The bullpen: Baltimore Orioles top Oakland A’s as AL’s surprise team
As part of the major league power rankings that can be found further down in The Bullpen, the teams ranked Nos. 3-4 overall are the Oakland A’s and the Baltimore Orioles, two teams currently holding the first and second wild-card spots in the AL standings.
The two surprise contenders faced off on the west coast on the weekend with the A’s taking two out of three. The A’s enter the week with a record of 84-62, trailing the Rangers by three games. Meanwhile the O’s are 82-64 and have been battling the Yankees for first place, trailing by one game. Which team is the bigger surprise?
PREVIOUS BULLPEN BLOGS
The A’s have done this before under GM Billy Beane, parlaying great young pitching and a mix-and-match offence to create a contender out west. The formula is simple. Just hire a manager that’s not one of the elite, that doesn’t consider himself part of the show, a strategic genius, in this case Bob Melvin. Then give him a developing young rotation and a sturdy if no-name bullpen. Add a line-up with patience and power, with unofficial platoons at several positions. Mix for 162 games over a low heat and voila, if things work out, you have a contender.
Still, this is an amazing story. The A’s lost their only two veteran starting pitchers, Bartolo Colon to a 50-game suspension for performance-enhancing drugs and Brandon McCarthy to a life-threatening head injury, a fractured skull suffered on a vicious line drive back through the middle.
That leaves the rotation with 23-year-olds, Jarrod Parker (11-8) and Dan Straily (2-1); two 24-year-olds, A.J. Griffin (6-0) and Brett Anderson (4-1) and 25-year-old Tommy Milone (13-10).
The former closer, Ryan Cook went to the all-star game representing the A’s, then in July was replaced by Grant Balfour, the saves leader among Australians. Middle relief is now manned by Cook, lefty Sean Doolittle, a former first baseman, lefty Jerry Blevins, side arming right-hander Pat Neshek and another nondescript but effective righty, Evan Scribner.
As for the batting order, the A's traded catcher Kurt Suzuki at mid-season and replaced him with rookie Derek Norris and Canadian George Kottaras. Third baseman Brandon Inge was signed after being released by the Tigers, was injured and has been replaced by Josh Donaldson. First baseman Chris Carter has been an A’s prospect for too many years to be considered a prospect, but is now a prospect. Shortstop Stephen Drew was a key acquisition obtained from the D-backs.
But it’s the outfield that has remained key to the A’s offence with Josh Reddick, obtained from the Red Sox in the winter, Cuban defector and rookie Yoenis Cespedes, signed partly as a result of his eye-catching YouTube scouting video, and veteran Coco Crisp, who provides whatever speed there is at the top of the line-up, for an organization that doesn't really value speed,. Second baseman Jemile Weeks was displaced by the former shortstop Cliff Pennington.
The A's rank 29th overall in batting average, 19th in runs scored, 25th in on-base and 18th in slugging percentage. Reddick and Cespedes are the only A’s that may reach 130 games for the year.
The Orioles must be considered the bigger surprise of the two clubs. They have not been a contender since 1997, in fact, have not won 80 games in any of the past 15 years until this one. The O’s have allowed 20 more runs that they have scored, rank 16th in runs scored, 21st in average, 23rd in on-base and 12th in slugging percentage.
The O’s farm system has not been productive and had very few good looking prospects when GM Dan Duquette took over, so he went about mixing, matching and looking for bargains. Compared to the A’s, the Orioles were plugging holes more than building towards contending.
The O’s have just one pitcher with more than 10 wins, 27-year-old Wei-Yin Chen (12-9).But they do have 19 pitchers with at least one victory. The current rotation includes Miguel Gonzalez, 28, who’s is 6-4, Jason Hammel, 30, who is 8-6, Zach Britton, 24, who is 5-3 and journeyman left-hander Joe Saunders, 31, who is 2-2 since being acquired in August.
The bullpen has been a no-name strength, led by closer Jim Johnson and setup men Pedro Strop, Luis Ayala, Darren O'Day and Brian Matusz. Consider that the O’s tried Randy Wolf and Dana Eveland in the rotation. It's been a work in progress.
