By Cliff Corcoran
June 04, 2012

This weekend saw the White Sox continue their hot streak, four series played among the tightly bunched teams in the two Eastern divisions, and the ascendant Angels take two of three from the first-place Rangers, but the most compelling series was the one still going on in New York between the Mets and Cardinals. That series announced itself when Johan Santana threw the first no-hitter in Mets history on Friday night, and has become more compelling with each successive dominant Mets pitching performance. Meanwhile, with their loss on Sunday, the defending world champions saw their record fall to an even .500 and slipped a half-game behind the Pirates into third place in the National League Central.

Since getting off to a blazing 20-11 start, the Cardinals have gone just 7-16. This weekend, they scored just one run while losing the first three games of a four-game wraparound series against the Mets. Santana struck out eight Cardinals in that Friday gem. On Saturday, knuckleballer R.A. Dickey struck out nine while tossing a shutout of his own. Sunday night, lefty Jonathan Niese struck out 10 in just six innings. Don't discount those performances because of the Cardinals' struggles. Neither Santana nor Dickey, both of whom are having excellent seasons overall, allowed a run in his previous start, and Niese's curveball was untouchable on Sunday. Besides, as much as they had been struggling, offense hadn't been the Cardinals problem over the previous 20 games.

St. Louis scored 4.75 runs per game while going 7-13 in the 20 games leading up to this weekend's embarrassment in Queens, but they allowed 5.3 runs per game over that stretch, a figure which only increased over the weekend as the Mets scored 19 runs in the three-game set. One of the main offenders has been Sunday's starter Jake Westbrook, who went 4-2 with a clearly unsustainable 1.76 ERA over his first six starts, and has now gone 0-3 with an 8.28 ERA in five starts since. In his last three starts, all against Eastern Division teams, Westbrook has allowed 16 runs in 13 2/3 innings, not once throwing more innings than the number of runs he allowed. The Cardinals have also seen Kyle Lohse and Lance Lynn cool off from their similarly unsustainable red-hot starts, though neither to such a problematic degree, but the real problem has been the bullpen. Seven of those last 16 losses have been recorded by relief pitchers, and dating back to the beginning of May, the St. Louis bullpen has combined to post a 5.36 ERA. That in a league in which the average reliever has a 3.75 ERA.

St. Louis will look to save face as they send Lohse to the mound against Dillon Gee Monday afternoon, though even Gee is 2-0 with a 2.66 ERA and 20 strikeouts in 20 1/3 innings over his last three starts. They'll then head to Houston on Tuesday, hoping the Astros struggles (Houston lost eight straight before snapping that skid on Sunday) will prove greater than their own.

The White Sox have lost just twice since May 17, going 14-2 over that stretch, and four of those wins have been entered on Chris Sale's ledger. No other Chicago hurler has had more than two wins over those 16 games. Sale, a rail-thin, 6-foot-6 lefty who was the 13th overall pick in the 2010 draft and throws in the mid-90s with a nasty slider and changeup, struck out 15 Rays last Monday, and on Sunday he struck out eight Mariners in a complete game win. In his last four starts, the 23-year-old has gone 4-0 with a 1.26 ERA and 36 strikeouts in 28 2/3 innings (an average of 7.2 innings per start). Those strikeouts work out to 11.3 strikeouts per nine innings, and, measured against his seven walks over that same span, give him a 5.14 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Sale's next start will come against the Astros on Saturday.

Of course, the primary reason for the White Sox's hot streak has been their offense, which has seen almost everyone get hot (the left side of the infield and Adam Dunn, the latter of whom had previously been doing more than his share of the work, are the exceptions). The Pale Hose have averaged 6.75 runs per game over those last 16 and haven't lost a game in which they have allowed fewer than seven runs since May 12. In Sale's last two starts, however, they have scored just six runs in total, though that turned out to be plenty. Chicago is now just a game shy of the Rangers for the best record in the American League and will open a homestand against the Blue Jays on Tuesday.

Speaking of the Rangers and red-hot teams, Texas managed to avoid a sweep in Anaheim on Sunday, but the Angels still took two of three from the best team in their division, climbing within 4½ games of first, the closest they have been since the season's opening weekend. The Angels have now won 10 of their last 12. There are numerous reasons for the Angels' turnaround. Albert Pujols has found himself at the plate, hitting .310/.393/.634 with seven home runs since May 15. Mike Trout, who was called up on April 28, is living up to the hype, hitting .318/.374/.538 with nine stolen bases in 11 attempts and making what seems like a highlight reel catch in the outfield every night, be it in center or left. The team has given up trying to shoehorn Mark Trumbo into third base, instead finding a home for him in the outfield corners. Trumbo has started every Angels game since May 1, hitting .363/.410/.670 over that span. Also, the full impact of Jered Weaver's absence has yet to be felt.

