Dodgers roll along. Our daily update.

  • Dodgers starters are 21-5 with a 1.91 ERA since July 26. In that time, they’ve had 12 games in which the starter didn’t allow an earned run.
  • The Dodgers are 22-6 in August and 32-8 since the All-Star Break and 49-13 since June 22.
  • 22 wins in August is a Los Angeles record for the franchise.
  • July and August are the second- and third-winningest months in LA franchise history.
  • The Dodgers have eight shutouts this month, second-most in franchise history behind 10 in September 1965.
  • Last MLB team to have eight shutouts in a month was the Dodgers in September 1988.
  • Three Dodgers starters are in the Top 5 in NL ERA this month among pitchers with at least five starters. Jose Fernandez (0.82), Alex Wood (0.90), Clayton Kershaw (1.01), Zack Greinke (1.23) and Rick Nolasco (1.64).
  •  Nolasco, Greinke and Kershaw are 13-2 with a 1.30 ERA this month. Since the mound was lowered in 1969, no other three starters has combined in a single month for 13 wins and an ERA as low as 1.30 with each making four or more starts. (Source: Elias.)
  •  Since the All-Star break, Dodger relievers have a 2.10 ERA, third-lowest in NL.

If you’re the manager of the Diamondbacks, Nationals, etc., you might want to remind your players of baseball’s recent history. Hint: it ain’t over ’til it’s over.

Tom Boswell of The Washington Post has an excellent column about baseball’s recent September surprises. He’s reminding his hometown team that it’s important to play the season out because you just never know.

Here are some highlights:

  • In just the past two years, six teams have imploded to lose division titles or a playoff spot.
  • The Cardinals, Rays and A’s all seemed to be eliminated, but they played it out and were rewarded.
  • It’s sometimes easier to have a we’ve-got-to-win-every-game mentality than to simply be trying to keep what they already appear to have.

There are extreme examples: the 2011 Cardinals were 10 1/2 games out of the Wild Card on August 25th, but won the World Series. That year, the Rays were nine games out on September 2, but clinched a playoff berth on the final day of the regular season.

Both teams needed help. Had the Red Sox not finished 7-20, it wouldn’t have mattered that the Rays went 17-8 down the stretch. Likewise, the Braves opened the door for the Cardinals by losing 16 of their final 23. But the Cardinals did their part with a 16-5 finish.

The 2012 White Sox spent 126 days in first place in the American League Central. But they couldn’t close the deal, losing 11 of their final 15 to escort the Tigers to the postseason. The Tigers were given an opportunity and took advantage with a 15-7 finish.

In fact, two of the three American League’s first-place teams on September 1st last season—Texas and Chicago—ended up finishing second. The White Sox missed the playoffs entirely. The Rangers didn’t get out of the Wild Card game despite spending 186 days in first place and leading the AL West by 6 1/2 games on August 12th.

The A’s didn’t give up on last season either even when they trailed the Rangers by five games with nine to play. They had the lead down to two when the two teams finished the regular season with a three-game series at the Coliseum. In other words, the Rangers needed to win once to clinch the AL West.

The A’s won the opener 4-3. Lead down to one. Okay, no big deal.

Only thing is, you could see it coming from miles away. Baseball is the weirdest of sports. Teams can reel off five- and six-game winning streaks all season long. But when the finish line is near, when the heat is on, sometimes the simplest things become impossible.

If you’d been around awhile, you knew the only thing that was going to save the Rangers was for one player to step up. In the first round of the playoffs, that one player was Justin Verlander rescuing a series against the very same A’s.

Who stepped up for the Rangers? No one did. Oakland’s Travis Blackley beat the Rangers in the second game. Tie division.

On the final day of the regular season, Rangers starter Ryan Dempster couldn’t hold a four-run lead, Josh Hamilton dropped a fly ball and the A’s won 12-5 and staged a wild clubhouse celebration. The Rangers limped back to Texas and lost the American League Wild Card game to the Orioles.

The Nationals are 2-0 in a stretch of 19 straight games against the Marlins, Mets and Phillies. An offense that averaged just 3.4 runs per game in the first 114 games has scored 5.3 per game as the Nationals have won 13 of 18. Finally, they look like the team we all thought they’d be. The Reds play 15 of their final 28 against teams with losing record. But they’ve got six of their final nine against the Pirates, and those games could be critical.

