Thursday August 12th, 2010

With about seven weeks remaining, five of the six divisions have two teams within 2 1/2 games of each other -- only the Rangers in the American League West will likely go uncontested -- and tensions are escalating, which could make the stretch run a little nasty.

In the National League Central, Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips took some shots at the Cardinals after the two combatants had opened a three-game series on Monday night, telling the Dayton Daily News, "I hate the Cardinals. All they do is [expletive] and moan about everything, all of them, they're little [expletives], all of 'em."

When Phillips led off in the first inning Tuesday, he tapped the shin guard -- a common greeting in the batter's box -- of St. Louis catcher Yadier Molina, who kicked away his bat. The two started jawing at each other, and a few moments later, the benches cleared.

It was Phillips' only memorable moment of the series. He went 2-for-14 with just on RBI and the Cardinals swept his Reds to take over first place.

The NL West got hotter too. With a weekend series set between the division-leading Padres and second-place Giants, San Francisco pitcher Jonathan Sanchez guaranteed a sweep.

"We're going to play San Diego, and we're going to beat them three times," Sanchez told the San Francisco Chronicle. "If we get to first place, we're not going to look back."

Get set for some of the most exciting -- and testy -- playoff races in years.

MLB Power Rankings
1New York Yankees
Last Week: 2
Have the Yankees caught the Red Sox' injury bug? Not exactly, but when New York's archrival came to town last weekend, the Yankees had several players miss a few games. Alex Rodriguez missed Saturday's game after new teammate Lance Berkman hit him in the shin with a line drive during batting practice -- "the worst B.P. disaster since the BP disaster," quipped's Steve Rushin on Twitter -- and A.J. Burnett was scratched from Sunday's start with back spasms. Second baseman Robinson Cano missed Tuesday's game with what the team called a cold, and first baseman Mark Teixeira was the one healthy scratch, as he missed games in Texas on Tuesday and Wednesday to be with his wife for the birth of their first child. But though the games missed were adding up, no one went to the disabled list, continuing the Yankees' good luck, at least when compared to the Red Sox.

The Yankees look to protect their top ranking -- which they previously held from for seven straight weeks from June 17 through July 29 -- against a pair of teams from the AL Central, traveling to Kansas City over the weekend and then hosting the Tigers.
2Tampa Bay Rays
Last Week: 1
The Rays have had their own set of injuries suddenly stack up, and theirs are more serious than what New York is dealing with. Two starters, Jeff Niemann (10-3, 3.12 ERA) and Wade Davis (9-9, 4.45 ERA), both went to the disabled list with shoulder fatigue, joining first baseman Carlos Peña who beat them to the D.L. by a couple days. On the bright side, rookie starter Jeremy Hellickson dazzled in his second start -- he's now 2-0 with a 1.29 ERA in two starts -- and substitute first baseman Dan Johnson has 11 walks in seven games, including four in a win Tuesday night.
3San Diego Padres
Last Week: 3
It's hard to believe that, a decade into the 21st century, not every major-league game is broadcast in a team's home market, but not every Padres game is televised in San Diego. Of course, it may be even harder to believe that there's such demand for Padres in baseball in the 2010 season that the club had to do something about it. Beginning next week, thanks to the Friars' winning season, four games will be streamed live online -- for free -- that are not on regular TV.
4Texas Rangers
Last Week: 4
The year began with an report that Rangers manager Ron Washington had failed a cocaine test. Management was disappointed but gave him another chance. All Washington has done is lead the Rangers to a 7 1/2-game lead in the AL West and receive a strong vote of confidence from general manager Jon Daniels, team president (and soon-to-be part owner) Nolan Ryan and team leader Michael Young. Heck, he may even be a leading candidate for AL Manager of the Year.
5Atlanta Braves
Last Week: 9
Kenshin Kawakami lacks the theme song that Carmen Sandiego had or the trademark striped shirt, glasses and hat that of Waldo, but the 35-year-old Japanese right-hander was equally hard to find lately. After being demoted to the bullpen in late June with a 1-9 record, Kawakami pitched only once in a month before being sent down to Triple-A on Friday to make room for Atlanta's 2009 first-round pick, Mike Minor. Given that Minor was dominating Triple-A (4-1, 1.89 ERA in six starts), why did the Braves waste a roster spot on Kawakami for so long and not just bring Minor up sooner?.
6St. Louis Cardinals
Last Week: 11
The tension of the division race has been so high that even teammates are getting on each other. On Monday night, a day before Tuesday's brawl, shortstop Brendan Ryan lost track of the time before the Cardinals took the field in the first inning while taking a few extra cuts in the batting cage and was late getting to the field. Then he realized he had the wrong glove and slowed the game down further while switching. His starting pitcher, Chris Carpenter, was not pleased, as evidenced by him yelling at Ryan in the dugout, a scene captured by TV cameras. Later in the game Ryan didn't field a ball Carpenter evidently thought he should have. "I just thought it was really embarrassing," Ryan told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Said Carpenter to the paper, "I said what I had to say. He understood what I had to say. That was it."
7Boston Red Sox
Last Week: 12
Over the past two weeks, the Red Sox have only won when their starters have pitched well, but the margin for error seems to be increasing. Center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury, who was 0 for his first 16 upon returning from cracked ribs, reached base three times against the Yankees on Monday (via a single, walk and hit-by-pitch) and stole four bases, tying a team record. With two more hits the next day, he finally looks back on track. And second baseman Dustin Pedroia could return as early as Tuesday if all goes well with a medical checkup Friday and a Triple-A rehab assignment over the weekend.
8Minnesota Twins
Last Week: 7
Starting rotation depth is one of baseball's greatest luxuries. While Francisco Liriano (10-7, 3.33 ERA) and Carl Pavano (14-7, 3.28 ERA) have consistently pitched like high-end starters this season, manager Ron Gardenhire has had to work in rotation replacements Brian Duensing and now Glen Perkins while Nick Blackburn rediscovers his sinker in the minor leagues and Kevin Slowely deals with elbow soreness. Duensing is 2-0 in four starts with a 3.33 ERA, and Perkins made his season debut Wednesday night, giving up four earned runs in just 4 2/3 innings of a loss to the White Sox. He is an experienced pitcher, having won 12 games in 2008 and made 43 big league starts before this season.
9Chicago White Sox
Last Week: 5
Manager Ozzie Guillen has more on his mind than just competing with the Twins for first place in the AL Central. He's also competing with them for headlines, telling reporters his team deserves more respect and saying, "Everybody asks, 'What do you think about the Minnesota Twins this year?' Well, that's the team that's supposed to be here today. That's all it is." Guillen has other, more pressing concerns, such as his closer. Bobby Jenks has only blown three saves this year but is prone to combusting and giving up multiple runs. Other options include J.J. Putz, who has 106 career saves and 27 straight scoreless outings, and All-Star Matt Thornton, who has made 20 straight scoreless appearances.
10Philadelphia Phillies
Last Week: 10
In the season's first half Raul Ibañez showed every bit of his years -- he turned 38 on June 2 -- while batting .243 with a .326 OBP and seven home runs. His OPS was .724, worst among the Phillies' regulars. But he's been rejuvenated in the second half (.393/.485 and four homers), with an OPS of 1.080, which is the best among Phillies' regulars. That doesn't mean he has suddenly earned the $11.5 million he's earning this season, but he has held the lineup together through Philadelphia's mounting injuries.
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