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Dodgers and Red Sox reassert themselves as serious contenders

Hard as it is to believe, two of the game's most historic franchises -- two teams that reached the playoffs a year ago, play in two of the biggest markets in baseball and were cruising along earlier in the season -- have been mostly forgotten about this summer. But after an impressive showing this week, both the Dodgers and the Red Sox have reasserted themselves as serious postseason threats. The Dodgers have maintained some nice breathing room in the NL West thanks to their nightly theatrics in Hollywood, while the Red Sox have blown the AL wild-card race wide open with a perfect week that offered yet another playoff mainstay and big-market team an advanced screening of what must look very much like a rerun.

MLB Power Rankings
1New York Yankees
Last Week: 1
Let's see, what is there to talk about with the Yankees' Old Guard these days? Well, there's Derek Jeter, who did that whole record-setting thing, and the value of Andy Pettitte, who will miss a start this week and suddenly makes the Yankees starting rotation look surprisingly vulnerable (more Sergio Mitre and Chad Gaudin is not a good thing). There's the Mariano Rivera for Cy Young campaign, which should be picking up steam now that he's finishing up another amazing season. But I think we should focus on Jorge Posada, and not just because he's posting the fourth-highest OPS of his career at age 38. Posada's actions helped ignite the Yankees-Blue Jays brawl on Tuesday, and afterward he acted like a grown up and offered remorse for his role ("We got carried away. I don't want my kids to see that ... it's not a good example"). Meanwhile, Jays reliever Jesse Carlson, who was actually at fault, acted like he had nothing to do with it. Let me get this straight: You throw a 90 mph fastball behind an innocent person's back for no reason other than because you think you're "protecting" your teammates and you have the gall to be upset when that guy retaliates by nudging you with his elbow? Absurd. (And somehow the umpire thought it was Posada who was "unsportsmanlike" and gave Carlson a "cheap shot?") Add this to the list of reasons why baseball needs to take a serious look at beanball incidents. Pitchers like Carlson would be a lot less likely to go head-hunting if the possible retribution was a fastball to their ribs, and not just a tap on the shoulder from the truly aggrieved party. Rant over.
 
2Los Angeles Dodgers
Last Week: 4
Yet another example of the power of Vin Scully: he nicknames Andre Ethier, he of the six walk-off hits (including four walk-off home runs) "Mr. Miracle," and it sticks already. Yet another example of why the Dodgers are a dangerous postseason team: They have the most extra-inning wins of any team in the game and have the best record in one-run games of any team in the National League. And yet another reason why the unbalanced schedule is bad: The Dodgers didn't face the Pirates for the first time this season until mid-September. As might be expected when the best team in the league plays the second-worst team, the Dodgers swept Pittsburgh, increasing their lead in the NL West to a more relaxing five games. It only gets easier from here: The Dodgers play nine of their next 12 games against last-place teams in the Nationals and Pirates.
 
3Boston Red Sox
Last Week: 5
If it weren't for that little flap over his failed drug test, this would be quite a summer to remember for David Ortiz. He has a new restaurant in Framingham, Mass., called Big Papi's Grille (now open for lunch!), announced a partnership with Massachusetts General Hospital to help sick children, and oh yes: He's also started hitting like his old self. Since May 20, when he snapped a 149-at-bat homerless streak to start the season, Ortiz has hit 24 home runs, the third highest total in the American League, and his 68 RBIs over that time rank eighth in the AL. Ortiz's most recent home run was his 270th as a designated hitter, moving him past Frank Thomas for the all-time lead in that category. Time to pay attention to Big Papi again, and to the Red Sox, who tortured the Angels yet again (so what else is new?) in a possible playoff preview as part of an undefeated week. The Red Sox have beaten the Angels in the playoffs three times since 2004 and are looking very much like the favorites should they meet again.
 
4Los Angeles Angels
Last Week: 3
The Angels' pitching staff is better than ever, with 16 quality starts in its last 19 games, and just in time, too, as the offense has gone into a disturbing September swoon. The Angels entered play on Wednesday hitting just .242/.328/.339 for the month, easily their lowest totals for any month this season, and have scored only 3.1 runs per game, down from 5.7 per game entering the month. And this from a team that still leads the American League in hitting, is second in runs scored and on-base percentage and just a few weeks ago had a lineup that featured all nine players hitting at least .300. With a comfortable six-game lead in the AL West, this is more a concern for October than it is for September. Besides, if things get really hairy, of course, they can always rely on someone to get them out of it.
 