The Nationals trail the Reds by seven games for the second Wild Card, and while that’s a large number, it was 9 1/2 games a week ago. They’ve at least chipped away. They have little margin for error, but they also might be able to create a little excitement in a season that has been hugely disappointing.

The Diamondbacks are just six out. Problem is, unlike the Nationals, Arizona is showing no signs of getting hot. That’s why these next 10 games—seven against the Giants, three against the Blue Jays—are hugely important. If the D-backs are going to make a run this is the time.

As for looking ahead at their schedule, they shouldn’t. They’ve dug themselves too much of a hole to worry about tomorrow or next week. Never mind those seven games against the Dodgers. Besides, if they can creep closer during these 10 games against the Giants and Blue Jays, they’ll start to feel the possibilities.

They certainly don’t want to fast forward to the bottom of the schedule because it’s absolutely too delicious to even consider. If they get to the final weekend, they may be able to take care of business themselves with three home games against the—wait for it—Nationals.

All right, Ryan Braun, that’s enough. Time to shut up. See you in at Spring Training, big fella.

I’m sure Ryan Braun was told that the reaction to whatever apology he issued would be negative. There’s nothing columnists and talk show nitwits like more than climbing on their soapbox and trashing another man’s ethics. As a matter of fact, I enjoy it myself.

Some people were going to be satisfied only if Braun had cut off both hands and announced he was going to spend the rest of his days working in soup kitchens. Otherwise, he was going to get trashed for whatever he said.

He offered a little more detail than most guys do and blamed no one except himself. He didn’t offer dates, names, places for how he scored the stuff, but that was his choice.  None of it was going to change anyone’s mind, but nothing is going to do that.

I hope those editors at the Milwaukee Journal whose sensibilities were so offended by Braun using performance-enhancing drugs that they demanded he be shipped out of town can find some peace. I hope those poor boys and girls can still stomach living in Wisconsin when Braun steps to home plate next season.

Now Braun ought to shut up for awhile. He’ll have to face reporters on this topic at some point, most likely next spring, and he won’t make people happy then, either. As Brewers GM Doug Melvin said, Braun just needs to get back on the field next season and produce.

If he plays well, he can begin to write a different ending to his career. He’ll never erase this chapter of his legacy, but he can leave people with a different memory. Those who beat their chests and say Braun let them down with his ethical failings need to take a long look at themselves.

Braun is a great baseball player. Speed and strength. Balance and vision. He has a high baseball IQ. He’s a joy to watch. Speaking as someone who has lived in a former NL Central city the last 13 years, it was amazing watching the damage Braun and Prince Fielder did in the middle of that lineup.

To transfer a moral component to their greatness as baseball players reflects our own failings more than theirs. Again, though, I digress.

Braun took banned substances because he wanted to be a better baseball player. Maybe he did it because he was injured. Or maybe he’s insecure about his abilities. Regardless, he blurred the lines between ambition and judgement. Lord knows, he wasn’t the only one. We want these guys to care as much as we care, and some guys got carried away.

Whether they did it to make millions or break records or win a World Series, we’ll probably never know. Now that would be the perfect apology.

This whole Braun thing has been fascinating. First, the leaks about him testing positive. Then his ridiculous denials and unconscionable trashing of the specimen collector. He didn’t utter one believable word. Still, some some people believed him.

Finally—and this is the part of his apology I liked most—Braun did what he should have done. He looked himself in the mirror and said, “Okay, enough.” At least it appears that’s what he did.

He decided to negotiate a suspension and move on. Next season, he starts fresh. Well, not fresh completely. Those poor Milwaukee Journal editors will still be running down the street screaming in horror. Mostly, though, we’ll sit back with our brats and beer and see what kind of player he’ll be.

Commissioner Bud Selig’s statement on the suspensions…

Baseball Commissioner Allan H. (Bud) Selig made the following statement today regarding the discipline issued to players in relation to Major League Baseball’s Biogenesis investigation:

“Major League Baseball has worked diligently with the Players Association for more than a decade to make our Joint Drug Program the best in all of professional sports.  I am proud of the comprehensive nature of our efforts – not only with regard to random testing, groundbreaking blood testing for human Growth Hormone and one of the most significant longitudinal profiling programs in the world, but also our investigative capabilities, which proved vital to the Biogenesis case.  Upon learning that players were linked to the use of performance-enhancing drugs, we vigorously pursued evidence that linked those individuals to violations of our Program.  We conducted a thorough, aggressive investigation guided by facts so that we could justly enforce our rules.

