Weekend Watch: First-place battles
Reds (41-34) at Giants (44-33)
This is one of two battles featuring a pair of first place clubs, and it features the newest member of that fraternity. The Giants shut out the Dodgers in three straight games to move into a tie atop the NL West on Wednesday, then on Thursday night, Madison Bumgarner hung a one-hit shutout on the Reds while the Dodgers lost yet again. San Francisco is the first team since the 1995 Orioles to toss four shutouts in a row, and the sixth time this month that the Giants have blanked the opposition. They've allowed just 3.42 runs per game this month while going an NL-best 17-9, good enough to make up six games on the Dodgers. As for the Reds, they've lost seven of their last 10 as their lead in the NL Central has shrunk from four games to one. Another significant concern is the health of Brandon Phillips, who left Wednesday's game after sustaining a knee to the head and was scratched from Thursday's lineup. He hasn't been officially diagnosed with a concussion yet, though it certainly sounds as though he sustained one, and a trip to the 7-day disabled list would hardly be a surprise. The dropoff from Phillips to his potential replacements -- he's hitting .289/.330/.452 compared to Miguel Cairo's .127/158/.218 and Wilson Valdez's .237/.244/.276 -- is steep, but having Phillips healthy is far more important.
Mets (41-36) at Dodgers (43-34)
Are they contenders or are they pretenders? On the surface, that question would seem to apply to both of these teams as they've experienced June swoons, with the Mets just 13-13 and the Dodgers 11-15. A closer look shows that despite their recent slumps, these are two of the five teams in the National League with records of .500 or better against teams that themselves have records of .500 or better: the Dodgers (19-14, .576), Nationals (27-20, .574), Giants (18-16, .529), Reds (24-22, .522) and Mets (24-23, .511). The best news the Mets have going for them at the moment is that Ike Davis is hitting .253/.366/.519 in June after entering the month batting an embarrassing .170/.228/.296. They also have to be breathing sighs of relief over Saturday starter Johan Santana's last two turns; he has yielded just two runs in 12 innings against the Orioles and Cubs — not exactly juggernauts, but still -- after he had been rocked for 10 runs in 10 innings against the Yankees and Rays in his first two starts following his no-hitter. Speaking of no hitters, that pretty much describes Los Angeles with Matt Kemp on the disabled list and Andre Ethier sitting due to an oblique strain. The Dodgers broke their scoreless streak of 33 innings on Thursday night but have scored just 15 runs in their last 10 games, nine of which have been losses. All told, they're hitting .219/.293/.295 in June, though it's fair to point out that Ethier (.218/.306/.322) was part of the problem, and sitting him for a few days may allow him to clear his head.
Other matchups of note:
Indians (38-37) at Orioles (41-34)
White Sox (41-35) at Yankees (46-29)
Nationals (43-31) at Braves (40-35)
• For all the no-hitters, near no-hitters and talk of a pendulum swing away from high offensive levels, major league scoring is at 4.32 runs per team per game, a whisker ahead of last year's rate of 4.28. Sure, it's not much, but after just 4.16 runs per game were scored in April, rates have been considerably higher in May (4.38) and June (4.39).
They figure to rise slightly as the season goes on. From 2002 through 2011, scoring in April (including a smattering of March games) through June was at 4.62 runs per team per game, whereas it rose to 4.66 from July through September (including a smattering of October games — regular season ones, not playoffs). Reduce the window to five years (2007-2011) and the increase from April-June to July-September is a bit larger, from 4.49 to 4.55. I don't think we'll see a sudden spate of "Year of the Hitter" articles, but adding another 0.06 runs per game to the current rate would boost scoring levels to 4.38 runs per game, not too far off 2009's 4.43 runs per game, the last year before the latter-day claims of "Year of the Pitcher" started to appear. • The news that the Phillies are calling AL teams to gauge interest in Jim Thome is hardly surprising. With interleague play finished and his experiment in the field curtailed by his physical limitations, the 41-year-old Thome would be more valuable as a designated hitter than as a pinch hitter. He can still do the job, too. He has hit .295/.380/.682 with five homer in 50 plate appearances since coming off the disabled list, and his overall line is now .242/.338/.516 in 71 PA. That's better than a whole lot of teams are getting out of their DHs. Among contenders, consider that the Orioles (.253/.343/.436) just put Nick Johnson on the disabled list with a wrist sprain. The Rays (.207/.272/.348) may have gotten Luke Scott back from the DL, but he's no Thome. The Tigers (.235/.261/.343) are hemorrhaging runs from the DH spot. It's not going to take a blue-chip prospect to acquire Thome, but whatever it takes is a small price to pay for a team competing for a playoff spot.