May 2012

5 AL East teams separated by 3 1/2 games and other thoughts from an unpredictable season

First, thanks to Rays PR man Rick Vaughn and his staff for the following: In the American League East, five teams are separated by 3 1/2 games. Also all five teams are above .500. Since the current divisional alignment began in 1994, today is just the seventh time a division has been bunched this closely. It’s the first time it has ever happened in the American League.

Those numbers speak volumes about how blurry the playoff races. The Rangers and Dodgers have controlled their divisions from day one, and they both appear to have staying power. Otherwise, there’s not one other team that you can say with confidence will be in the playoffs.

In both the American League East and the National League East, the race seems to get reset every few days. One day, the Rays look like the best team in the AL East. Forty-eight hours later, the Yankees seem to be a bit better than everyone else. The Orioles are once more a factor, and the Red Sox have methodically played themselves back into the conversation.

Likewise, the National League East seems to change shapes every day or so. The Phillies have been so decimated by injuries that it’s easy to wonder when they’ll be dealing with more than they can overcome. But Charlie Manuel has managed to piece together a competitive offense even without Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, and Kyle Kendrick has been a godsend for the starting rotation.

The Braves looked like the best team in the division for awhile, but then things started to happen. They’ve had trouble winning with Chipper Jones out of the lineup. They’ve got injuries and slumps up and down their roster, forcing Fredi Gonzalez to improvise until things become normal again.

The Nationals have that terrific starting rotation, and a nice bullpen. But if Stephen Strasburg is held to that 160-inning limit, the Nationals could be scrambling to fill holes. For the moment, the Marlins appear to be the best teams top to bottom, especially with Heath Bell holding down the ninth inning.

Maybe the two divisions will be won by the team that’s able to get its injured players back or can make a trading deadline move to shore up a weak spot. It’s just just that the races are close. It’s that a bunch of teams seem capable of winning. Fresh off the memory of 2011, it’s silly to county any team out, and maybe that’s how it ought to be.

If you want some insight into the real Ozzie Guillen, check out his handling of Heath Bell.

It’s too bad that Ozzie Guillen is best known for saying outrageous things, silly things. If you judge Ozzie Guillen by the headlines he generates, you’ll have Ozzie all wrong. Inside baseball, the men who’ve managed against Ozzie or played for him know a different Ozzie. This Ozzie is a really, really good manager. He’s good with people, and when the game starts, he’s very, very good.

Heath Bell is learning what it’s like to play for Ozzie. That is, Bell is finding out that Ozzie doesn’t abandon his players, that he gives them every possible chance to succeed. If things go south, he’s going to stick by a guy as long as he possibly can. He’s not going to punish the other 24 guys on the team, but he’s virtually always going to take the long view.

Ozzie has stuck with Heath Bell longer than a lot of other managers would. He has other options in his bullpen, but as he has said all along, “We’re a good team. We’re a better team with Heath Bell as our closer.”

Ozzie pulled the plug on Heath as his closer earlier this season, but even then, he announced very loudly that he simply was allowing Heath to take a deep breath and that he expected and hoped he’d get back to pitching the end of games as quickly as possible.

Bell did indeed get his job back and finished seven straight games. He converted four straight games, too, and with the Marlins playing the way they were expected to play, all seemed right with the world. Then Bell was unable to finish games both Saturday and Sunday.

Ozzie stayed with his guy. There’s no instruction book on dealing with a struggling closer. Does he risk shattering a guy’s confidence by removing him from the closer’s role a second time? On the other hand, there’s no reason to punish the other 24 players because the closer is unable to finish game.

“This is a very touchy sensitive point,” Guillen told reporters Sunday afternoon. “Like I told him a couple of minutes ago, it’s going to be tough for us to win if Heath Bell is not our closer.”

Bell got Sunday off during a 3-2 loss to the Giants, but with a two-run lead to protect on Memorial Day, Guillen went right back to Bell and got a perfect ninth for his eighth save. He’s 8 for 12 in save chances, which is not exactly Mariano Rivera stuff.

