The Atlanta Braves continued their domination of the N.L. East in 2004, capturing their 10th consecutive division title by concluding the campaign with a record of 96-66 that left them 10 games ahead of the second-place Philadelphia Phillies. The defending world champion Florida Marlins finished a disappointing third in the division, 13 games behind Atlanta. Nevertheless, the Marlins featured one of the game's brightest young stars in 21-year-old Miguel Cabrera. In his first full major league season, Cabrera hit 33 home runs, drove in 112 runs, scored 101 others, and batted .294.
In spite of their distant second-place finish, the Phillies boasted the division's top offense. Philadelphia placed second in the league with 215 home runs and finished third with 840 runs scored. Jimmy Rollins, Bobby Abreu, and Jim Thome paced the Phillies on offense. Rollins batted .289, stole 30 bases, and placed among the league leaders with 119 runs scored. Abreu hit 30 homers, knocked in 105 runs, batted .301, and finished near the top of the league rankings with 118 runs scored and 127 walks. Thome homered 42 times, drove in 105 runs, and scored 97 others.
Despite Philadelphia’s potent offense, the Braves finished first in the division primarily on the strength of their superior pitching. Featuring a deep starting rotation that boasted four double-digit winners, Atlanta’s staff compiled a league-leading 3.74 team ERA. Jaret Wright and Russ Ortiz each won 15 games, John Thomson chipped in with 14 victories, and Mike Hampton added another 13 wins. Meanwhile, John Smoltz did an outstanding job working out of the bullpen, placing among the league leaders with 44 saves.
The Braves also had a considerable amount of talent on offense. Chipper Jones hit 30 home runs and knocked in 96 runs. Catcher Johnny Estrada batted .314 and drove home 76 runs. Rafael Furcal batted .279, scored 103 runs, and stole 29 bases. Andruw Jones hit 29 homers and knocked in 91 runs. J.D. Drew batted .305, drove in 93 runs, led the club with 31 homers, and finished among the league leaders with 118 runs scored and 118 bases on balls.
While the Braves remained the class of the N.L. East, the St. Louis Cardinals established themselves as the senior circuit’s strongest all-around team over the course of the regular season. The Cardinals dominated the N.L. Central, finishing the year with a major-league best 105-57 record, 13 games in front of the second-place Houston Astros. Houston, with 92 victories, advanced to the postseason as the league's wild-card entry.
The Astros made the playoffs by putting together an amazing late-season run that saw them win 36 of their final 46 games under manager Phil Garner, who replaced Jimy Williams at the helm after the All-Star break. Key to their success were the performances turned in by slugger Lance Berkman and pitchers Roy Oswalt and Roger Clemens. Berkman hit 30 home runs, knocked in 106 runs, scored 104 others, batted .316, and walked 127 times. Oswalt led all N.L. hurlers with 20 wins, compiled a 3.49 ERA, and struck out 206 batters. Clemens earned his record seventh Cy Young trophy by compiling a record of 18-4, an ERA of 2.98, and 218 strikeouts.
In spite of the efforts of Oswalt, Clemens, and Berkman, the Cardinals ran away with the division title. Easily the league’s most well-balanced team, the Cardinals topped the circuit with 855 runs scored, a .278 team batting average, and a .460 team slugging average, and they also finished near the top of the league rankings with 214 home runs and a 3.75 team ERA. Jeff Suppan led the Cardinals’ deep pitching staff with 16 victories. Joining him in the starting rotation were Chris Carpenter, Matt Morris, and Jason Marquis, each of whom won 15 games. Closer Jason Isringhausen tied for the league lead with 47 saves.
The formidable threesome of Jim Edmonds, Scott Rolen, and Albert Pujols led St. Louis on offense. Edmonds hit 42 home runs, knocked in 111 runs, scored another 102, batted .301, and collected the seventh Gold Glove of his career for his outstanding play in centerfield. Despite missing 20 games due to injury, Rolen hit 34 homers, drove in 124 runs, scored 109 others, and batted .314. Pujols placed among the league leaders with 46 home runs, 123 runs batted in, a .331 batting average, 51 doubles, a .415 on-base percentage, and a .657 slugging average. He also topped the circuit with 133 runs scored and 389 total bases. All three players earned top-five finishes in the N.L. MVP voting.
