Once again, the Cardinals are looking like serious World Series contenders as they shoot to the top of the NL Central and to No. 6 in the SI.com Power Rankings.
Well, who didn't see this coming? Thanks to a 6-1 week and the ongoing deflation of the Brewers, the Cardinals are looking like they'll once again be a part of October. St. Louis' stellar start to September has carried it to a commanding 4 1/2-game lead in the NL Central over Pittsburgh and Milwaukee and lifted the Cardinals up to No. 6 in this week's Power Rankings. The Angels, Orioles and Nationals stay in first, second and third place, respectively, while the Dodgers jumped the Athletics for fourth, pushing slumping Oakland to fifth, only a few points ahead of St. Louis.
They're No. 1: Angels
The Angels continue to pull away in the AL West. They've now won 19 of their last 25 games dating back to Aug. 10, and gone from four games behind Oakland in the division to seven games in front. They're also 12-5 since Garrett Richards' season-ending knee injury and the subsequent predictions from doomsayers.
Which isn't to say that Los Angeles is an unbeatable juggernaut. Its Richards-less rotation took a beating last week, posting a 6.49 ERA and fewer than five innings per turn. Even Matt Shoemaker got knocked around, surrendering three runs in four innings against the Twins last Friday. That ended his impressive streak of 23 2/3 scoreless innings, but it doesn't discount the stellar season being enjoyed by the 27-year-old rookie, a non-drafted free agent who's been with the organization since 2008. In 18 starts, Shoemaker has posted a 3.11 ERA and 4.9 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Aided by strong offensive support (5.3 runs per game), the Angels are 14-4 in those contests, compared to 14-13 (with 5.4 runs per game) in C.J. Wilson's starts.
Cellar Dweller: Rangers
As if Texas' season weren't already dark enough amid so many injuries, the abrupt resignation of manager Ron Washington to devote his full attention to "addressing an off-the-field-matter" (not drug-related, we're told) turns things even darker. For all of his tactical foibles, Washington's allegiance from his players and his endearing dugout antics were both things to behold and reminders of the most successful stretch in franchise history.
The team will finish out the season under interim manager Tim Bogar, Washington's bench coach, and it will have to go the rest of the way without Yu Darvish, who has been shut down due to his elbow inflammation (a point of conflict between Washington and the front office, but not one that's believed to have triggered his departure). Despite the full-scale collapse around him and the nagging injuries he battled, Darvish pitched to a 3.06 ERA and a career-best 2.83 FIP, the latter owing to the best strikeout-to-walk ratio of his three MLB seasons (3.7) and 11.3 K/9, a figure that leads the league for now but will soon slip below the qualifying threshold of one inning pitched per team game played. The Rangers went 13-9 in his 22 starts; by comparison, they're 41-80 in those of the 13 (!) other pitchers who took the ball — only one of whom has an ERA below 4.15 this year. That honor belongs to Derek Holland, who has finally returned from an offseason knee injury to start twice, with a 0.64 ERA in 14 innings.
Biggest Riser: Cardinals
After drafting behind the Brewers for the first five months of the NL Central race, St. Louis has hit the gas pedal, passing its division rivals as though they were standing still. Not only have the Cardinals won eight out of nine for a 5 1/2-game swing relative to Milwaukee, they've gotten Yadier Molina and Michael Wacha back from extended absences. Wacha lasted just three innings in his return from a stress reaction in his shoulder, but it nonetheless helped the Redbirds take three out of four in Milwaukee; they now hold a 10-6 season series edge.
One unsung hero for St. Louis lately has been Jon Jay, who has batted a sizzling .384/.471/.485 in 122 plate appearances since the start of August and has recently seen time in rightfield. While it makes playing time for Oscar Taveras harder to come by, putting Jay in right allows manager Mike Matheny to play Peter Bourjos in centerfield, giving the team its strongest available defensive alignment.
Biggest Faller: Tigers/Brewers
Milwaukee continues its tumble down the rankings, but let's turn our focus instead to the Tigers. Yes, they're now two games behind the Royals in the AL Central and one-half game back in the wild card race, and yes, there are reports that Miguel Cabrera is playing through a bone spur in his ankle that will likely require offseason surgery. But don't leave them or him for dead just yet. After homering just once in August — that back on Aug. 2, before he embarked on a career-long home run drought of 121 plate appearances — Cabrera has gone yard five times since the calendar turned to September. He went deep twice on both Sept. 1 and 7, and is a scorching 15-for-30 overall this month. Detroit, meanwhile, still has a better than 67 percent chance of making the playoffs, according to Baseball Prospectus' playoff odds.
A Few Words About The...
Pirates: While the Cardinals surge and the Brewers fall, the Pirates are just trying to stay level. In fact, that's exactly what they've done for the last several weeks, going 17-17 since Aug. 1. That won't help them catch St. Louis in the division, but with Milwaukee falling apart, staying competent could be enough to sneak the Bucs into the second wild-card spot, which they enter the week leading by half-a-game over the Brewers and Braves. Pittsburgh will have two perfect opportunities to create even more space in that race, with upcoming three-game series against Milwaukee and Atlanta. The Pirates will also get plenty of September games against the dregs of the NL and AL, including the Phillies, Reds and Red Sox.
Blue Jays: Toronto isn't going down without a fight, rolling off a 4-2 week, including a three-game sweep of Tampa Bay, to keep its faint playoff hopes alive. That said, it's exceedingly unlikely that Toronto will make it to October — the Jays are five games behind Seattle for the second wild-card spot in the AL and would have to jump the Tigers, Indians and Yankees to get there. Their chances were lowered even further by Melky Cabrera's season-ending finger injury. Cabrera was a linchpin for Toronto's offense, posting a 125 OPS+ in a team-high 621 PA. Set to be a free agent at season's end, Cabrera has likely earned himself a big contract with his bounceback season, assuming he is given a pass for the Biogenesis suspension stain on his record.
Twins: It was another bad week amidst another lost year for Minnesota, which went 2-5, including a four-game sweep at the hands of the Angels, and fell to the bottom of the AL Central. At 61-82, the Twins have the second-worst record in the AL, better than only the Rangers, and are guaranteed to finish with a losing season for the fifth straight year. In the process, Minnesota is wasting a record-setting season from Phil Hughes, who has a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 11.0 (165/15) over 187 2/3 innings. Only one other starter since 1901 has ever posted a K/BB ratio of 11 or higher over 150 innings or more: Bret Saberhagen, who struck out 143 batters against 13 walks in the strike-shortened 1994 season for the Mets.