But Ozzie’s longer view is that his boss, GM Larry Beinfest, constructed his pitching staff with the idea of getting the ball to Heath Bell. Since an 8-14 start, the Marlins have sprinted back into contention by winning 19 of 27 and getting within 2 1/2 games of first place. As Guillen said, the Marlins are a good team, but they’re better with Heath Bell pitching the ninth inning. If it doesn’t work out, Bell will know his manager gave him every opportunity.

Let me tell you they’ve been laying it on thick at Fenway Park this weekend

Joe Maddon summed up his feeling for the Red Sox with these words: Ridiculous. Absurd. Idiotic. Incompetent. Cowardly behavior. Bobby Valentine fired back with a few of his own about the Rays: Unprofessional. Immature. Aggravating. Agitating. Instigating. Out of control.

I just wish these boys would stop hiding their true feelings and say what they really mean. First, a clarification. On Saturday, Maddon made it clear that he was not referring to Red Sox players. In fact, he went out of his way to praise them. Yet he made a point of letting his initial words stand. In other words, take that, Bobby V.

Look, I like Bobby Valentine. I think he’s really smart and an essentially decent man. He’s got a big ego, and at times, a big mouth, too. At times, both have gotten him into trouble. If he had it to do over again, he would have chosen his words more carefully earlier this season when he publicly wondered if Kevin Youkilis was “as physically or emotionally into the game as he has been in the past…”

He might have lost every player in his  clubhouse with those comments, and it appears he has spent the last month trying to win back the trust of his guys. Maybe, just maybe, the Youkilis incident is what caused him to go way overboard Friday night after a bench-clearing brawl that began with Luke Scott getting plunked and heading for the mound.

Bobby V. might have gone on the offensive to let his guys know he has their back. So when Maddon ripped the Sox via Twitter after Friday’s game, Valentine came out firing on Saturday.

“I took offense to the aggressiveness of their coaches,’’ he said. “I thought it was really unprofessional.”

Bobby V. has spent the last 44 of his 62 years in and around professional baseball. He played in 639 Major League games and has managed another 2,235. I doubt very seriously if anything that happened at Fenway Park really offended him. I mean, stuff happens. Guy gets hit. Guy decides to fight pitcher. Cussing and shoving ensue. Then everyone goes back to their dugouts, and play resumes. Similar things have been going on for well over 100 years.

Footnote: Boston pitchers lead the Majors with 25 HBP. Meanwhile, the Rays have been hit 30 times–11 more than any other American League team. Meanwhile, Rays pitchers have hit just 14 batters, tied for eighth in the AL.

So this is what the Yankees were supposed to look like

In the last run through the rotation, the Yankees got four quality starts and a 3.62 ERA. That’s not dazzling stuff, but it’s a nice step in the right direction. If C.C. Sabathia, Andy Pettitte, Ivan Nova and Phil Hughes keep rolling out quality starts, the American League East is going to get awfully interesting. Even if the Orioles are the real deal, even if the Rays continue to play well, the Yankees are plenty capable of winning the division.

The Yankees began this season as a consensus pick to finish first or second in their division. If nothing else, they would be back in the playoffs for the 17th time in 18 seasons. That analysis seemed to be in doubt as the Bronx Bombers were gutted by injuries. Other teams have had injuries, especially the Rays, who have 10 players on the disabled list, but the Yankees have had a staggering number: Mariano Rivera, David Robertson, Joba Chamberlain and Michael Pineda. All four were penciled in for roles this season, and only Robertson will return.

Suddenly, Pettitte’s return wasn’t a luxury. With Hughes and Hiroki Kuroda pitching so poorly, the Yankees needed him to be a contributor. When Cashman telephoned him last winter to invite him to return after taking a year off, it seemed like a case of the rich getting richer. When he threw that first bullpen session, there were significant questions about where he’d fit in.

