NL West Race: The 10 Biggest Surprises in MLB’s Most Competitive Division
As we enter the final two weeks of the 2010 season, we are witnessing an epic battle for first place in the National League West.
For fans out west, this has been one of the most exciting and memorable seasons in recent memory.
Three teams, still very much in the hunt for the division title and wild-card playoff berth will fight it out until the very end.
The National League West has evolved from the go nowhere, unenviable division to the most competitive and thrilling division in Major League Baseball.
Thanks in part to evenly matched teams, stand out players and a nail-biting race for the crown, the NL West is once again a respectable and exciting division.
The season has not exactly gone according to plan in the NL West. Certain teams have sunk, others have risen to prominence. Even some of the marquee players have slumped while others have burst onto the scene.
In the following pages we will see the 10 Biggest Surprises in the National League West.
Friar Latos and The San Diego Padres
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Is it a coincidence that in Mat Latos' first full season in San Diego, the Padres have controlled the NL West through most of the 2010 season?
Latos spearheads a very good and well-rounded Padres club. He joined the team in 2009, and pitched in 10 games. His ERA was an unexciting 4.62. Latos looked like any other good minor league prospect cutting his teeth in the majors.
In 2010, the Padres hit the ground running. Despite the lack of media support, the club continued to win games.
With a serviceable lineup anchored by slugger Adrian Gonzalez, the Padres were able to score a few runs a game.
The real bread and butter for the Padres is their entire pitching staff. From the starting rotation to the bullpen and finally the closer, the Padres are geared to keep runners off the base paths.
Their team ERA of 3.46 is second in the National League only to San Francisco.
Padres' ace Mat Latos has been one of their keys to success in 2010. His 2.84 ERA and 14-7 record don't exactly portray how he has been able to shut down opposing lineups, establishing scary control over a game before handing it over to San Diego's lights-out bullpen.
In April, the Padres were a fluke to the national media. In May they were an extended fluke. Through June and July, they were given a little more credit but still expected to fail. And in August, it looked as though Latos and the Padres would run away with it.
It was not until mid-September when the Padres were overtaken in the division standings by the San Francisco Giants. Through 9/20, they are a half-game behind the Giants for the lead in the NL West.
The U-Ball and Ubaldo Jimenez
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Ubaldo Jimenez has had three full seasons now in the Major Leagues with the Colorado Rockies. In each of these three seasons, Jimenez has improved and refined his game.
The 6'4 Dominican native throws right, and has an arsenal of pitches to get you out with. His four-seam fastball, dubbed the "U-ball," gets after you in the 98-100 mph range.
Hitters in the National League will tell you, Jimenez's stuff is nasty. His two-seam fastball has tailing movement, he can mix in a forkball, changeup, split-finger fastball, slider and a curveball.
In 2008 and 2009, you could tell the Rockies had something special in Ubaldo. It was just a matter of time before he put all of it together.
Much to the dismay of the rest of the division, that time came in 2010. Jimenez opened the season punishing batters.
He earned National League Pitcher of the Month for April and May...the first Rockie ever to do so.
On April 17, Jimenez hurled a no hitter at the Braves while visiting Atlanta. He went 11-1 to start the season. Ubaldo and his U-Ball were phenomenal.
And in 11 of those starts, he had a MLB record low ERA of .78.
Heading into the All Star break, Jimenez sported a 15-1 record. It seemed like nothing would stop Jimenez for putting together one of the most impressive seasons baseball has seen in quite a long time.
The Rockies who are known for not hitting their peak stride until the second half, would not be in striking distance of the NL West crown if not for Ubaldo Jimenez.
To date, he has a 19-6 record an ERA of 2.84.
Kung Fu Panda Loses His Chops
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In 2009, new comer Pablo Sandoval dazzled the NL West with his portly prowess in the batter's box. His charismatic ways and his remarkable athleticism for a big guy caught on big in San Francisco.
The Kung Fu Panda, as dubbed by his teammates, had an amazing year in his full first season in the Major League.
Sandoval adapted very quickly to pitching at the big league level, batting .330, with 25 home runs. Sandoval also drove in 90 runs, and played in 153 games.
He could switch hit with power, play a very respectable third base...the sky was the limit with the Panda's potential. The Kung Fu Panda became a respected and fear presence in the San Francisco lineup.
In 2010, the Giants saw a dramatic drop off in Sandoval's output. Through mid September, the Panda is scraping by with a .264 batting average.
The thump in his bat went quiet for months at a time and it was clearly obvious that Sandoval was many times lost at the plate.
With only 12 home runs and 60 RBI, the Giants have sorely missed the 2009 version of the Panda. Sophomore slump? Or is just as simple as a sequel never being as good as the original?