The Halos' secret weapon, however, is the new endgame in their bullpen. Newly-minted closer Ernesto Frieri, acquired from the Padres on May 3 in a trade for second baseman Alexi Amarista and minor league right-hander Donn Roach, and his lefty setup man Scott Downs, are both sporting 0.00 ERAs as Angels in 36 combined appearances this season. Downs has allowed an unearned run and a few inherited runners to score, but not a man has scored on Frieri's watch, and he didn't even allow a hit in his first 13 innings with the team (ex-Angel Mike Napoli broke that streak with a leadoff single in the ninth inning on Saturday). Frieri has also struck out 30 men in his 14 2/3 innings since the trade, an absurd rate of 18.8 per nine, easily compensating for his high walk rate. Each of those men will hit a rough patch sooner or later, but the 26-year-old Frieri struck out 11.4 men per nine innings over 105 appearances for the Padres, producing a 2.33 ERA (156 ERA+), and Downs has been one of the best lefty relievers in baseball dating back to 2007.

Heading into the weekend, all 10 teams in the two Eastern divisions had winning records and were within three games of first place. With the Orioles in Tampa, the Red Sox in Toronto, the Braves in Washington, D.C. and the Marlins in Philadelphia, there was hope the weekend might provide some separation. No such luck. There wasn't a single sweep among those four series, so we enter the coming week with much the same situation. The Rays took two of three from the sinking Orioles to take a one-game lead in the American League East. And there's a three-way tie atop the National League East, with the Mets and Marlins rising to catch the Nationals. The fourth-place team in the NL East, the Braves, are two games out, having recovered from an eight-game losing streak by winning three of their last four, including a defeat of the Nationals on Sunday. With the Yankees taking two of three from Detroit, the top three teams in the AL East are all within 1½ games of each other. The Orioles do seem to finally be experiencing the correction we all assumed was coming, but they they're still in second place.

This week again brings intradivision action for all but two of those ten teams, with the Rays traveling to New York, the O's heading to Boston, the Mets visiting Washington, and the Braves going down to Miami. Circle Thursday's matchup of lefty aces David Price and CC Sabathia in the Bronx. Price made my shortlist of AL Cy Young candidates on Thursday, and the last time Sabathia faced the Rays, he struck out 10 in eight innings without allowing an earned run.

Major League Baseball's annual amateur draft kicks off Monday night with the 60 picks that comprise the first round and first compensation (or Comp A) round. The Astros hold the top pick, but unlike in recent years, there is no consensus as to the top available player. The last time Houston picked first overall, they took Phil Nevin, who had a solid, 12-year major league career (all but 18 games of it for other teams), but it was Derek Jeter, who went seventh overall, who proved to be the prize of that year's first round. Without a clear No. 1 like Bryce Harper or Stephen Strasburg, there's considerable risk that history will repeat itself, but then draft picks are risky by their very nature.

Looking further down the list, compensation picks for Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, Jonathan Papelbon, and C.J. Wilson will result in the Cardinals, Red Sox, and Brewers all drafting twice in the latter half of the first round, with St. Louis getting two of the top 23 overall picks. The Phillies, Tigers, and Angels won't participate in the first round at all. The Phillies' first pick is the 40th overall, compensation for losing Ryan Madson to the Reds, by which point St. Louis, Boston, and Milwaukee will all have made three picks. The Tigers and Angels, meanwhile, won't make their top picks until Tuesday in the second and third rounds, picks 91 and 114, respectively.

It will be interesting to see how the more strictly enforced slot-based limits on draftee bonuses will impact this year's draft. The idea behind the limits was to prevent players from falling in the draft due to signability concerns, but Bryce Harper, the top pick in 2010, said on Sunday that if those limits were in place two years ago, the money wouldn't have been enough to convince him not to go to college. That suggests that the new limits may result in an uptick in unsigned picks, but we'll have to wait until the July 13 singing deadline to see how that plays out. The draft will be held live on the MLB Network with Round 1 kicking off on Monday at 7 p.m. EST. Tuesday will have Rounds 2-15 starting at Noon, and things will finish up on Wednesday with Rounds 16-40 starting at Noon.

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