As for the line-up, they have lost Nick Markakis for the season and long ago signed and then lost Jim Thome. Oh, the farm system did send them one blessing in rookie Manny Machado to play third base. He has seemed to come up huge more often than not and has solidified the defence. Other keys are catcher Matt Wieters, centrefielder Adam Jones and shortstop J.J. Hardy.
They did not know that Mark Reynolds could play a decent first base and Chris Davis could play right and they went to the scrap heap for left fielder Nate McLouth.
But the key that should have been the biggest clue to any potential 2012 success for the O's was the presence of manager Buck Showalter entering his second full season at the helm of the O's. In his second year with the Yankees he went from 76 to 88 wins; with Texas he went from 71 to 89 wins, with the Diamondbacks he went from 65 to 100 wins and with the O's, he has gone from 69 to 81 and counting. Yes, he took over during the season in 2010, but last year was his first full season.
It's a tossup, but because the view of the AL East as the strongest division in baseball during the winter, the choice as the biggest surprise between the two contending teams would have to be the O's.
BLUE JAYS WEEK IN REVIEW
SEASON: The Jays won their 66th game on Sunday with a 5-0 shutout of the Red Sox, ending the season at 11-7 against Boston. It was their first season series win vs. the Sox since 2005. The 66-79 record heading into Monday's off-day puts the Jays on pace to go 74-88 this year, the lowest win total since '04, when they were 67-94. Coincidentally, '04 was the third season under J.P. Ricciardi, while this is the third season under Alex Anthopoulos.
JAYS GM STANDINGS: Sunday’s win gave the Jays 232 victories in the first three seasons of Anthopoulos with 17 games remaining. Ricciardi had 231 wins in his first three years (2002-04); Gord Ash had 206 his first three (1995-97) with '97 being a shortened season after the strike settlement. Hall-of-Famer Pat Gillick won 166 in his first three years (1977-79).
HOMESTAND: The Jays were 2-4 on the just-completed home stand, losing two-of-three to the M's and then two-of-three to the Red Sox, salvaging the final game of both series. The Jays outscored opponents 25-21 in the six games, dominated by pitching, especially the bullpens. The Jays have won 10 of the last 19. Between July 29 and August 25 the Jays were 6-20, pretty much the season.
If there was one highlight starting performance, one that will stay with the young man the rest of his life, it was RH Henderson Alvarez outpitching his idol, Felix Hernandez on Thursday for an 8-3 win. Alvarez is four years younger than Fernandez, both growing up in the same area in Venezuela. Alvarez allowed three runs in seven innings, while the Jays pounded King Felix led by a two-run Adam Lind homer in the first and a three-run blast by Edwin Encarnacion in the fifth. It was Edwin's 40th home run, with 102 RBIs. Encarnacion becomes the eighth different Jays' player with 40 homers in a year. The club record is 54 by Jose Bautista who also hit 43 in '11. Carlos Delgado hit 40-plus three times, topped by 44 in '99. George Bell hit 47 in '87; Jose Canseco 46 in '98; Shawn Green 42 in '99; Tony Batista 41 in '00 and Jesse Barfield 40 in '86.
BULLPEN: The Jays bullpen is 5-2 with four saves in the last 19 games, since their last visit to Yankee Stadium on Aug. 26 – Brandon Lyon (2-0); Brad Lincoln (1-0); Darren Oliver (1-1); Steve Delabar (1-1); Casey Janssen (4 saves). Janssen in his last 14 games has a 4.50 ERA, allowing seven runs in 14 innings, on 11 hits, with two walks and 15 Ks. He has allowed two homers and blown two saves. The Jays have won both those games.
DISABLED LIST: 1B David Cooper (back strain) aggravated his injury and has been shut down. The Jays have had 18 disablements this year. RH Dustin McGowan, RH Drew Hutchison, RH Sergio Santos, RH Robert Coello, LH Luis Perez, RH Jesse Litsch, RH Kyle Drabek, Cooper and LH J.A. Happ are all out for the season. The club is currently battling the flu.