It’s not just the pitching that was worrying Cashman and Girardi. They kept talking about guys having track records and that eventually the numbers on the back of the bubble gum cards being the numbers that showed up on the field. But they knew that Alex Rodriguez was no longer a young player and that Mark Teixeira was coming off a year unsatisfying by his high standards. In their private moments, they must have wondered if too many parts of the team were trending downward.

The Yankees won their fourth game in a row Saturday, and at 25-21, are in third place, a mere 3 1/2 games out of first place. Four games is way too small a sample size even for those of us who prefer to make a pronouncement every 20 minutes. But there have been plenty of positive signs. The Yankees have won their last three by the combined score of 23-8, and in those three games, the guys in the middle of their lineup–Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and Robinson Cano–have gone 14 for 38 with seven home runs.

If A-Rod and Tex have snapped back to normalcy, this will be a tough, tough team to beat. In addition to the sheer amount of talent up and down the roster, in addition to the confidence that comes from being in the postseason almost every year, the Yankees also have the resources–both financial and in minor league depth–to fill needs at the trading deadline.

Just a few days ago, it looked like Cashman would have so many needs that there’s no way he could fill them all. At the moment, with Robertson probably returning to the bullpen next month, the Yankees may not need a thing. If anything has changed, it’s the dynamics of the American League East.

The Orioles appear to have staying power, and the Rays will be a factor. The Blue Jays are throwing enough young players out there to make themselves a wild card, of sort. As for the Red Sox, it’s impossible to figure them out. If Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz have big years, they’re likely to stay in contention, but it has been a rough ride so far.

In the last few weeks, as things have looked so unsettling around the Yankees, Cashman kept waiting to see the team he expected to see. He believed in the guys Girardi kept running out there and wasn’t about to make a change just for the sake of making a change. Now, at least for a few days, these are the Yankees a lot of us thought we’d see. Stay tuned.

The Orioles have their best day of the season, and winning again is only part of the story as big crowds return to Camden Yards

Once upon a time, it was the toughest ticket in all of baseball. Yes, tougher than Fenway Park, tougher than Wrigley Field, tougher than anywhere. To attend a game at Oriole Park at Camden Yards meant planning weeks in advance, or finding a friend of a friend who might sell you a couple. Between 1992 and 2000, the Orioles led the American League in attendance four times and were second five times. They drew more than 3.6 million fans four times and never fewer than 3 million with the exception of the strike-shortened 1994 season.

One of the saddest sights in baseball these last few years has been seeing highlights of a nearly empty Camden Yards, but that’s one of the prices franchises pay for 14 consecutive losing seasons. Attendance declined from a high of 3.7 million in 1997 to 1.76 million last season. Now with the Orioles cruising along at 29-17, with them playing with energy, with young guys, with one of the game’s best managers having instilled a completely different mindset in the clubhouse, the big crowds are returning to Birdland.

According to my colleague Brittany Ghiroli, the Orioles drew 28,954 for their 8-2 victory over the Royals Friday night. Best of all, that number included nearly 11,000 walk-up tickets purchased, a new stadium record. There’s still work to be done. Their average of 21,949 would be the third-lowest in the ballpark’s 21 seasons, but it’s a start. If the Orioles are as good as they appear to be, this will be a fun summer in Baltimore.

Baseball is better off when the Orioles are really good. This is one of the game’s iconic franchises. From Brooks Robinson to Cal Ripken, the Orioles were once one of baseball’s smartest and most efficient franchises, a franchise that defined doing things the right way.

When I moved to Baltimore in 1984, I learned the importance of having homegrown players. I saw it later with the Astros, who went to the playoffs six times in a nine-year period between 1997 and 2005. When the Orioles would summon minor leaguers in those days, they were, in a sense, already teammates with the veteran players.

They’d made many of the same minor league stops and had many of the same instructors, especially Cal Ripken Sr., who was largely responsible for something that came to be known as The Oriole Way. There was a top-to-bottom way of doing everything, from taking cutoff throws to doing rundown drills to doing defensive alignments. It was a physical thing and a confidence thing, but it was most of all a mindset.

