Thursday September 16th, 2010

September is for scoreboard watching. It's finally the time of year when players on contending teams will freely admit to what they do all year anyway: keep tabs on out-of-town scores. Until this point of the year players publicly claim to follow the pretense that they're just taking care of their own business and will let the rest of the dominos fall in place. Not anymore.

And this weekend no two playoff contenders play each other, so necks will be craning from the field to the scoreboard, particularly in a trio of tight National League races. The Phillies lead the Braves by three games in the East but will play each other six more times; the Padres lead the Giants by a half-game and the Rockies by 2 1/2 games in the West; and the Braves lead the Giants and Padres by the same margins for the wild card.

Only three of those five teams -- all of whom remain inside the Power Rankings' Top 10 -- will make the playoffs. As the Phillies host the Nationals, the Braves travel to the Mets, the Padres play at the Cardinals, the Rockies visit the Dodgers and the Giants welcome the Brewers to town, expect a bit of divided attention, as what's happening on their own field is no longer the only thing that matters.

MLB Power Rankings
1Tampa Bay Rays
Last Week: 2
Tampa Bay did win on Wednesday night in a game started by James Shields, but it's about time that his "Big Game James" nickname was retired. His quality start against the Yankees -- one run, eight hits, two walks and eight strikeouts over 6 1/3 innings -- got him a no decision, but entering that game Shields was just 2-9 with a 5.72 ERA in starts after a Rays loss. He earned the moniker during his team's 2008 run to the World Series, but Shields was only 2-2 in the playoffs that year. In his career he's 5-9 with a 5.17 ERA in regular-season games against the Red Sox and 3-7 with a 4.69 ERA against the Yankees.

The Rays will try to protect their reclaimed No. 1 ranking with three games at home against the Angels, and then four-game series in the Bronx against the Yankees that could determine which team wins the AL East and which has to settle for the wild card.
2New York Yankees
Last Week: 1
How bad is Derek Jeter's slump? On Wednesday night the Yankees shortstop, who entered the game 12 for his last 78 (.154), took to acting in order to reach base. In the seventh inning a Chad Qualls fastball came high and tight. Replays showed that the ball hit the bat, but Jeter acted like it had not just hit his wrist but hurt him badly. He reached base and scored on Curtis Granderson's home run. After the game, Jeter admitted to beat reporters that the pitch hit the bat, adding, "[The umpire] said it hit me, so I didn't argue." So egregious was the acting job that even the Yankees' broadcasters started joking about Jeter's acting credentials which include a cameo on Seinfeld and hosting Saturday Night Live.
3Minnesota Twins
Last Week: 3
Even without closer Joe Nathan, the Twins' bullpen is a key asset. Minnesota's relievers have a 3.30 ERA that ranks third in the AL and is the clubs best since 2006, after having ERAs consistently between 3.80 and 3.87 each year from 2007 to '09. With Matt Capps, Brian Fuentes and Jon Rauch, Minnesota has three relievers who have all saved at least 20 games in a season. Two of them -- Capps and Fuents -- are new faces since last year, when the bullpen took the loss in all three ALDS games against the Yankees.
4Philadelphia Phillies
Last Week: 4
Only twice in major-league history has a team had three pitches who each had 200 strikeouts in a season -- the 1967 Twins (Dave Boswell, Dean Chance and Jim Kaat) and the '69 Astros (Larry Dierker, Tom Griffin and Don Wilson). The Phillies have a chance to (unofficially) join them. Roy Halladay has 210 strikeouts, and Cole Hamels has 201, so those two are already there. Roy Oswalt only has 54 strikeouts since being traded to Philadelphia, but he had 120 in Houston, so he needs just 26 more strikeouts and has potentially four starts remaining.
5Texas Rangers
Last Week: 12
Mitch Moreland may have been fourth choice to play first base for the Rangers -- behind Chris Davis, Justin Smoak and Jorge Cantu -- but he seems to have won the primary job, having started 13 of the last 15 games, during which time Texas has put together a seven-game winning streak. Moreland, who turned 25 earlier this month and made his major league debut on July 29, is batting .255 in 131 plate appearances, but with 18 walks he has an OBP of .359 to go along with his five home runs.
6Cincinnati Reds
Last Week: 5
Few players do streaks quite like Jay Bruce. Upon his first big-league promotion in 2008, the Reds outfielder reached base in his first six plate appearances and batted .577 (15-for-26) with three home runs in his first week. Soon thereafter he went 18-for-101 with 36 strikeouts. In 2010 he began the year 11-for-61 (.180) but by the end of August had a three-homer game and five in four days, only to get hurt for two weeks and then pound two home runs in his return on Monday. After all the up-and-down he's hitting .275 with 20 home runs this year.
7San Diego Padres
Last Week: 8
This space will never rank the Padres No. 1 again, and not only because they no longer deserve it. On the very day San Diego ascended to the top spot of the Power Rankings, the Padres began a 10-game losing streak, drawing the ire of the locals. On the morning of what would be their ninth straight loss, this reader rebuke appeared in the San Diego Union-Tribune with the headline, "The blame clearly lies with Sports Illustrated." Mea culpa.
8San Francisco Giants
Last Week: 9
For most major league players, catching the ceremonial first-pitch is a chore worth avoiding at all costs -- that's why so often it's the 25th man on the active roster who fulfills the duty. But before Wednesday night's game, the Giants' broadcasters let slip that there was a bit of levity in the clubhouse amidst the playoff chase, as the players held a drawing to see who would catch that night's first pitch. Why? The pitcher was former SI Swimsuit cover girl Marisa Miller. Reliever Sergio Romo was the lucky winner.
9Colorado Rockies
Last Week: 10
Though the Rockies have a couple of young stars in MVP candidate Carlos Gonzalez (.341, 32 HRs, 106 RBIs) and hot-hitting shortstop Troy Tulowitzki (a major-league leading 11 home runs and 27 RBIs in September), they also rely a lot on some comparatively aged veterans. On Tuesday night, for instance, Colorado trailed San Diego by three in the bottom of the ninth but cut two runs off that lead thanks to a double by Todd Helton (age 37), an RBI double from Melvin Mora (38), an RBI single from Jay Payton (37) and a walk from Jason Giambi (39).
10Atlanta Braves
Last Week: 6
If his mantle is any judge, Braves catcher Brian McCann seems to have a budding career as a thespian. That's because he just won an Emmy. He was honored for his role -- and his family's -- in the Fox Sports South series "Spotlight: Brian McCann," which received the Southeast Regional Emmy Award for One-Time Special.
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