After the potential Pablo Sandoval showed in 2009, it is definitely a surprise to see such a funk take over a talented hitter for as long it has this season.
Carlos Gonzalez Goes Mile-High
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The Oakland Athletics are not known for keeping talent around very long.
In late 2007 the A's acquired Gonzalez and four other players from the Arizona Diamondbacks farm league. In 2008 Carlo Gonzalez's first seven major league at bats - he hit seven doubles.
So what did the A's do? They traded another up and coming star in Gonzalez (in a package deal, no less) to the Colorado Rockies for Matt Holliday. That worked out real good for Oakland, right?
Gonzalez has speed and power. He can patrol any outfield position, and has a knack for getting on base.
He had a very good year in 2009, batting .284 with and OPS of .878.
The 2010 version of Carlos Gonzalez is much better. Through September he is batting a blistering .340 with 107 RBI.
Gonzalez is almost always on base. His OPS of .987 is ridiculous. Even better, when he isn't on base, he's clearing them—he has 32 home runs to date for the Rockies.
Carlos Gonzalez is among the front runners for the NL MVP, along with Joey Votto and Albert Pujols. He is also in tight contention for a Triple Crown in batting with Pujols.
The Athletics probably knew how good he was, but I think Gonzalez took the NL West by surprise in 2010.
San Diego Padres Bullpen Comes Up Aces
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One of the key reasons that San Diego was able to maintain the lead in the NL West in 2010 is because of the success of their bullpen.
The Padres staff of relievers have been among the best in the National League all season.
Currently San Diego's relief ERA of 2.85 leads the National League. Their 510 strikeouts to date, and batting average against of .219 also tops the National League charts.
A number of the Padres bullpen are conditioned and ready to start games as needed, giving Manager Bud Black some valuable breathing room as San Diego prepares to mount one last charge for the post-season.
With quality relievers like Mike Adams, Luke Gregerson, Edward Mujica and closer Heath Bell, the Padres have been able to keep runs off the board late in games all year.
Heath Bell is the next best closer to San Francisco's Brian Wilson, with 42 saves to date.
If San Diego is able to catch fire again and make the playoffs, they will be the last team anyone wants to play in the National League.
Who knew a bullpen would be a large reason for that fact going into 2010.
The Fall Of Mannywood and The Dodgers
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What goes up, must come down. The Dodgers were up, with two straight post season appearances in 2008 and 2009. In 2010, Los Angeles came back down to Earth, with an unimpressive thud.
You would think that a team which won two straight division titles would have a decent chance at competing for another. Even though the Giants were favored to win the division, the Dodgers were the reigning champs at the start of the 2010 season.
But yet, after each passing week, each month closed out, the Dodgers fell deeper and deeper into obscurity and out of contention.
What went wrong in Los Angeles is probably a witch's brew of bad juju for any team. The Dodgers owners, Frank and Jamie McCourt began an off season war in 2009.
They had been estranged for some time, and in October 2009, Frank McCourt fired his wife Jamie as the team's Chief Executive. This would be the beginning of a long, drawn-out, messy divorce.
Although there seemed to be a power struggle forming in the brass of the Dodgers, they were still a good team, and as I mentioned, riding a division championship into 2010.
When the Dodgers basically stood pat during the offseason, there were murmurs and whispers that the Dodgers would fall a little short in 2010.
Manager Joe Torre recently announced he would step down following the season.
The colorful and braided Manny Ramirez had little optimism about staying with the club beyond 2010. He didn't make it through the season before being shipped out.
Additionally the Dodgers continued to try to shed payroll by dealing Blake Dewitt and Octavio Dotel. They even dangled Casey Blake on the waiver wires.
As good as the Dodgers have been in recent years, it is a surprise to see them in second to last place in the NL West.
The Franchise's Freakish Slump In San Francisco
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For the past two seasons, the San Francisco Giants could almost count on one thing as an absolute: Tim Lincecum was going to destroy whoever he pitched against and get a win.
Lincecum was the first player ever to win two Cy Young awards in his two first full seasons in the Majors.
His wind up almost resembles a poisonous snake coiling up before striking. His delivery is equally unorthodox (and complicated) with his unusually long stride towards the plate.
The result of this custom crafted motion was ridiculous. Here was a guy who was 5'11, 170 lbs wet throwing 98 mph with deceptive motion.
Coming into the 2010, the San Francisco Giants were picked by many to win the NL West. By the end of April, the Giants would begin a season long chase of the San Diego Padres.