“It’s great to be young and an Oriole,” Eddie Murray would chirp. If that sounded like a cliche, it wasn’t. The Orioles had a small operation, but a close one. Their offices at Memorial Stadium were physically close to the home clubhouse, and players and employees interacted with one another, respected one another, saw the world the same way. They didn’t agree on everything except one little thing: They all knew it was a privilege to be associated with the Baltimore Orioles.

The Orioles have been lousy the last few years, but they’re benefitting from some of those terrible years. Former GM Andy MacPhail did a nice job accumulating a reservoir of talent that has helped this turnaround. New GM Dan Duquette’s trade for Jason Hamel has worked out great for the O’s. Manager Buck Showalter deserves enormous credit for setting a new standard, for getting his guys to play smart baseball. He let every guy in that clubhouse know that the things that may have been acceptable in other years no longer would be acceptable. The Orioles are 16-6 in games decided by two runs or less and 13-4 in games decided in the seventh inning or later.

These Orioles lead the American League in home runs and strikeouts and are next to last in stolen bases. The Earl of Baltimore would love these Birds, wouldn’t he? Adam Jones (.310, 14 HR, 31 RBI) is in the MVP conversation at this point, and Nick Markakis, Chris Davis and J.J. Hardy have all been good.

Jim Johnson is at the end of a bullpen that has been terrific. It’s second in the AL in ERA, but also second in innings. If there’s one worrisome aspect to these Birds, this is it. Then again, nothing should spoil this nice little ride. With a very good team and big crowds, the Orioles are relevant again, and that’s plenty right now.

It’s not news that Albert Pujols has had a strange season, but it has probably been stranger than you think.

Albert Pujols was absolutely awful for about 22 games, a stretch that began April 20th and ended  with three infield hits on May 15th. He batted .136 and had two extra base hits in 80 at-bats. The Angels went 10-12 and dropped as far as nine games behind the Rangers. To say things got a little uptight in the Angels clubhouse would be an understatement of the highest order.

Pujols got real tired of questions about his performance. General manager Jerry Dipoto axed hitting coach Mickey Hatcher. Rightly or wrongly, that decision was seen as a shot at Mike Scioscia, who is extremely close to Hatcher and had never fired a coach. Speaking of that move, the Angels were scoring 3.6 runs per game while Hatcher was the hitting coach. Since letting him go, they’re scoring 3.4 runs per game. However, since Hatcher was let go, the staff ERA has gone from 3.93 with him as hitting coach to 1.59 with him gone. That man must have had some influence.

Anyway, when Pujols was in the depths of his slump, some of us who’d watched him his entire career stopped recognizing the player we’d always known as one of the most disciplined, patient hitters of his generation. He was one of the rare birds who controlled an at-bat the moment he stepped into the batter’s box. He did not swing at pitches out of the strike zone. He almost never looked off balance. His swing was so consistent and generated such power it could be compared to any of the great hitters in the history of the game.

That Albert Pujols disappeared. This new Albert Pujols has getting pounded inside with fastballs, and unlike previous years, he was unable to get around on them. He lunged at curve balls, too. He seemed so screwed up that it was easy to wonder if he might need an entire off-season to gather himself and start over in 2012. It seemed so much worse because expectations had been insanely high and also because the Angels were just 4-9.

Just about the time some of us had stopped waiting on Pujols to go on one of his amazing tears, he legged out three infield singles. Something apparently clicked. In 10 games since, he’s hitting .325 with four home runs and a double. His OPS is 1.028. Best of all, the Angels are 6-4. They’ve cut only a half-game off the Rangers’ lead in the AL West, but before they could even begin to worry about the standings, they had to deal with their own issues.

At the moment, they look a lot like the team we expected them to be. They’re getting terrific starting pitching, and with Pujols hitting, it transforms the way opposing teams will deal with that deal. The thing is, Pujols was only terrible for those three weeks in late April and early May. Now that the ball is flying out of the park again, he looks like the same old Albert.