“Despite the challenges this situation has created during a great season on the field, we pursued this matter because it was not only the right thing to do, but the only thing to do.  For weeks, I have noted the many players throughout the game who have strongly voiced their support on this issue, and I thank them for it.  I appreciate the unwavering support of our owners and club personnel, who share my ardent desire to address this situation appropriately.  I am also grateful to the Professional Baseball Athletic Trainers Society and our club physicians, who were instrumental in the banning of amphetamines and whose expertise remains invaluable to me.  As an institution, we have made unprecedented strides together.

“It is important to point out that 16,000 total urine and blood tests were conducted on players worldwide under MLB Drug Programs in 2012.  With the important additions of the hGH testing and longitudinal profiling this season, we are more confident than ever in the effectiveness of the testing program.  Those players who have violated the Program have created scrutiny for the vast majority of our players, who play the game the right way.

“This case resoundingly illustrates that the strength of our Program is not limited only to testing.  We continue to attack this issue on every front – from science and research, to education and awareness, to fact-finding and investigative skills.  Major League Baseball is proud of the enormous progress we have made, and we look forward to working with the players to make the penalties for violations of the Drug Program even more stringent and a stronger deterrent.

“As a social institution with enormous social responsibilities, Baseball must do everything it can to maintain integrity, fairness and a level playing field.  We are committed to working together with players to reiterate that performance-enhancing drugs will not be tolerated in our game.”

And there was the time A-Rod wanted to meet Cal Ripken Jr.

It was the spring of 1993 in Fort Lauderdale when Orioles manager Johnny Oates introduced Cal Ripken Jr. to a skinny, 17-year-old kid from Miami. Alex Rodriguez would be the overall No. 1 pick in the draft that summer and had asked to meet with his boyhood idol.

Ripken redefined the position of shortstop, proving that big guys could play there. Not only could they handle the position defensively, but they could also hit home runs, which only a few shortstops had done through the years.

Rodriguez apparently had begun watching Ripken years earlier when the Orioles trained in Miami. Anyway, they had a brief, cordial meeting that day and stayed in touch through the years. A-Rod made his Major League debut 16 months after the meeting when he was 18.

Lots has happened since. Ripken played nine more seasons and was a first-ballot inductee into the Hall of Fame in 2007. He was named on 98.5 percent of ballots, third-highest behind only Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan.

(Wouldn’t you like to meet the fools who didn’t vote for Seaver, Ryan and Ripken? But I digress.)

A-Rod was on the right track in his high regard for Ripken. He was just about the perfect baseball player in terms of production and preparation and work ethic.

But he was more than that. He tried to sign every autograph, do every interview and took pride in representing the Orioles the right way.

True story: Once on a train ride in Japan, he fretted about an interview he’d just read with country star Bill Anderson. In the interview, Anderson said he’d never turned down an autograph request.

This comment bothered Ripken.

“How is that possible?” he asked. “There are times you just can’t sign.”

In his final seasons, Ripken would stay on the field after games an hour or more trying to accommodate every autograph request. He couldn’t sign ‘em all, but he tried.

My point is that A-Rod would have been well served to have consulted Cal a few times over the years before he said or did things. Like Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter, Cal believed his play should speak for him and that the focus of his career should be about his team and his play.

A-Rod did so many things that called attention to himself. He took some veiled shots at Jeter. In short, he never really seemed comfortable in his own skin.

Maybe that’s why he chose to use performance-enhancing drugs. Even though plenty of scouts say he was the best young player they ever saw, maybe A-Rod thought otherwise.

Or maybe he wanted to be greater than great. Maybe he thought he could be the greatest of all-time only by cheating. He had the right idea in that first meeting with Cal, but things got off the track somewhere.

My favorite A-Rod story is kind of a sad one. Late in the 2001 season, I was having lunch with Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News at a Houston’s at Kansas City’s Country Club Plaza.

At some point, Evan pointed toward a guy at the hostess stand.

“That’s A-Rod’s guy,” he said.

