1. Red-hot Reds -- Cincinnati lost Joey Votto, who only happens to be the game's best pure hitter, to knee surgery three games after the All-Star break, just as the club had wrestled first place in the NL Central away from the Pirates. That lead seemed tenuous without Votto, yet with their first baseman still on the disabled list, the Reds have now won 10 straight games after consecutively sweeping the Brewers, the Astros and, this weekend, the Rockies.
While the Reds have put together only the second 10-game winning streak this season (joining the Yankees), the Pirates have done well to hang close -- they are 12-7 during the same stretch -- but there's only so much one can do when the Reds have won 17 of their last 19, so Pittsburgh has lost five games in the standings, as Cincinnati has turned a two-game deficit into a three-game lead. The two division rivals meet Friday for a three-game series at Great American Ballpark.
It sounds like a broken record to explain the key to their sustained success, but once again, the key seems to be healthy starting pitchers. The Reds' Opening Day rotation -- Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, Bronson Arroyo, Homer Bailey and Mike Leake -- has started all 101 of Cincinnati's games this season, the only major league club that can make such a claim.
The starting staff has been especially sharp over the last three weeks, pitching to a 2.90 ERA while logging nearly three times as many strikeouts as walks. Of particular note is the emergence of Bailey, the former first-round pick who seemed stuck as a run-every-other-inning pitcher -- which is literally a 4.50 ERA while Bailey had a 4.47 ERA in 61 starts from 2009-11 -- but is growing into his potential. Not only does he have a 3.53 ERA in 20 starts this season, but he's 3-0 with a 1.21 ERA in 29 2/3 innings over four outings during the Reds' hot stretch.
Longtime club broadcaster Marty Brenneman said he'd shave his trademark poofy white hair if the team won 10 straight and, perhaps fitting, it was Bailey who called dibs on grabbing the clippers and doing the honor.
Enthusiasm in Cincinnati should be tempered somewhat, however, if one considers the strength of the Reds' schedule the past three weeks. Of their six opponents, four have losing records; Arizona, against whom Cincinnati split a four-game series for their only two recent losses, has a .500 record; and only St. Louis has a winning record. Then again, Votto only played six of the last 19 games, so the Reds' success without their best player -- and one of the best all-around players in all of baseball -- is no small feat.
2. Grade A Power -- The AL's two biggest surprises this season squared off in Baltimore this weekend, with the Athletics taking two of three games from the Orioles. Powering Oakland to the series victory has been a newfound reliance on the long ball.
The A's hit two homers in each of their two wins over the Orioles this weekend, led by two from first baseman Chris Carter, who has hit eight in the past month. Right fielder Josh Reddick has been a particular revelation this season, hitting a team-high 22 homers.
Reader Paul Maslin, from Madison, Wis., wrote in this weekend to note how Oakland's recent power surge has gone relatively unnoticed, with 62 home runs over roughly a quarter of the season. He's right about how impressive that number is: it's a pace that, if sustained for the whole year, would rank in as a top-10 all-time season total.
Those 62 homers in the Athletics' last 40 games (dating to June 12) are the third-most in the majors during that span -- trailing only the Pirates (67) and Yankees (66) -- and have helped them go a major league-best 29-11 in that stretch. It's particularly noteworthy because Oakland only hit 49 homers in its first 61 games, meaning they doubled their daily rate from 0.8 per game to 1.6 per game.
The A's, who haven't ranked higher than 11th in the AL in homers since '07 and whose 483 homers from '08 through '11 rank last in the majors, are now fueling their offense with big flies; their 111 this year ranks eighth.
Also, the A's have only played 19 of those 40 games on the road and away from cavernous O.co Coliseum, and their season split isn't as severe as one might expect: 52 homers in 50 home games; 59 homers in 51 road games.
3. Dodger Déjà vu? -- All Hanley Ramirez has done since his trade from the Marlins to the Dodgers is go 7-for-22 (.318) in his first five games. He tripled in his first at bat in Dodger blue, hit a game-winning 10th-inning home run on Friday, is preparing to move back to shortstop and now, including his final game with Miami, has a six-game hitting streak.
That last part is especially notable because of how rarely he has hit consistently in the last year and a half, despite being a former batting champ who had four straight .300+ seasons from 2007-10 and who had a .313 career average entering last year. But this is only his fourth hitting streak of six games or more, and he hasn't had one longer than eight games since 2010.
But Ramirez's new team, new uniform and new coast have given him a spark, and in turn he's done the same for the Dodgers, who swept the Giants in San Francisco to pull into a virtual tie for the NL West lead. If he keeps up this pace -- and it is, admittedly, very early -- the trade would hearken back to 2008 when another Ramirez (Manny, of course) lifted L.A. into the playoffs.
4. Red Sox: Buy, sell or hold? -- Fresh off losing five of six games to the Blue Jays and Rangers, the Red Sox entered this weekend in New York against their arch-nemesis having slinked below .500 and 10½ games behind the Yankees in the AL East but still only a tantalizing 4½ games away from the wild-card picture. After getting blown out on Friday night, the Red Sox won the final two games, both of which were tied to start the ninth inning.
Winning the series this weekend, two days from the trade deadline, was important, at least for reasons of public perception, as it moves Boston back to .500 and within four games of the wild card.
"This organization is in it to win it all the time," manager Bobby Valentine said. "I don't think the ownership and the front office is thinking anything other than we've got a shot."
There were, however, reports on Sunday night from CBSSports.com and ESPNBoston.com that the Red Sox had at least explored the possibility of trying to trade disappointing starter Josh Beckett.
The players, of course, insisted all weekend that they have the talent and just haven't had their inevitable hot streak yet. "We have a lot of the pieces from when we were the best team in baseball for the majority of last year," said reliever Andrew Miller, who got the win in relief on Saturday and pitched the Sox out of a tight eighth-inning jam on Sunday.
At times, the Red Sox' play appeared charmed this weekend, with unheralded injury fill-in Pedro Ciriaco driving in the winning run with a triple on Saturday that barely escaped the glove of Yankees center fielder Curtis Granderson and then with a bloop single in the 10th inning on Sunday.
Realistically, the climb will be difficult. Six teams are ahead of them in the standings for the two wild card spots, and the club's co-aces, Beckett (4.57 ERA) and Jon Lester (5.49), continue to under-perform with just two quality starts in nine combined outings this month; the Sox are just 14-24 in their 38 combined starts, though they did win Saturday after Lester, who personally was credited with a no decision, went six innings and allowed four runs.
5. Check swings -- The biggest headline of the weekend was the Angels' acquisition of Zack Greinke -- covered by SI.com, in discussions of Angels' new deadline approach and the escalating power struggle in the AL West -- who lost his Los Angeles debut, despite allowing just two runs in seven innings while striking out eight. ... Speaking of debuts, the Mets' top prospect, right-hander Matt Harvey, became the first player since 1900 to strike out 10 or more and smack two or more hits in his victory over the Diamondbacks on Thursday. ... In trade news, Arizona acquired Houston third baseman Chris Johnson, and the Twins dealt starter Francisco Liriano to the White Sox; both moves returned prospects. ... While most sub-.500 clubs are trading veterans, the Padres are signing them to extensions. They previously locked up outfielder Carlos Quentin, and on Sunday they inked closer Huston Street through 2014 with a team option for '15. ... The Phillies, who entered the weekend teetering on the brink, were swept by the Braves to fall 16½ games back in the division and 12½ back in the wild card, all but assuring that they'll become deadline sellers, with starter Joe Blanton, center fielder Shane Victorino and right fielder Hunter Pence the three most likely pieces to be moved.