- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 21, 2009

POINT/COUNTERPOINT

Each week, Nationals beat writers Mark Zuckerman and Ben Goessling debate an issue in major league baseball. This week’s question: Other than the Dodgers, which is the best team in the National League?

MARK ZUCKERMAN: The Phillies, defending World Series champs and winners of eight straight entering Monday, surely are the popular choice. But I still think that team has a lot of issues, most notably in the starting rotation.

There is, however, another team having a surprisingly strong season and not getting much publicity for it: the Giants. Sure, San Francisco has no chance of catching Los Angeles in the NL West, but manager Bruce Bochy’s team is the front-runner right now to win the wild card. With the best 1-2 pitching punch in the league (Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain) plus Randy Johnson and no-hit wonder Jonathan Sanchez filling out the rotation, this is a club I certainly wouldn’t want to face come October.

BEN GOESSLING: Oooh, this is a tough one - which is another way of saying the NL is so mediocre that it’s hard to pick another team out of the bunch. I like the Giants but with one caveat - if the Phillies get Roy Halladay, this all changes. As it is, I don’t think the Phillies are that far behind San Francisco, especially with Raul Ibanez healthy and Jimmy Rollins starting to hit. That, combined with Jayson Werth’s emergence, makes this maybe the most dangerous lineup in the NL.

And if we’re talking about October, there’s another problem for the Giants: They’ll probably have to go into Citizens Bank Park in the first round and try to beat the Phillies there. Best team besides the Dodgers? The Giants by a hair now, but it could be the Phillies soon.

MZ: If Halladay is leading the Phillies’ pitching staff this time next month, yes, everything changes. And if Pedro Martinez is even a shell of his old self, that will make a huge difference, too. How great would Halladay and Hamels vs. Lincecum and Cain be for a first-round playoff matchup?

First things first, though: For the Giants to get there, I think they need to add some offensive punch to a weak lineup. Outside of Pablo Sandoval, they don’t have any regulars hitting over .277. They could really use a proven, veteran hitter. Nick Johnson, anyone?

BG: That series would be a lot of fun, there’s no doubt - and I agree with you about the Giants needing a hitter. That has been their glaring weakness for a long time, and if the offense doesn’t get better, it puts a lot of stress on that pitching staff when the inevitable prolonged slump comes.

The Giants probably will get some heat from the Cubs and/or Brewers for that wild-card spot, but if they win it, I could see them making a deep run. But if the Phillies get Halladay, they might become the favorites in the NL - Dodgers or no Dodgers.

AWARD TRACKER

Looking at the front-runners for baseball’s season awards. This week: AL rookie of the year

Andrew Bailey, Athletics

There probably were a handful of players inside the AL clubhouse at Busch Stadium last week who had no idea who that right-hander wearing the Oakland uniform was. Bailey certainly was the most anonymous All-Star in St. Louis, but he deserved to be there. The 25-year-old came out of nowhere to anchor Oakland’s bullpen, posting a 1.98 ERA, 10 saves and a stellar 65-to-19 strikeout-to-walk ratio so far. In a weak year for AL rookies, Bailey has been the best.

Others to watch: Nolan Reimold, Orioles; Rick Porcello, Tigers; Ricky Romero, Blue Jays

MLB POWER POLL

Rank, team Record Comment

1. DODGERS 58-34Even with a big lead in West, they can’t get complacent.

2. RED SOX 55-36 Julio Lugo gets released. All of New England celebrates.

3. YANKEES 54-37 That was a big sweep of the Tigers to open second half.

4. ANGELS 52-38 They ruined Brett Anderson’s no-hit bid in Oakland.

5. RAYS 51-41 The strangest sight at the All-Star Game: five Rays players.

6. PHILLIES 51-38 Having won eight straight, maybe they don’t need Roy Halladay.

7. GIANTS 50-41 Time for Brian Sabean to add a bat to a great pitching team.

8. ROCKIES 50-42 The Jim Tracy surge is no longer a fluke.

9. CARDINALS 51-43 Albert Pujols will take homers in games instead of the derby any day.

10. TIGERS 48-42 They got swept by the Yankees; are they for real or not?

Records and stats through Sunday

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