5St. Louis Cardinals
Last Week: 2
Despite a rough week that included being swept by the Braves and losing two of three to the Marlins -- all at home -- things are still looking very good for the Cardinals, who have maintained the biggest divisional lead in the game and will likely be the first team to clinch a division title this year. And yes, they still have the power of Albert Pujols and the majesty of Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright to use as a safety net, and the awesome verbal stylings of Mike Shannon to use as comic relief. But there is some cause for concern, namely their ability to hit left-handed pitching. Against righties the Cardinals rank fourth in batting average (.289) and ninth in on-base percentage and slugging, but against lefties they are dead last in hitting (.233), 27th in OBP and next-to-last in slugging. Why does this matter for a team that could have a playoff spot locked up by this time next week (especially if they sweep the Cubs at home over the weekend): because of Cliff Lee, J.A. Happ, Randy Wolf, Clayton Kershaw, Jorge De La Rosa and all the other lefties they may have to face in the postseason.
 
6Philadelphia Phillies
Last Week: 7
So what if their bullpen has been shaky (cough, Brad Lidge, cough), or Cliff Lee was suddenly being knocked around like it was 2007, or their lead in the NL East temporarily shrank to as low a number as it's been in the past month. Jimmy Rollins advises everyone out there to chill. The Phillies shortstop told the Philadelphia Inquirer, "There's not much to worry about. If we started worrying about what the people were worried about, that would be too much worrying." Rollins is right -- this team is going to cruise into October -- and it's almost as if he knows what Philly sports fans are like. For instance, they're opinionated, like to boo, many of them are more focused on the Eagles now, and they are occasionally adorable. What's to worry about, especially when you can beat up on the weaklings of the NL East at home and pad your divisional lead?
 
7Colorado Rockies
Last Week: 6
Everybody loves AT&T Park. The splash hits. The giant Coke bottle. The vegetarian-friendly menu (well, PETA likes that, anyway.) You know who doesn't like it there? The Rockies. They dropped five straight in San Francisco recently before salvaging the final game of their series on Wednesday night and are just 2-7 there this season. If the Rockies could just win by the Bay they might very well have wrapped up the wild card by now. Instead, their wild-card lead has been whittled to just 3 1/2 games. Then came even more bad news for the Rockies: If there's a one-game playoff for the wild card between the two NL West foes, it will come in San Francisco. Edamame and garden burgers for everybody!
 
8Detroit Tigers
Last Week: 10
With their lead in the AL Central suddenly down to 4 1/2 games over the Twins heading into what has become a surprisingly crucial series in Minnesota this weekend, Tigers fans young and old are getting a bit restless. There was the grown man who ran, shirtless, onto the field in the middle of Tuesday night's game, and earlier in the week, a six-year-old boy decided that he would head out to the mound between innings and take the ball that was awaiting Brandon Lyon. The Tigers haven't given fans much reason to cheer lately, dropping six of eight, losing three games off their lead in the division, and watching their prized midseason acquisition depart Tuesday's game after one inning with a potential injury. There was reason to cheer Wednesday night, though, when Tigers broadcasting legend Ernie Harwell, who is suffering from cancer, was honored before the team's game with the Royals. Harwell may not be as famous as some other announcers, but his speech when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame should be required listening for baseball fans everywhere.
 
9San Francisco Giants
Last Week: 9
Just in time for another run at the Rockies for the wild-card lead, all their former Cy Young winners are starting to contribute. Reigning winner Tim Lincecum came back from missing a start to shut down the Rockies in the series opener on Monday. Then Barry Zito, the 2002 AL winner, did the same thing in an impressive performance on Tuesday. And five-time Cy winner Randy Johnson came off the disabled list on Wednesday to be the world's tallest short reliever. (Now they need to get their possible future Cy Young winner, Matt Cain, back to his old self. He's 1-4 with a 4.04 ERA since the start of August.) All three should be a factor when the Giants journey to Los Angeles to face the Dodgers in the final installment of baseball's oldest rivalry. Among those who will be rooting passionately for the Giants is former Journey frontman Steve Perry, who doesn't like hearing his power anthem Don't Stop Believin' (best known as that song from the last scene of The Sopranos) played as the Dodgers' rally song. "The song is about hope and power, and it's working for them, damn it," Perry told the San Francisco Chronicle. Any way you want it, Steve.
 
10Texas Rangers
Last Week: 8
A 1-5 week isn't helping and neither is the 6 1/2-game deficit they suddenly face in the wild-card race. But what's really going to hamstring the Rangers' comeback efforts is the, um, hamstring injury that continues to plague third baseman Michael Young. Having missed two weeks, Young returned on Tuesday night, only to leave again after just one at-bat. Without him, the Rangers offense has been punchless, scoring just one run in their most recent four games, enduring a 19-inning scoreless streak, and being one-hit by the A's the same day they held a closed-door meeting with hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo. Young had better be healthy by the weekend, when the Rangers open a three-game home series with the Angels that represents their last good chance to catch the AL West leaders and maybe their last chance to stay in striking distance in the wild-card chase as well.
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