of the strongest lineups in baseball. Both starts are on the road, as well.

    Despite the task at hand, the Reds need Bailey to pitch well in both starts and show that he's not going to be knocked around every time he faces a good lineup. His prospects don't look encouraging, but if he can keep the Reds in both games, they have a chance to make the NL Central race even closer. 

Hunter Pence, Philadelphia Phillies

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    Winning two of three from the San Diego Padres over the weekend was a positive step for a Philadelphia Phillies team that was sinking badly after suffering a three-game sweep by the New York Mets.

    The Phillies can continue improving by feasting on a soft schedule, facing three under-.500 teams in the Astros, Cubs and Red Sox. (Of course, those teams might be looking at the sub-.500 Phillies and thinking the same thing.) 

    One thing that would certainly help the Phillies' cause this week is for Hunter Pence to break out of his slump. He still leads the team in home runs and RBI, but is 0-for-10 in his last three games and 2-for-23 in his past six. 

    The Phillies are no longer embarrassingly bad in terms of run production, but they still scored only 11 runs in three games against the San Diego Padres and have one of the lowest run totals in the NL. Part of that is due to their cleanup hitter putting up zeroes in his box score. 

    Pence could get better in a hurry this week. It'll certainly be easier for him now than when he has to face the Nationals and Cardinals pitching staffs next week.

    But Pence has also hit poorly at home, compiling an OPS of .582. Unfortunately for him, five of their seven games are at Citizens Bank Park. This would be a great time for him to turn that around. 

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