THE RANT: FUNDAMENTAL BASEBALL? ARRGHH!
I'm as much a fan of aggressive baseball as the next person. I grew up in the National League. But the Jays lack of understanding of the fundamentals of aggressive base running, who, what, when, where and how, and this club’s consistent lack of being able to execute and carry out what is being asked of them in terms of small ball and being smart has been both frustrating and appalling.
This is the major leagues. Usually to reach the major leagues, when you are possessed of above average speed, you know when and when not to be aggressive on the basepaths. And, oh yeah, you know how to bunt. The biggest culprits of ignoring game situations have been Brett Lawrie and Rajai Davis.
The other day, with already one out and already standing on second base, Lawrie chose to challenge a ground ball right in front of him. He was thrown out easily at third base with Yunel Escobar reaching first base. After the game, manager John Farrell was seen standing at Lawrie's locker, likely explaining his gaffe and why he should not have run. Minutes later when speaking to the media, Lawrie made no apologies for his overaggressive base running. In fact he was defiant. His logic? Well Escobar reached on a fielder's choice and made it to second on a passed ball, so what's the difference. Besides, it's the way he plays the game and he's not going to change. It's who he is.
This from the same guy who thought it was okay much earlier in the season to try and steal home with Jose Bautista batting with two strikes. Two strikes!! On that occasion, Lawrie was thrown out on a close play at the plate by the pitcher, but the fact is that with two strikes, Bautista on a pitch in the zone would have been compelled to swing the bat and could have injured Lawrie. Besides, he's your best RBI man. The third baseman did not see anything wrong there, either. He thought he could make it.
The Jays are apparently third in the league in successful steals of third (32 of 39) but that's not the point. You had better be safe when you are going with two outs. There is not much advantage in that situation. You are already in scoring position. There was a play recently with two out and Edwin Encarnacion batting where Davis took off to steal third. Seeing the lead runner on the move, Colby Rasmus took off for second as the trail runner, a beat late because it wasn't a called play. The centre fielder was thrown out easily, being tagged standing up not even at the dirt cut-out yet.
That's a lack of understanding of game situations. Even if Rasmus is safe, he's taking the bat out of the hands of Encarnacion. How often with nobody out have the Jays been thrown out at third base or home plate on a fielder's choice, replacing the runner in scoring position with a guy on first.
Then there was the game in Oakland where Davis was called into the game to bunt with runners on first and second. He popped the bunt towards third, failed to run and watched as the A's turned a double play. There was a game on this homestand in which Davis and Lawrie each fouled off two bunt attempts before being forced to swing away with two strikes. There was the game in which Farrell asked Lawrie to bunt the two runners over, opening up first base so the Red Sox could walk Edwin intentionally instead of pitching to Lawrie and Encarnacion with two men on.
How about Rasmus being doubled off of third base by second baseman Robinson Cano, throwing across the diamond on a play that Farrell praised as a stunning, athletic, instinctive gem by Cano. The manager was protecting his runner, because 12-year-olds learn that on a line drive with less than two out you freeze, lean back towards third because if it falls in you score anyway. If it’s caught you’re back to the bag. In no circumstance, no matter how sure you are it's a hit, do you get doubled off.
Winston Churchill said “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” It would be one thing if the Jays base runners and hitters showed that they had learned, or that they are good bunters, but they don't and they aren't. Tim Johnson's '98 Blue Jays were an undisciplined base running bunch that ran at odd times. But they at least paid attention to the basics of fundamental aggressiveness. There are times to run and times where it's better not to. The '98s won 88 games. This group may lose 88 games.
MLB POWER RANKINGS
Last week’s rankings in parentheses
1. Washington Nationals (1)
Second best team in franchise history — to the '94 Expos
2. Texas Rangers (2)
The AL West has become the monster division in baseball and Rangers lead
3. Oakland A’s (8)
There are no key veterans in this staff except Aussie Grant Balfour
4. Baltimore Orioles (4)
The O’s are following the personal trend 0f 90-plus wins in Showalter's second full year
5. Cincinnati Reds (6)
These guys faltered the last time in playoffs. Need Rolen to be ready for Oct.