Are the 2012 Indians different from the 2011 Indians? I’m glad you asked that question.

On this day a year ago, the Indians were on top of the world. They were 30-15 and leading the American League Central by seven games. They were not a dominant team in numbers of numbers, but they were resourceful and getting it done. If they could have frozen that moment, they would have. The Indians went 50-67 the rest of the way and went from seven ahead to 15 behind in the American League Central.

So here we are again. After winning the first two games of a series against the Tigers, the Indians are 25-18 and leading the AL Central by 3 1/2 games. Only the Rangers and Dodgers have bigger division leads. The Indians have spent the last 30 days in first place. Like the 2011 Indians, this team doesn’t blow you away with numbers. They’re in the bottom half of the American League in both runs (eighth) and ERA (ninth). They don’t have anyone in the American League’s top 20 in home runs or RBIs. (They’ve drawn 190 walks, which is 17 more than any other team in baseball.) They don’t have a pitcher in the top 20 in strikeouts although Chris Perez, who is second in the AL with 15 saves, is at the back end of a terrific bullpen.

But it would be easy to make the case that these Indians are better, way better, than the 2011 Indians. In fact, they’re fundamentally different, and as the Tigers stumble along, they probably can’t count on another collapse by the Indians. Thanks to John Lowe of the Detroit Free Press for pointing out the large number of players the Indians didn’t have on their roster at this point last season. For instance:

  • Derek Lowe. He’s tied for the American League lead in quality starts and behind only Justin Verlander in ERA. He has failed to finish six innings just once, and while he has finished seven innings just twice, he has been a huge addition.
  • Jason Kipnis. He was called up in late July last season, but got hurt on August 12. By the time he returned September 6th, the Tigers had an eight-game lead. He leads the Indians in RBI and is tied for the team lead in home runs.
  • Nick Hagadone. He joined the Tigers in September and has been a tremendous addition to the bullpen as a left-handed specialist. Left-hander batters are 2 for 20 against him.
  • Shin-Soo Choo. OK, he was around last season. The Tigers are 7-2 since Manny Acta moved him into the leadoff spot, where he’s hitting .351 with a .442 OBP.
  • Ubaldo Jimenez. He has quality starts in three of his last four turns.
  • Casey Kotchman. He’s has started to get hot the last week, and the Indians still hope he can end up close to his 2011 numbers for the Rays (.351/.442).
  • Johnny Damon. He’s hitting just .156 since joining the club earlier this month, and because he’s 38, it’s fair to wonder how much he has left in the tank. He has a .355 OBP since May 13.

It was a great night to be Chris Perez and other quick thoughts on a wild night in baseball

Chris Perez shouldn’t have ripped the fans. First, there’s that. He just shouldn’t have done it. Regardless of whether he was right or wrong, there’s nothing to be gained by getting into it with the paying customers. I’m sure Chris knows that. I’m absolutely sure Mark Shapiro would rather Chris have chosen his words carefully. That said, if you’re a fan of the Indians, Chris Perez is one of your favorites. That’s because he cares so much, because there’s not a phony bone in his body, because what you see is what you get.

The Cardinals wondered if Chris would ever get his emotions under control, at least enough to be a closer. To close games in the Major League is to learn to deal with defeat. When Brad Lidge allowed that monstrous home run to Albert Pujols in the 2005 NLCS, one of the most important telephone calls he got was from Billy Wagner, a friend and mentor.

“It’s what you do from here that matters,” Wagner told Lidge. “You can’t let Pujols beat you two or three times, or even ruin your career.”

Wagner gave up a game-winning home run early in his stay with the Phillies, and beat writers were surprised to find him waiting in front of his locker for the media.

“And if I give up another one tomorrow night, I’ll be right here waiting for you guys,” Wagner said.

