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Surging Braves shoot into top five as slumping Phillies plummet

Is it possible Jason Heyward is even better than we've been giving him credit for? Through the first 32 games of the seasons, the Braves were 14-18, in last place and six games behind the division-leading Phillies. On May 11, manager Bobby Cox bumped Heyward into the upper half of the lineup for the first time, batting him third for a couple of games before moving him more permanently into the No. 2 hole. In the 21 games since, the Braves are 17-4 and now lead the National League East by 2.5 games.

Heyward's power numbers were actually more impressive before the switch (8 home runs, .611 slugging) than after (2 HRs, .506 slugging) but his on-base percentage has remained roughly the same, dipping almost insignificantly from .423 to .414. But simply having that power and on-base threat higher in the lineup -- Heyward leads the team in both OBP and SLG -- has dramatically improved Atlanta's overall offensive output. In 32 games with Heyward batting sixth or seventh, the team hit .231 with 20 HRs and scored 4.0 runs per game; in 21 games after the move, the Braves have batted .293 with 23 HRs and scored 6.1 runs per game.

Atlanta has won 13 of its last 15, in part because it has scored in the first inning in nine of those wins. And sure enough, the first has been Heyward's second-best inning (trailing only the ninth), as he's batted .450 with a .542 OBP and an otherworldly .900 slugging.

MLB Power Rankings
1Tampa Bay Rays
Last Week: 1
The Phillies beat the Rays in the 2008 World Series, so the Rays retaliated against the city of Philadelphia by ... wearing Chicago Blackhawks jerseys on a plane? Sorta. Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon occasionally institutes an offbeat dress code for team flights, and players were encouraged to wear hockey sweaters on the team's recent flight to hockey-loving Canada. Pitching coach Jim Hickey, a Chicago native and Blackhawks fan, has a nephew who works in the hockey team's ticketing office. Phone calls were made, and next thing we knew, most of the Rays were wearing Blackhawks jerseys.

The Rays took two of three from the Blue Jays, but will have only a five-game week to continue protecting their No. 1 ranking, traveling to Texas over the weekend before returning home for the Blue Jays, with a day off before each series.
 
2New York Yankees
Last Week: 2
Rightfielder Nick Swisher will likely look back at May 2010 as the best month of his life. He was hot at the plate, batting .374 with seven home runs and 17 RBIs, arguably the most prolific month of his career. And that wasn't even the highlight, as he got engaged to Gossip Girl actress Joanna Garcia.
 
3Minnesota Twins
Last Week: 3
The Twins have only played one-third of their schedule, but for the second straight season they boast a middle-of-the-order hitter with the initials J.M. who is leading the American League in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging. Last year it was, of course, MVP catcher Joe Mauer (.364/.444/.587), but so far in 2010 it's been Justin Morneau (.372/.484/.683), who led all three until Wednesday night, when he fell one batting average point behind Robinson Cano. Morneau said missing most of last September with a stress fracture in his back gave him time to evaluate the way he prepares for games, and he facilitated more intense game preparation by installing the same video system available at the ballpark in his home.
 
4San Diego Padres
Last Week: 4
Pitching and defense have undoubtedly keyed San Diego's success this season, as the Padres have allowed the fewest runs in the majors (173). But Monday's record-setting 18-run barrage against the Mets at Petco Park reinforced that they pack some pop, too. The outburst broke a mark set earlier in the season, when the Padres scored 17 against the Braves on April 12.
 
5Atlanta Braves
Last Week: 17
As the Braves broadcasters extolled Troy Glaus' May exploits (.330, 6 home runs, 28 RBIs, NL Player of the Month honors) in the first inning on Tuesday, the first baseman crushed a home run to left field off Phillies starter Cole Hamels, prompting Chip Caray to exclaim, "It's not June 1st, it's May 32nd!"
 
6Cincinnati Reds
Last Week: 5
Stephen Strasburg isn't the only San Diego-area phenom turning heads as a starting pitcher. The Reds' Mike Leake, who bypassed the minor leagues after being drafted out of Arizona State in the first round, is 4-0 with a 2.45 ERA in 10 starts. Leake and Strasburg were even teammates on an 11-year-old travel team in Southern California. Back then, Leake recently told USA Today, Strasburg was "overweight, pouty and used to cry. He did a complete 180. It's amazing how he changed."
 
7St. Louis Cardinals
Last Week: 7
Might Jason Heyward have serious competition for NL Rookie of the Year? Cardinals starter Jaime Garcia is 5-2 with a 1.32 ERA, second only to Colorado's Ubaldo Jimenez. Garcia has yet to give up more than two earned runs in any start and put together a recent streak of 19 consecutive scoreless innings at home.
 
8Los Angeles Dodgers
Last Week: 8
Sure, Manny Ramirez's power numbers are down -- he's hit only four home runs and just 10 extra-base hits -- but he's arguably still the most important player in Los Angeles' lineup. The Dodgers are 19-9 in games he starts (a .679 winning percentage) and just 12-13 in games he doesn't (a .480 winning percentage).
 
9Boston Red Sox
Last Week: 10
Starter Clay Buchholz is showing why general manager Theo Epstein effectively made him untouchable in all trade talks. Buchholz is 7-3 with a 2.73 ERA and has won eight straight road starts, becoming only the fourth Red Sox pitcher to put together a streak that long. The others are all in the Hall of Fame or not yet eligible: Babe Ruth, Lefty Grove and Roger Clemens.
 
10Toronto Blue Jays
Last Week: 12
Starter Brandon Morrow has had a schizophrenic season, alternating between dominant starts and poor starts, but there's no denying how unhittable his stuff can be when he's on: He induces a swing-and-miss rate of 28.5 percent, best in the AL. But Morrow said his best start came Monday, when he held the Rays to one run in seven innings by taking a little off each pitch to locate it better. He only struck out one, but got his fourth win.
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