6. New York Yankees (3)
A-Rod has a chance to convince everyone he's a clutch HoF player
7. San Francisco Giants (5)
The sweetest move would be to tell Melky to just go home in the post-season
8. Tampa Bay Rays (7)
The Rays have the best rotation in the post-season mix. Is it enough?
9. Atlanta Braves (9)
Once these guys are in the post-season they will be dangerous
10. Los Angeles Angels (10)
Time is running out but their rotation is capable of a streak
11. Detroit Tigers(13)
Tigers defence was a question mark and is still a question mark
12. Chicago White Sox (11)
Hopefully for the Chisox in Sept. nobody asks Rios for an autograph
13. Los Angeles Dodgers (14)
Even after the mega-trade with Red Sox this team is heavy with question marks
14. St. Louis Cardinals (12)
Manager Mike Matheny is a great guy but nobody is pulling for the Cards
15. Philadelphia Phillies (16)
These guys are just getting back to where they should have been all along
16. Seattle Mariners (18)
The M's have a young line-up that can all get better — next year
17. Milwaukee Brewers (19)
Ryan Braun has no MVP chance because he was also good when they were bad
18. Pittsburgh Pirates (15)
If there was a 100-game Manager-of-the-Year it would be Clint Hurdle every year
19. San Diego Padres (21)
With 28 HR Headley has 15 more than previous career high. Does question need to be asked?
20. Arizona Diamondbacks (17)
The Snakes are not very good but they seem to hang around and hover in the race
21. Toronto Blue Jays (22)
Jays are having trouble finding out what they're trying to find out. Who's ready
22. Boston Red Sox (24)
Valentine not helping himself dissing the hand that's dealt him
23. New York Mets (20)
The next thing this team can look forward to is All-Star hosts in '13
24. Kansas City Royals (23)
The last thing this team had to savour was All-Star hosts in '12
25. Minnesota Twins (25)
Organization prides itself on fundamentals but needs more talent
26. Miami Marlins (26)
No real vote of confidence for manager Guillen from owner Jeff Loria
27. Cleveland Indians (28)
Could Omar Vizquel be a candidate to manage Tribe?
28. Colorado Rockies (27)
Rocky Mountain Low, Colorado
29. Chicago Cubs (29)
Theo has already informed fans to expect more of the same
30. Houston Astros (30)
Teams in the AL West can't wait till next year
ONE FOR THE ROAD
Following is a ranking of personally preferred 2012 World Series sites, selected from among the current post-season contenders based on the working conditions for media, accessibility of the stadium and quality of the activities away from the ballpark, pre- and post-game and, basically, selfishness.
1. San Francisco Giants
Walking distance from downtown hotels, AT&T Park is one of the most unique settings in the majors, with McCovey Cove and a great view of the bay beyond the right field wall. World Series games begin at 5:30 p.m. local time leaving plenty of time for a post-game meal.
2. New York Yankees
It's Yankee Stadium and the Big Apple, after all. There's the tradition and the history to give tremendous depth to any Series story, plus it's a city the never sleeps — and lately that never sweeps. The only down side is getting out of the Bronx at one in the morning.
3. Chicago White Sox
This is the best city in baseball to visit, but all things considered, again, access to the ballpark is a detriment. In addition, this is the only organization in baseball that has decided that near the foul pole in right field is the best spot to seat the media. Yeah, I know, quit whining, right?
4. St. Louis Cardinals
Again, like New York, the story writes itself because of the baseball history oozing from every corner of the city. October is a sea of Cardinal red, with polite, enthusiastic fans and a 100 per cent baseball atmosphere. Again, stadium a short walk from downtown hotels.
5. Los Angeles Angels
Start with the weather, rent a car, stay near the ballpark. Easy access, friendly staff, great looking fans. Drive to brunch in posh Laguna Beach just 30 minutes away. Get back in plenty of time for pre-game interviews, plus it's always another 5:30 p.m. local start.