We watched as the guy whispered to the hostess, pointed toward the back and appeared to be arranging for A-Rod to have a table in a quiet corner, a corner where he wouldn’t be bothered by the thousands of screaming fans who were sure to mob him when he sat down.

Sure enough, moments later, A-Rod entered the restaurant and was escorted quietly and quickly to a table near the back of the restaurant.

Only thing is, no one recognized him. Not when he entered the restaurant. Not when he walked through the restaurant. Not when he began having lunch.

That story spoke volumes about A-Rod’s perception of himself and how he sometimes just wasn’t in touch with reality. Plenty of people have raged about him in recent years, but there was always a touch of sadness with him.

That said, he attempted to cheat the game, and in doing so, he sent a message to young players everywhere, young players that don’t have his talent, that they needed to cheat, too.

He apparently thought the rules didn’t apply to him, and that if he was caught, he’d never be held accountable because, after all, everyone loves Alex. It’ll be interesting to see if he can be a productive player, but at 38, nothing he can do now will repair the damage done to his reputation.

Trade Deadline winners and losers? First, there are the Orioles.

This isn’t complicated. The Orioles needed to improve their pitching staff. They wanted to do this without trading any of the core pieces of their Minor League system. They believe they’re good enough to win a championship this season, but they’re building something larger, something they hope will last.

GM Dan Duquette did the impossible, or close to it. He acquired three contributors—Scott Feldman, Bud Norris and Francisco Rodriguez—without decimating his farm system. The Orioles were already good. Their lineup is as good as any. They’ve got a great manager in Buck Showalter. They’ve got a winning vibe in their clubhouse thanks to Adam Jones, Matt Wieters, etc.

Now they’re better. They may not be as good as the Red Sox and Rays in the American League East, but they’re plenty good enough to get back to the AL Wild Card game for a second straight year. In evaluating who won and who lost this month, this is the place to start.

And…

2. Tigers

GM Dave Dombrowski worked his magic again, adding a solid bullpen arm in Jose Veras and a terrific defensive shortstop in Jose Iglesias. The Tigers didn’t need much. They’re in a close division race and likely to lose shortstop Jhonny Peralta to suspension. But Dombrowski has again done a terrific job putting them in position to win a championship.

3. Red Sox

Jake Peavy gives the Red Sox another experienced, proven, productive starter for a rotation that may not have Clay Buchholz the rest of the season. They, too, are in a good place.

4. Braves

Like the Tigers, the Braves may have been good enough to win without doing a single thing. But GM Frank Wren did a nice job adding left-handed reliever Scott Downs and giving manager Fredi Gonzalez another late-inning option in front of Jordan Walden and Craig Kimbrel.

5. Diamondbacks

GM Kevin Towers finished his month-long search for a reliever by getting lefty Joe Thatcher from the Padres in a deal that included Ian Kennedy going to San Diego.

Step right up, Bud Norris. You’re next. Or are you?

With Matt Garza and Jake Peavy off the market. With Cliff Lee too expensive and Ervin Santana unavailable. With the Orioles and Diamondbacks and A’s on the hunt for pitching. Actually, with almost every contender in the market for one more arm.

With all that going on, Astros GM Jeff Luhnow seems to be in a good position in these final hours before this afternoon’s non-waiver Trade Deadline. Norris is 28 years old and under team control for two more years. He’s making a bargain-basement $3 million.

He’s pitching well, too, with quality starts in nine of his last 12 turns. He’s cocky and competitive and anxious to be in a pennant race.  He’s younger than Garza and Peavy. He has more innings and strikeouts than either of them. His ERA is lower than Peavy’s. His fastball averages 92.4 mph, his slider 84 mph, according to Fangraphs.com.

Luhnow has told clubs that he’s simply listening to offers for Norris and not especially motivated to move him. This may be more than posturing. Regardless of what happens with Norris, this is the last player for whom Luhnow can expect a significant return.

There has been discussion within the organization about the wisdom of trading him. At some point, the Astros are going to stop stripping down the franchise. Should that happen right after trading Bud Norris? Or should it happen now? With the Astros headed toward a third straight 100-loss season, with attendance having declined 50 percent the last decade, with the games on local television in almost 40 percent of the area homes, this is a tough time to be an Astros fan.

Management attempted to send a different sort of message recently with the signing of second baseman Jose Altuve to a four-year extension, but that’s just window dressing. Winning is the only thing that will put fannies back in seats.