Lincecum's fastball had lost some of his velocity, averaging about 92 mph and topping out around 95 mph. Even with that drop in speed, Lincecum was still a very effective pitcher.
For the first time in years, Giants fans were watching the NL West scoreboard intently...well before the All-Star break.
As the baseball season rolled into August, it was apparent that San Francisco needed Lincecum as bad as ever if they were going to catch the Padres.
Unfortunately, the floor fell out on Timmy's mechanics. For the first time in his career, he lost three straight starts, and that streak extended to five starts. Timmy was wild, inconsistent and ineffective during that spell.
It seemed like the Giants were done if Lincecum would not regain his Cy Young form. As August came and went, Lincecum found peace with his mechanics in September.
After two dominating seasons in a row, Tim Lincecum's inability to get it done in August was a surprise and concern for the Giants.
Troy Tulowitski Going Ballistic In September
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The now infamous late season surge by the Colorado Rockies is no major surprise.
It is an impressive team trait that the Rockies can put together streaks in August and September that bring them into contention.
Tulowitzki's success in the big leagues is well known. The California native plays shortstop with the best of them.
Narrowly missing the NL Gold Glove in 2007 to Jimmy Rollins, it was obvious Tulowitzki could pick it.
Troy Tulowitzki's value is immense, shortstops are usually heralded for their agility and defensive skills. Tulowitski is a professional hitter as well.
So if we knew all this coming into this piece, why are talking about Troy Tulowitzki in a big surprise piece?
Simple. This guy's offensive outburst here in September just might be hot enough to ensure the Rockies see another post season.
He has homered 14 times in September alone. Slugging percentage—1.000. And 19 games in September, 34 RBI with and OPS of 1.407.
While Gonzalez has been hot all season, it is truly Tulowitzki's late season surge that has Colorado vying for a NL West division title.
Pat Burrell Off The Scrap Heap and In The Hunt
The San Francisco Giants have not had a threatening offense in many years. Since the great Barry Bonds was released the Giants have had anemic run production.
Having one of the best rotations in baseball, the Giants desperately needed to add run support to their lineup.
They added a .300 hitter in Freddie Sanchez late in 2009. Juan Uribe became a pleasant addition to their lineup as well.
In the off-season, The Giants acquired Aubrey Huff who is having the time of his life in orange and black.
Buster Posey's call up also began to round out the lineup. But with Pablo Sandoval slumping long and hard, the Giants were still short in the offensive category.
Pat Burrell, the Phillies long time slugger was acquired when the Tampa Bay Rays designated him for assignment in May 2010.
Burrell's career seemed to be all but over until the Giants signed him to a minor league deal.
Less than a month later, Burrell was making his Giants debut in June. It was not long before Burrell's presence was making an impact. Burrell quickly endeared himself to fans with timely offensive support that been so lacking in San Francisco.
If he wasn't hitting home runs, or doubles, Burrell's presence in the lineup alone gave opposing pitching some pause. Hitters around Burrell enjoyed better at bats, as enemy managers now had to game plan his place in the order.
The best part is, Burrell came cheap. He is making $9 million this year, all Tampa's dime. As a Giant, Burrell has clobbered 16 homers, 14 doubles and 43 RBI. All that in 84 games.
I'm not sure which is the bigger surprise, Burrell being cast aside by the Rays, or his immediate success as a San Francisco Giant.
The National West Is The Toughest Division in Baseball?
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The National League West, for quite some time now has been one of the more forgotten divisions in professional baseball.
With many outstanding teams and players competing for this pennant, the NL West is often under the radar in terms of national attention.
Only in recent years has the division itself began to turn it around. Maybe it started with the Dodgers acquiring Joe Torre and other big names in a return providence.
Then again it could have been the Rockies and their late season runs at the post turning heads West for a change.
More often than not, the attention of the national sports media has favored the NL East, with the Phillies, Braves and Mets cornering the market.
Even the NL Central division boasts the St. Louis Cardinals, with lofty names like La Russa, Pujols, Wainwright, Holliday and Carpenter.
But in 2009, the landscape began to shift. There was an exciting pennant race in the National League, and it was happening out West. The Rockies, Dodgers, and Giants were fighting desperately until season's end for the division title. Los Angeles took the division, and Colorado snagged the Wild Card.
This year the drama is back, and the race even tighter. Although the Dodgers have faded from the picture this year, the Giants, Rockies and Padres are still very much in the hunt.
With less than two weeks to play in the regular season, 1.5 games separates the division leader to the third-place team. Even better, all three teams will play each other in a three game series before it is all over.
What other division in baseball can offer that kind of excitement? I hope everyone who is a fan or associated is pleasantly surprised at the quality of play taking place in the NL West.