6. Baltimore Orioles
The refurbished, tourist friendly Inner Harbour is what Toronto should study as a model for their waterfront. I have a soft spot in my heart for Baltimore as a World Series venue because it's where at a Game 1 snowout vs. the Pirates, I first took my wife to dinner. Great ballpark.
7. Oakland A's
One might ask why S.F. ranks No. 1 and Oakland No. 7 when you always stay at the same hotel for both and take BART to the Coliseum. Two words — The Coliseum. What a dump, tough to get to once you get off the subway and horrible working conditions. But we'll always have 'Frisco.
8. Detroit Tigers
There are two options. You can stay in Windsor and commute, or stay in Detroit and have a short commute to Comerica. Used to choose Windsor but in the words of The Boss “Tonight can you get us a ride? Gotta make it through the tunnel Got a meeting with a man on the other side.”
9. Washington Nationals
My only trip to see the Nats was old RFK Stadium, in with the Jays at the Mayflower Hotel. I believe they gave me the Eliot Spitzer Suite. I've heard good things about the new ballpark and the location and it would be fun to see a new World Series entrant — even if I hate them.
10. Tampa Bay Rays
I still believe Tropicana Field is the worst ballpark in the majors, but the accessibility of parking, press box conditions, access to clubhouses and field and the quality of the media relations makes it worthwhile. Weather's always good and there is spring training familiarity.
THIS WEEK IN BASEBALL HISTORY
9/17/12 CF Casey Stengel makes his MLB debut with four hits and two steals. He goes on to a Hall-of-Fame career as a manager of mainly the Yankees and expansion Mets... 9/17/41 Stan Musial makes his MLB debut with a pair of hits... 9/17/55 3B Brooks Robinson makes his MLB debut with two hits... 9/17/80 RHP Rick Langford, currently a minor-league instructor with the Jays, gives up a homer to Rusty Staub and is relieved in the eighth, snapping a streak off 22 consecutive complete games... 9/18/56 CF Mickey Mantle of the Yankees slams his 50th HR vs. Billy Pierce on the way to the Triple Crown with one of the greatest seasons ever, batting .353 with 52 HR and 130 RBIs... 9/18/76 Frank Robinson as player/manager of the Indians singles vs. Rudy May of the O's in his final career at-bat as an active player... 9/18/87 Darrell Evans for the Tigers becomes the first player in history to hit 30-plus HR at the age of 40... 9/19/31 Lefty Grove wins his 30th game for the A's. It's the last time anyone reaches that mark until Denny McLain of the Tigers in 1968... 9/19/98 Alex Rodriguez of the M's homers to become the second player in MLB history to record 40 homers and 40 steals. The first was the 'roided up Jose Canseco with the A's in 1988... 9/19/68 Mickey Mantle slams the 536th and final homer of his illustrious career vs. Jim Lonborg of the Red Sox... 9/20/98 The Iron Bird, Cal Ripken, Jr. takes himself out of the O's line-up vs. El Duque and the Yankees, replaced by 3B Ryan Minor, snapping his consecutive games played streak at 2,632... 9/21/81 Steve Carlton of the Phils fans Andre Dawson for his 3,118th career K, setting an NL record. Amazingly, the Expos line-up that day in a 1-0 17-inning win over the Phils, included two future Hall-of-Famers (Dawson and Gary Carter), four future managers (Terry Francona, Brad Mills, Jerry Manuel and Larry Parrish) and five future MLB coaches (Jerry White, Tim Raines, Tim Wallach, Chris Speier and Wallace Johnson)... 9/22/11 Cy Young wins his final game of 511 in a fabulous MLB career, beating the Pirates 1-0... 9/22/57 Duke Snider cracks Hrs No. 39-40 of the year, the last ever at Ebbets Field as the Dodgers lead a West Coast migration heading to the Coliseum in Los Angeles... 9/22/68 The Twins starting pitcher is utility man Cesar Tovar who goes on to play all nine positions in a 2-1 win over the A's. The opposing SS Bert Campaneris is the only other man in MLB history to accomplish the feat... 9/22/93 The expansion Rockies play their final game at spacious Mile High Stadium setting a major-league attendance record of 4,483,350. The sight lines were terrible but the fans did not care... 9/23/08 Fred Merkle's famous boner for the Giants, as a walk off hit results instead, in an appeal at second base and a game-ending fielder's choice. Merkle's premature celebration results in a tie game and a replay for the pennant on Oct. 8 that the Cubs won. Oops... 9/23/78 RF Lyman Bostock of the Angels is killed in a case of mistaken identity by a shotgun blast in Gary, Ind., following a day game against the White Sox. The stunned Angels play with heavy hearts the next afternoon under former Jays manager Jim Fregosi... 9/22/84 The Tigers win their 100th game of the season, making Sparky Anderson the first manager to win 100 games in each league.