There’s hope. Shortstop Jonathan Villar, 22, and right-hander Jarred Cosart, 22, are in the big leagues. Outfielder George Springer and first baseman Jonathan Singleton are putting up nice numbers at Triple-A. Others appears to be on the way, and Luhnow’s history of running Cardinal drafts suggests his competence.

But it’s an uncertain path. As the Royals have learned, young players don’t come with guarantees. It’s the only way to build a franchise, but the building part of it can be longer and more painful than the way it’s drawn up. So the Astros have no idea how soon they’ll be respectable again.

Does Luhnow use Norris to add another piece to the farm system, or does he keep him and hope to make the rotation more competitive in 2014. He seems inclined to move him and to start fast-tracking his best kids to the big leagues in 2014-2015.

There’s no right answer for any of this. The Astros waited way too long to being this kind of reconstruction. Jim Crane is doing exactly what he promised to do when he bought the club in 2011. But another phase of the project has almost arrived. Bud Norris can contribute by either staying or going.

If you told your Little Johnny that Ryan Braun was a role model, you’re the one who owes Little Johnny an apology.

I’m worn out by the Ryan Braun outrage. I mean, the hacks apparently were surprised to learn that Braun lied about his use of performance-enhancing drugs. Apparently the hacks weren’t paying attention. Did they really think the specimen collector contaminated the urine sample?

First, he couldn’t have broken the seal and put it back in place. The boys and girls at the lab would have known. Second, there’s no way he could have monkeyed with the sample without the boys and girls at the lab knowing.

Now if some columnists chose to discount science—and a few did—that’s their problem.

I’m especially worn out by the parents and coaches who say they just don’t know how they’re going to explain it to Little Johnny. This is very troubling.

Ryan Braun was a role model before he was caught cheating, and he’ll be a role model when he returns.

Every Little League should put Braun on a pedestal. Every coach should use him to show those kids how the game should be played.

Check out how he keeps his weight back in the batter’s box and how he explodes into the ball. Check out the discipline of his swing.

He’s one of those rare players who seems in control of the at-bat the moment he steps into the batter’s box. Albert Pujols was like that during his years with the Cardinals. He never lunged, never looked off-balance. Other players marveled at him.

There’s plenty more to admire about Braun, and absolutely nothing has changed in the wake of  his admission that he used performance-enhancing drugs. He plays hard every single night. He runs the bases smartly, seemingly always seeing the entire field.

In short, he’s a gifted baseball player, one of the best of his generation. If I had a son playing Little League baseball, I’d tell him to study him and admire him and do things the way he did them.

Unfortunately, there are too many coaches and parents out there who want to add a moral or ethical component to our jock heroes. This is ridiculous.

Just because a guy can hit a 96-mph fastball does not mean he’s a man of great moral or ethical standing. I can’t comprehend someone connecting the dots, telling their kid that because Ryan Braun was a good player then he should be emulated in other parts of his life.

Because they did connect those dots, they seem hurt that Braun isn’t what they thought. Whose problem is that? That’s on you, buddy.

You took a remarkable set of skills and drew conclusions you never should have drawn. Again, that’s on you. You’re the one who owes Little Johnny an apology.

Because Ryan Braun runs hard to first base does not mean he’s something more than a baseball player.

Babe Ruth was a great player. Does that mean Babe Ruth was the guy you wanted your kid to be? Absolutely not.

Here’s a little secret: Mickey Mantle was no saint, either. He was an amazing player and could be incredibly charming when he chose to be.

But I don’t think you’d want Little Johnny putting him on a pedestal as anything more than a great baseball player.

We do this with our politicians and actors and authors. We seem unable to accept that the gift to write a brilliant sentence or captivate us on the big screen is just that. It’s nothing more.

From the moment Ryan Braun learned that he’d tested positive for a banned substance, I kept wondering why he didn’t just fess up. Maybe he did want people to see him as something larger and more perfect than a mere baseball player. If so, shame on him.

Players have savaged him in their public comments since Braun’s admission that he lied. Some of this is understandable. As several players have said, when one guy tests positive for PEDs, it reflects badly on every player. It wasn’t just that Braun denied using them. It was how he denied him. He portrayed himself as the victim. He was pretty dang self-righteous about it, too.