While the Cardinals and Braves had little difficulty finishing atop their respective divisions, the Los Angeles Dodgers waited until the season’s final weekend to clinch the Western Division crown. Leading the second-place Giants by just two games on the next-to-last day of the regular season, the Dodgers mounted a seven-run rally in the bottom of the ninth inning against San Francisco that gave them a 7-3 victory and their first division title in nine years. Steve Finley put Los Angeles in the playoffs by hitting a walk-off grand slam home run. The Dodgers concluded the campaign with a record of 93-69, two games ahead of the runner-up Giants, who finished one game behind Houston in the race for the wild-card.
Although the Giants failed to advance to the postseason for the first time in three years, they received another epic performance from Barry Bonds, who earned N.L. MVP honors for the fourth straight time, and for the seventh and final time in his career. In only 373 official at-bats, Bonds hit 45 home runs, drove in 101 runs, scored 129 others, and led the league with a .362 batting average, 232 walks, a .609 on-base percentage, and a slugging average of .812. His 232 bases on balls and .609 on-base
percentage both established new single-season major league records.
Placing second to Bonds in the MVP balloting was Dodger third baseman Adrian Beltre, who served as the driving force behind his team’s successful run to the playoffs. Beltre topped the senior circuit with 48 home runs, scored 104 runs, collected 200 hits, and finished near the top of the league rankings with 121 runs batted in, a .334 batting average, and a .629 slugging average. Closer Eric Gagne also had a huge year for Los Angeles, compiling a record of 7-3 and an ERA of 2.19, striking out 114 batters in 82 innings of work, and converting 45 of his 47 save opportunities.
However, the Dodgers proved to be no match for the Cardinals in the Division Series, losing to them in four games while being outscored by a combined margin of 22-12. The wild-card Astros defeated favored Atlanta in five games in the other first-round playoff series, winning a postseason series for the first time in the 43-year history of the franchise. Outfielder Carlos Beltran led the way for Houston by batting .455, hitting four homers, and driving in nine runs.
The Astros subsequently gave the Cardinals all they could handle in the NLCS, but St. Louis finally prevailed in seven tough games. Albert Pujols earned NLCS MVP honors by hitting four home runs, knocking in nine runs, scoring 10 others, and batting .500. Carlos Beltran continued his hot-hitting for the Astros, batting .417, hitting four homers, and scoring 12 runs in defeat.
St. Louis then ran into a buzz-saw against the Boston Red Sox in the World Series. Fresh off their unprecedented 0-3 comeback against the Yankees in the ALCS, the Red Sox swept the Cardinals in four straight games, outscoring them by a combined margin of 25-12.
Other outstanding performers, notable events, and points of interest from around the league follow:
• April 12 - Barry Bonds tied his godfather Willie Mays for third place on the all-time career home run list by hitting his 660th home run against Milwaukee Brewers starter Matt Kinney.
• July 4 – Barry Bonds broke Rickey Henderson’s career record for most bases on balls by walking for the 2,191st time in his career. He finished the season with 2,302 walks.
• September 17 - Bonds became just the third player in major league history to hit 700 career home runs by leaving the yard against San Diego’s Jake Peavy. Bonds joined Hank Aaron (755) and Babe Ruth (714) as the only members of the select 700-homer club.
• September 29 - Major League Baseball announced its intention to move the Montreal Expos to the Washington, D.C. area in 2005.
• In position to win the National League wildcard, the Cubs collapsed in the season’s final week, losing five straight games at home.
• Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Jason Bay (.282 with 26 homers) earned N.L. Rookie of the Year honors.
• Arizona’s Randy Johnson, age 41, led the major leagues with 290 strikeouts and finished second in the N.L. with a 2.60 ERA.
• Johnson hurled a perfect game against the Braves in Atlanta on May 18.
• Colorado’s Vinny Castilla led the National League with 131 RBIs.
• Rockies teammate Todd Helton hit 32 homers, collected 49 doubles, and batted .347.
• Jason Schmidt of the Giants tossed two one-hitters en route to an 18-7 season.
• San Diego’s Jake Peavy finished 15-6 with a league-leading 2.27 ERA.
• Chicago’s Greg Maddux won his 300th career game on August 7 at San Francisco.
• Cincinnati’s Ken Griffey, Jr. hit his 500th home run on June 20.
• San Diego's Mark Loretta collected 208 hits and finished third in the league with a .335 batting average.
• Chicago’s Moises Alou hit 39 home runs, knocked in 106 runs, scored 106 others, and batted .293.
• Cubs teammate Aramis Ramirez hit 36 homers, drove in 103 runs, scored 99 others, and batted .318.
• Philadelphia opened Citizens Bank Park after having played in Veterans Stadium since 1971.
• Ken Caminiti, the National League’s Most Valuable Player in 1996, died of drug-related heart problems on October 10.
• Former Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott died on March 2.
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