BIRTHDAYS: 9/17 John Franco, 52; Bobby Wine, 74; Orlando Cepeda, 75... 9/18 Ryne Sandberg, 53; Tony Scott, 61; Ken Brett, 64; Harvey Haddix, 87... 9/19 Jim Abbott 45; Randy Myers, 49; Joe Morgan, 69; Duke Snider, 86... 9/20 Tom Tresh 75... 9/21 Cecil Fielder 49; Danny Cox 53; Sam McDowell, 69; John McHale 91... 9/22 Mike Matheny, 42; Jim Fairey, 68; Larry Dierker, 66... 9/23 Dennis Lamp, 60; Jim Rooker, 70.
JAYS MINOR LEAGUE ROUNDUP
The Blue Jays' eight farm teams combined for a 427-395 record.
AAA-Las Vegas (79-64) missed playoffs with fifth-best record in 16-team PCL. In four seasons at Las Vegas, the Jays affiliate was a combined 287-288...Alex Anthopoulos begins negotiations with Buffalo.
AA-New Hampshire (61-81) ended the EL season in last place.
A-Dunedin (78-55) posted the best record in the FSL's North Division and second overall. Jays lost the first round playoff series to Lakeland. MGR Mike Redmond was named to the FSL all-stars.
A-Lansing (82-55) posted the best overall record in the Midwest League.
A-Vancouver (46-30) won second straight Northwest League championship.
A-Bluefield (29-37) finished last in their division.
Rk-Gulf Coast Blue Jays (22-38).
Rk-Dominican Summer League (30-35)
The Rangers are making pitching moves in an attempt to stay ahead of the A's in the AL West, that has far and away become the best division in baseball, taking over from the AL East. Rangers' MGR Ron Washington announced that 21-year-old rookie RH Martin Perez will take over the rotation spot of RH Scott Feldman as of Friday. In Feldman’s last seven starts he is 0-5, with a 6.99 ERA. In his 22 starts, the Rangers are 7-15. Feldman began the season in the bullpen. C Mike Napoli finally returned to the Rangers line-up, but will at least get four days off when RH Yu Darvish pitches down the stretch. Darvish in his six starts with C Geovany Soto is 4-1, with a 2.32 ERA. Darvish's endurance over the course of a full major-league season had been in question, but he's finishing strong...What ever happened to RH Ernesto Frieri, the light-out closer that the Angels seemingly stole from the Padres in May? On Saturday, with RH Zack Greinke within two outs of a shutout, MGR Mike Scioscia brought his closer in who promptly gave up back-to-back homers for a Royals' walk off win. Angels 1B Mike Trumbo homered on Sunday. It was his first extra-base hit since August 21, over 18 games. The Angels will have no excuses for their showdown vs. the Rangers at home. The rotation is set up with RH Jered Weaver, LH C.J. Wilson and Greinke... The Rays are suffering from a fading rookie LH Matt Moore who has lasted just four and three innings in his last two starts. OF Sam Fuld, the role model for wrist recovery for Jays' RF Jose Bautista, is out for a few days with a right hamstring strain. Kudos to Rays' MGR Joe Maddon who is constantly promoting his coaches to manage elsewhere, in the same way Terry Francona did when he was with the Red Sox. Maddon is pushing his bench coach, Dave Martinez, towards the soon to be vacant Astros' job. “Obviously if they chose him, they'd made a great choice, and I so wish him well,” Maddon said of Martinez. “We'd always hate to lose him, but that would be the evolution of his career. That ballpark and that city with their tradition fits perfect, and the fact that they're going to the American League, and his knowledge of the American League, I think would be very beneficial, too.”... The biggest differences between the Tigers last year and this year have been the closer and the defence. CL Jose Valverde should cut down on his entrance pantomime with all the accompanying choreography unless he is perfect. He blew and lost Sunday's game vs. the Indians, even though earlier in the game it was the defence that let them down. The Tigers lead the AL in unearned runs allowed. It will be tough for them to go into next season with 3B Miguel Cabrera and 1B Prince Fielder at the corners. A good rotation target for the Jays in the off-season might be RH Rick Porcello who throws a lot of groundballs and has not been helped by the Tiger pylons.
