Marty Noble

Noble: Injuries complicate NL East race

Noble: Injuries complicate NL East race

Without so much as a decibel from a starter's pistol, the race for the National League East championship begins now, now that Chipper Jones has been betrayed by his knee and Shane Victorino has rejoined the active Phillies. Now, the race begins in earnest with the Braves leading, the Phillies pursuing them, and the Mets just watching and wondering, along with the Marlins and Nationals, which teams will enjoy the accommodations fourth and fifth place provide.

The Braves were off Thursday, but the Phillies moved closer, reducing their deficit to two games with the kind of unthinkable victory that underscores their resilience, the intangible that will serve them well as they chase the Braves. They had moved closer even before they came back against the Dodgers merely because of Victorino's return. If this were September -- the gun lap Dave Parker once identified as "Pantyhose Month -- no nonsense" -- it would be incumbent on all of us to recognize that the Phillies' deficit is the product of their having won two fewer games than the Braves and having lost two more than their prey. And the loss column would have to be identified as the "all-important" loss column.

But this is August, and this season is to stretch into the third day of October. So what's so urgent? This: Chipper isn't coming back, even if the season overlaps the Winter Meetings, and the Phillies have more than enough time to reprise their Silky Sullivan Septembers of 2007 and '08. They have more than enough time to welcome back Ryan Howard and Chase Utley and to walk so heavily that the Braves clearly hear the footsteps.

For all the Phillies haven't accomplished in the first 113 games, they have positioned themselves well for meeting the objective they identified in Clearwater, Fla., in February -- winning the division for the fourth straight season. Not that they have played so well, but despite injuries to key personnel, they have stayed close enough to the Braves that, if they had the reach of Randy Johnson, they could grab the leaders by the backs of their collars.

The Braves have done a remarkable job just staying ahead, despite their own physical predicaments -- Martin Prado remains disabled -- and the inconvenient truth that their personnel isn't comparable the talented teams that have won the past 15 East division championships -- Braves 1995-2005, Mets '06, Phillies 2007-09. And now Jones may limp off into the East sunset.

Not that he is comparable to the force he was for the Braves teams that denied all others in the East first-place finishes for 11 years. Indeed, if he doesn't return next season -- his agent says that is undecided -- the numbers he produced in 317 at-bats this year have the feel of those of a player about to retire. Anyway, the Braves already are quite accustomed to playing without him.

But diminished or not, Jones has pennant-race pedigree. And one or two last-hurrah swings by Chipper would be beneficial in race that promises to be as tight as Rickey's hamstrings ... unless the Phillies catch the Braves and run away.

The return of Victorino, so long as he can run, ought to serve the Phillies quite well. Howard and Utley do the heavy lifting, but without Victorino -- a David Eckstein-like pest with speed -- there isn't much to lift.

His return and the Braves' concerted effort to extend Bobby Cox's final season deep into October could make for grand September theater. The Braves can't be expected to collapse as the Mets did in '07 and '08. They won't hold the door open for the Phillies as those flawed Mets teams did. But they don't appear to be sufficiently equipped. Moreover, if the Phillies are determined to become the Yankees of the NL -- and they are -- they need another set of rings.

The rest of the division needs defibrillator paddles. The Nationals get an adrenalin jolt once every five days, as long as Stephen Strasburg stays in the rotation. The Marlins seem comfortable with mediocrity. And the Mets seemingly have reached the stage of acquired indifference -- so accustomed to disappointment that it is no longer troubling.

Their shutout defeat of the Rockies on Thursday notwithstanding, the Mets appear to have an erratic heartbeat. The burdens Oliver Perez and Luis Castillo have become and the problems of Francisco Rodriguez and Carlos Beltran are bound to complicate their arrhythmia.

They too could use a Victorino transfusion.

Marty Noble is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.