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Plenty of pitching helps Padres jump AL East powers to top spot

With the exception of veteran Jon Garland, the Padres starters are virtual unknowns -- at least they were until this season, when the names Mat Latos, Wade LeBlanc, Kevin Correia and Clayton Richard keep popping up on the winner's line of the box score.

Since Aug. 8, the Padres have won 13 of 16 games, and the starting pitcher has earned the win in each of those victories. Twice in that stretch San Diego has gone on five-game winning streaks with each member of the rotation picking up a victory in succession.

The 22-year-old Latos is having the best season of the quintet, going 13-5 with a 2.33 ERA, but he will have his innings limited down the stretch. Naturally, the Padres may have an overqualified spot starter to spell him in September, as former All-Star Chris Young could be ready to return from injury in the season's final month.

The Padres have MLB's best bullpen ERA (2.75) and third-best starters' ERA (3.49) and it is on the strength of this pitching that San Diego takes over as the new No. 1. Not bad for a club that debuted at No. 24 in the first PRs of the year back on April 15, which also happens to be the only previous time a team other than the Yankees or Rays held the top spot.

MLB Power Rankings
1San Diego Padres
Last Week: 3
According to the odds compiled by Baseball Prospectus, the Padres have a 96.7 percent chance of making the playoffs, making them the surest bet in baseball. According to one general manager, however, it may be important for San Diego to maximize their chances this season. "There are surprise teams built on high draft picks and planning," the G.M. told Tom Verducci in this week's SI, "and others that just have a special year. I love San Diego, but it could be one of those special years. Like the Brewers [in 2008], most of these teams get one year, then it's five or six waiting for another window."

The Padres will look to protect their first No. 1 ranking of the season with a home series against the wild card-leading Phillies and then a road series with the lowly Diamondbacks.
 
2Tampa Bay Rays
Last Week: 1
The Rays got mixed results in the first starts back from the disabled list for starters Wade Davis and Jeff Niemann. Davis only pitched 5 1/3 innings but beat the Angels; Niemann lasted only 3 1/3 innings and allowed 10 runs. Meanwhile, rookie Jeremy Hellickson threw a quality start in each of his first four appearances, going 3-0 with a 2.05 ERA, but was sent down to Class A ball in order to prepare to be a reliever for the rest of the season. Given his early success -- and his teammates' injury woes -- it's worth asking if it's the smart move for the Rays to shorten their most effective starter from the past month.
 
3New York Yankees
Last Week: 2
The cracks are starting to add up for the Yankees: Alex Rodriguez is on the D.L.; Derek Jeter has mild tendinitis; right fielder Nick Swisher was scratched from Wednesday's game with a sore knee; starter Javier Vazquez was demoted to the bullpen; starter Phil Hughes is creeping up close enough to his season's innings limit that many are wondering whether he'll have to relieve in the postseason; and speculation continues to swirl around manager Joe Girardi, tying him to the Cubs' opening. But the Yankees keep plowing ahead in spite of it all.
 
4Cincinnati Reds
Last Week: 7
So much for the Mike Leake fairy tale. The Reds rookie who debuted without ever having pitched in the minors was 7-1 with a 3.45 ERA after winning on July 20. Since then? He allowed 21 runs in 21 innings over his next four starts (though only 13 of those runs were earned). He was then demoted to the bullpen, where he yielded eight earned runs in 3 1/3 innings. Now he could be shut down, having thrown 139 innings this season.
 
5Texas Rangers
Last Week: 8
The Rangers nearly had the season's first combined no-hitter -- which, one supposes, would have made it the Year of the Pitchers, plural -- but Twins catcher Joe Mauer singled off closer Neftali Feliz with one out in the ninth inning. Texas starter Rich Harden threw 111 pitches to start the game with 6 2/3 no-hit innings but wasn't going to last any longer while making his first start since returning from the disabled list. There was nearly as much excitement before the next night's game, when an Army skydiver had his parachute stuck on a ballpark flagpole.
 
6Atlanta Braves
Last Week: 4
When third baseman Chipper Jones was lost for the season, utility infielder Omar Infante -- best known for his controversial inclusion in the All-Star Game despite meager credentials -- was in line to get the lion's share of Jones' at bats. At the time of the injury, Phillies and NL manager Charlie Manuel, the man who chose Infante as an All-Star, joked, "I'd say [Jones] is a loss, but at the same time, I picked Infante for the All-Star Game, didn't I? We'll see how smart I am." Pretty smart, it seems. Since July 29 Infante has hits in 26 of the 27 games he's played, including 15 multi-hit games. During that stretch he has batted .381 with five home runs.
 
7Minnesota Twins
Last Week: 5
First baseman Justin Morneau, sidelined since July 7 with a concussion, has taken batting practice a few times recently but hasn't made it through a day without symptoms and remains sidelined. Michael Cuddyer has played a capable first base but has lost his power this season -- a year after blasting 32 home runs, he's hit only 11 in 122 games this year, including just four in 48 games at first base. But the Twins had a terrific September last year to overtake the Tigers for the AL Central crown without the services of Morneau then, and this year they'll have it a little easier: They already have the division lead.
 
8Boston Red Sox
Last Week: 9
Who ever would have believed that J.D. Drew would be the Red Sox' healthiest outfielder this season? The right fielder has avoided the D.L. altogether this season, though his slated starters in center and left, Mike Cameron and Jacoby Ellsbury, have missed most of the season. Boston's last chance at a proven veteran replacement was Johnny Damon, who earlier this week nixed a waiver trade that could have been his chance for redemption in Boston. Instead, the Sox will need rookies Daniel Nava and Ryan Kalish to be steady contributors.
 
9San Francisco Giants
Last Week: 12
The Giants won't stop collecting new bats. Given the success of the midseason additions, why not? The Giants called up catcher Buster Posey, who in 76 games is making noise that he should be NL Rookie of the Year with a .332 average and 10 homers. San Francisco signed Pat Burrell to a minor-league deal, and since his promotion he's hit 12 home runs in 64 games. And now the Giants have added two outfielders via waivers, Jose Guillen (13-for-35) and Cody Ross (4-for-9).
 
10Philadelphia Phillies
Last Week: 6
The following happened in a wild 4-2, 16-inning loss to the Astros played over five hours and 20 minutes Tuesday night: Ross Gload, who's on the disabled list, was ejected; Raul Ibañez played first base for the first time in five years; Ryan Howard struck out five times and was ejected for arguing about the last one; and starter Roy Oswalt, facing his former team, was enlisted to play left field for the game's final two innings. He caught a flyball but also grounded out to end the game.
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