Wagner wasn’t afraid. Neither is Chris Perez. Indians fans love him because he cares so much, because his fire is right out there for the whole world to see. Still, when he criticized the fans, he wondered what the reception would be the next time he walked in from the bullpen at Progressive Field. He found out Tuesday night with a long, loud standing ovation. He seemed almost overwhelmed, moreso than relieved.

The Indians have something going for a second straight year. Shaprio and Chris Antonetti have done a fantastic job, and Manny Acta is one of the best in the game. If you look at the Indians statistically, you won’t be blown away, but their confidence is growing day-by-day. It’s time to take a second look at the AL Central. It may not play out the way we thought.

Elsewhere…

How about the Dodgers? Do you believe yet? To rally from a five-run deficit early and then to rally again from a one-run deficit late, to win again, may be all you need to know about this club. Even without Matt Kemp, they keep winning. Bobby Abreu has been a great addition, and that rotation a lot of us doubted keeps throwing up quality starts.

It was also a huge, huge night for the Cardinals. They’re going nowhere without Adam Wainwright being really good, and against the Padres, he was as good as he has ever been. There are so many moving parts around the Cardinals, with older guys aching and younger guys moving in, but everything they hope to accomplish begins with that rotation.

Buck Showalter’s bullpen has been phenomenal, running up a 2.29 ERA and making good on 80 percent of its save chances. But it has thrown the second-most innings in the American League. If there’s a lingering concern about the Orioles, it’s the same one that has been hanging around all the time. It’s the depth of the rotation. The Orioles are 10th in quality starts and seventh in innings. They’re a good team, a real good team, but that bullpen workload bears watching. How’s that for finding a dark cloud in a silver lining? Or however that expression goes.

Are you buying Braves’ stock in the National League East? You still sold on the Phillies?

The Braves are alone atop a National League East race after winning for the 24th time in 35 games since that 0-4 start. Meanwhile, Brandon Beachy lowered his ERA to 1.33, best in the National League and the best for an Atlanta pitcher through eight starts since Greg Maddux was at 1.13 in 1994. How much do you like these Braves? They’re tied with the Cardinals for the most runs in the National League? Michael Bourn is a dynamic presence at the top of a lineup that’s really deep and really good.

If there’s a worry for the Braves, it could be the same one they had last season. Despite Beachy’s complete game Thursday night, Atlanta relievers have pitched the second-most innings in the National League, and only the Rockies have fewer quality starts. Atlanta’s rotation has just one starter older than 25 (Tim Hudson, 36), and it’ll be interesting to see how those young guys deal with the grind of a long season. Beachy has pitched at least seven innings in four of his last six starts and gone six the other two times, and Tim Hudson has been as reliable as ever (seven innings in two straight starts) since returning from the DL. Randall Delgado, 22, has a 1.33 ERA this month and has gotten at least into the seventh in two of his last three starts.

But Tommy Hanson has gone just 14 2/3 innings in five starts this month, and Mike Minor is 0-2 with an 11. 76 ERA in his last four starts. With Jair Jurrjens back in the minors attempting to get straightened out, there’s less margin for error. Still, it’s impossible not to be excited about the Braves. They did a good imitation of the National League’s best team for a long stretch last summer until injuries and slumps killed them in September.

Their usual starting eight has just two players who’ve celebrated 30th birthdays–Dan Uggla (32) and Chipper Jones (40). They’ve got three 22-year-olds–Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman and Tyler Pastornicky. GM Frank Wren has done a terrific job mixing youth and experience, and the Braves are still emerging.

Five teams are separated by four games in the National League East. The Phillies are in last place, but surviving just fine while awaiting the return of Ryan Howard and Chase Utley. A case could be made for almost any of those five teams, so we appear to be in for nice ride into September.

Andy Pettitte was still pitching at a high level the last time we saw him, so is there any reason to think he’ll be anything less?