Maybe Braun couldn’t deal with the fact that his reputation and good name would be gone forever. He’s lucky in that he’s just 29 years old and can write whatever ending to his career he wants to write. But he can never completely rehabilitate his reputation. That’s the price of cheating.

He lied because he was scared and because he was arrogant. Some of the same traits that helped make him a great player—never give in, never admit defeat—surely worked against him in this arena.

He got his ambition and judgement screwed up. But if he’d looked outside his own little cocoon, he could have seen what happened to Andy Pettitte, Jason Giambi and others who admitted what they’d done.

They were reminded that we are a forgiving people and that fans want to like these guys. If he’d come out and said he screwed up and that he would work relentlessly to get his good name back, plenty of fans would be willing to forgive and forget.

Even the local Milwaukee newspaper, which had its sensibilities so offended that it’s urging the Brewers to get rid of him, will get over it. Its editors and columnists gave Braun the  benefit of the doubt when he didn’t deserve it. And now they’re clutching their chests and screaming at the awfulness of it all.

Oh please.

He was a good baseball player. He was a good player then, and he’ll probably be a good player in the future.

When he starts speaking up again, when he gets back on the field and starts to produce, the anger will subside. He can again be Ryan Braun the ballplayer. Nothing more. Same as it ever was.

Dodgers-Rays World Series? Book it!

One of the best things about this era of baseball is that there’s only a teensy difference between the top 10-15 teams. At least 18 teams still have a legitimate shot at the postseason. And what decides the playoff berths may be things that haven’t happened yet—a trade or an injury.

Perspective on playoff races changes by the week, especially in the American League East. The Red Sox have spent 91 days atop the division despite some adversity. At some point, we may have to acknowledge they’re the best team in the best division.

But not yet.

Let’s push the pause button for a brief tribute to the Reds and Tigers. I love those teams. I love their makeup and the way they go about things. They’re expected to win. They have demanding fans. Neither club has had a spectacular first half, but they’ve soldiered on, the Tigers staying atop the AL Central and the Reds positioned for a fourth playoff appearance in five years.

When you play the Reds or Tigers, you know what you’re going to get: a good team, a mentally tough team, a team that reflects its manager. Jim Leyland and Dusty Baker have more yesterdays than tomorrows in the game, but both are the gold standard for preparing teams and riding out the highs and lows.

Okay, back to the 2013 World Series.

Right now, it’s the Dodgers and Rays.

There’s an easy to be made for the Cardinals, Pirates, Nationals, Tigers, Reds, A’s and Rangers. There’s a bit tougher case to be made for the Orioles, Diamondbacks, Yankees and Braves. If you look at the Indians, Phillies and Rockies just so, you can be convinced they’ve got a shot, too.

On this day, though, I’ll take the Rays and Dodgers against the field.

And there still are at least 20 teams with legitimate hope of making the postseason.

First, the Rays. They’ve got David Price back pitching at a high level. He has a 1.08 ERA since his return from the Disabled List. Alex Cobb may also contribute in the second half. All season, we’ve been waiting on the Rays to get their rotation straightened out. Consider it done.

They’re also playing terrific defense and scoring more runs than a lot of us expected. To watch Yunel Escobar and James Loney is to be reminded that no general manager is better at what he does than Andrew Friedman.

The Rays have the best record in the majors since May 8 (41-23), which means nothing. But it tells you they’re capable of playing at a very high level over a long period of time.

Now the Dodgers.

They’ve been constructed the old-fashioned way: with a sledgehammer approach to spending money and a lame-duck manager. Some of us wondered if all those large personalities could coexist, and for a long time, the Dodgers were a mess.

But Yasiel Puig began spraying line drives all over the field, Hanley Ramirez and Adrian Gonzalez got hot and the rotation looks terrific with Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Ricky Nolasco and Hyun-jin Ryu.

The Diamondbacks have fought their tails off and been pretty much what their GM and manager hoped they’d be. Their rotation is potentially good enough to take control of the race, especially if GM Kevin Towers adds a bullpen arm or two. I’m hopping the All-Star Break is a reset button for the Giants and that Matt Cain gets things figured out. They, too, are still capable of winning.

At the moment, the Dodgers seem likely to win.

On June 21, they were 30-42 and 9 1/2 games out of first place. If you’d told their fans they were about to take off, you’d been laughed out of the room.