The Giants have been an amazing story. Even with the loss of all-star CF Melky Cabrera to a drug suspension and the disappointment of RH Tim Lincecum, the Giants have reached a magic number of nine as they start a 10-game home stand. In fact, they are said to be seriously considering just asking Cabrera to go home when his PED 50-game suspension ends, if they are deep in the playoffs. Little noted is the comeback of LH Barry Zito, who has helped right the rotation with some strong starts and his best season since '06. Zito is 12-8 and the Giants have won his last eight starts...The Cards wild-card hopes are looking up. They beat the Dodgers on Sunday for a one-game lead for WC-II and now play nine straight against the Cubs and Astros the only two teams in MLB with a winning percentage under .400. RH Chris Carpenter amazingly will be starting on Friday vs. the Cubs after a nerve problem in his right shoulder has kept him out all year... The Phils looked like they were charging until they got juiced at Minute Maid Park losing three of four to the woeful Astros. 1B Ryan Howard in Sept. is hitting .193 with 15 Ks in 15 games. The 'Stros even walked 2B Chase Utley in order to face Howard. LH Cliff Lee is facing the Mets Monday night and is 3-0, 0.99 ERA in his last four starts... Here's one that will make you go “Hmm!” Braves RH Kris Medlen and Nats' RH Stephen Strasburg had Tommy John surgery the same week in August 2010. While Strasburg has been shut down for the year due to an inning count, Medlen started vs. the Nats on Friday and shut them down. Medlen was used in relief the first chunk of the season, obviously saving enough bullets where if the Braves got to a wild-card game, he would be the logical choice for the start. The Braves have won the last 20 Medlen starts, the longest streak since the Yankees won 20 straight Roger Clemens starts in 2001... It's tough coming back as a hitter after time off in the middle of a season. Look at C J.P. Arencibia and 3B Brett Lawrie with the Jays. Look at 1B Joey Votto with the Reds. Votto is 10-for-33-.303 since coming back from a couple of knee procedures, but has just two doubles. “Driving the ball through the middle of the field, through the gaps, out of the ballpark, that will come at some point,” Votto said to Reds' media on the weekend. “Some players just have the natural stroke that you throw them in the lineup and all of the sudden they turn on a ball and hit it out of the ballpark. I feel like I've got a process swing. It takes a long time to get to where it needs to be and to stay there. The advantage — if I'm healthy — more often than not, it tends to stay there." The Reds MGR Dusty Baker has sat LH Aroldis Chapman for six days as part of a master plan to keep him fresh... One Brewers pitcher is on the way up and one is on the way down and the way out. The 23-year-old rookie RH Wily Peralta is 2-0, with a 1.80 ERA in his three starts, while RH Shaun Marcum, on his way to free-agency, is 0-1, with a 5.70 ERA in his four starts since returning from the DL with elbow issues. The Brew Crew is a red-hot 20-6 into Monday.