I set out to prove that Andy Pettitte was lousy when he walked off the mound for the last time in 2010, and so why is there any reason to think he’ll still be able to perform at a high level at 39. There is some truth to this theory. For one thing, Andy would be the first to tell you his body had broken down late in the 2010 season and that he pretty much figured he was at the end of the line. He’d won 240 times in the regular season and been an important part of five championship teams. He’d made 521 starts, including 42 in the postseason and pitched more than 3,000 innings. In short, he’d had a great career.

Andy has talked so much about how badly he felt at the end of 2010 that I assumed he’d stunk up the joint. It’s true he hadn’t been very good down the stretch, winning just two of his final seven starts with a 5.45 ERA. But Pettitte has had plenty of stretches in the regular season when he was nothing special. His legacy will always be that he was at his best when the games meant the most. That was true in 2010 as well when he pitched twice in the postseason and went seven innings and allowed two runs each time. He won one of those games, 5-2, and lost the other 8-0. But both times he gave the Yankees a chance to win.

About the only thing causing doubt is that he’s 39 years old, and there will be a time when his body can’t respond. But I’m guessing Andy will know when that time is, and that there’s no way he’d make today’s start if he thought he couldn’t win. He has always had the ability to assess his pitches, performance, etc. He returns at a time when the Yankees are thrilled at the way Phil Hughes is performing, and even though there are questions about how the back of the bullpen will shakedown, they probably are the favorites to win the American League East for the 12th time in 15 years.

Elsewhere…

Justin Verlander has pitched at least six innings in 49 straight starts. That’s the longest streak of six-plus innings since Mark Buehrle did it 49 straight times in 2004-2005 for the White Sox. Steve Carlton was the last MLB pitcher with a longer streak, going six-plus 69 straight times between 1979 and 1982. Verlander’s is the longest for a Tiger since at least 1918…

James Shields has gone at least eight in 18 of his last 37 starts…

Cardinals went 9-3 and averaged 5.8 runs while Lance Berkman was healthy. They went 11-10 and averaged 5.4 runs per game while he was on DL…

The Rays, who had the fewest errors in MLB last season (73), have the fifth-most this season (28). They have twice as many as this point in 2011…

The five AL East clubs have combined for 228 HR. That’s 54 more than the next closest division, the six-team NL Central (174)…

Nationals starters have 17 quality starts in their last 19 turns and lead MLB with 26…

Vinnie Pestano has had at least one strikeout in 18 straight relief appearances. The Indians believe that has been their second-longest such streak since 1918. Paul Shuey had a strikeout in 21 straight appearances in 1999-2000.

The Red Sox are 7 1/2 games out of first place, their biggest deficit this late in the calendar year since 1997.

Daniel Bard has two strikeouts in his last 12 1/3 innings after getting 19 in his first 18 2/3 innings this season.  He has a 3.24 ERA in the first five innings of his starts versus a 12.00 ERA in the sixth inning and later.

Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez has used 23 different lineup combinations in 33 games, including 15 in the first 17 games. His most commonly used lineup (eight times): Bourn, Prado, Freeman, Mc- Cann, Uggla, Jones, Heyward, Pastornicky. That lineup is 7-1…

Twins reliever Jared Burton hasn’t allowed a run in 11 consecutive appearances, covering 11.1 innings. Opposing hitters are 0 for their last 34 with two walks and 12 strikeouts. For the season, he has held opponents to a .073 batting average, second-lowest among AL qualifiers, behind only Ryan Cook of the A’s (.060)…

The Padres are the first NL club to beat Roy Halladay twice in a season. Halladay hadn’t been beaten by one team twice in a season since the Red Sox (twice) and Rays (four times) did it in 2009…

Giants rotation has allowed three runs or less in 20 of last 23 games. It has given up three home runs in last 14 games and just 20 for the season, third-lowest in MLB. Eight of the 20 home runs have come in five games at Chase Field…

Giants lead the majors with 37 errors and are on a pace to commit 181, which would be the third-most since the franchise moved west…

Five days until the Silver Boot…

Happy 62nd, Bobby V.

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