They sprinted into the All-Star Break on a 17-5 run and cut their division by seven games, to 2 1/2. Even with the lack of production at third, they’re solid everywhere else, and like all championship teams, they’re getting contributions from all around their clubhouse.

Now they’re starting to feel it. Gonzalez and Ramirez and Kemp and the others seem to be having fun, with their confidence growing by the day. It would be silly to completely discount the Diamondbacks—and for that matter, the Giants and Rockies—but it’s tough to pick anyone other than the Dodgers in the NL West.

12 players who could make the Trading Deadline interesting and maybe decide some playoff berths

The Phillies could make this Trading Deadline a free-for-all if they switch to a sell mode. At the moment, that seems unlikely since they won nine of 12 leading into the All-Star Break and are back to .500. They’re 6 1/2 games behind the Braves in the NL East and 5 1/2 games out in the NL Wild Card race.

And they might be baseball’s most interesting team. There are a dozen reasons not to believe in them, but they’re getting younger and still have a chance. Also, their GM—and this is important—is not a white flag kind of guy.

If the Phillies do a quick collapse—and it would have to be quick—Ruben Amaro Jr. might change his mind about shopping Cliff Lee, Jonathan Papelbon and Chase Utley. If that happens, he almost certainly could land enough young talent to deepen his farm system. Again, though, that seems unlikely to happen.

I’ve got Bud Norris, Chris Carter and Jose Veras on this list, but I’m not convinced the Astros are going to be sellers. Yeah, they’ve got baseball’s worst record and appear to be on their way to be the first franchise to have the No. 1 pick three years in a row.

But they may not be far from respectability. They’ve got intriguing talent at the upper level of their farm system, and with the ballpark empty and the club still trying to pitch its TV package to carriers, owner Jim Crane could decide the time had come to put a better product on the field.

If Norris is still with the Astros on August 1, it will speak volumes about where the franchise sees itself. Still, there definitely are players available. Here now are 12 who seem the most likely to be traded. Note that the list is heavy with relievers and light on offensive firepower.

With at least 20 teams seeing themselves as being in contention, it’s impossible to know exactly who is and who isn’t a contender. Also, general managers value their young prospects as never before. They see the Cardinals as a model franchise. Rather than try to pry an impact player away, they may go for a lesser move—Cody Ross, Marco Scutaro—that could have a big impact.

We know for sure the Cubs, White Sox and Brewers are listening, and we know too that a bunch of teams believe a tweak to the roster could get them to the postseason.

Here are a dozen to consider:

1. Matt Garza—He’s a top-of-the-rotation starter and pitching at a high level. For teams like the Orioles or Rangers, he could be a huge difference-maker.

2. Jesse Crain—Forget that he’s on the Disabled List or that he has been an eighth inning guy. He’s the most coveted reliever on the market and seems a perfect fit for the Tigers, Diamondbacks and any other club looking to strengthen its late-inning relief.

3. Addison Reed—He’s just 24 years old and five years away from free agency. So why would the White Sox even consider moving him? They probably won’t, but they’ve sent signals that they’re willing to listen. Would the Tigers part with Nick Castellanos? GM Rick Hahn probably will be asking that question, too.

4. Francisco Rodriguez—He has pitched very well and still only 31 years old. He also might come at a cheaper price than Crain or Reed. A potentially shrewd acquisition.

5. Matt Lindstrom—He’s 33 and probably not the guy to pitch the ninth inning anymore. But he has beens solid and could make a bullpen better.

6. Kevin Gregg—He’s 35 years old. Otherwise, see above.

7. Jason Kubel—He’s got five home runs and a .684 OPS. But there aren’t going to be many offensive players shopped. His money is reasonable and could be signed through 2014.

8. Bud Norris—If the Astros do trade him, he might be the second-best starter on the market. Since he still has two more arbitration years, Astros GM Jeff Luhnow probably will ask a high price or hold onto him.

9. Jose Veras—He’s a veteran closer who has pitched well this season. He’s not one of the upper-tier guys, but the price could be right.

10. Adam Dunn—He has been very good in recent weeks. He hits with power, lots of it. He’s a terrific clubhouse guy.

11. Chris Carter—See above.

12. Steve Cishek—Another interesting reliever, not a star, but a very solid guy, a guy who could help a contender.

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