Surprise teams stay in contention, Lincecum's revival and more

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You'll excuse me if I've viewed the Orioles' success this season with cynicism, have muted my excitement about the Pirates' rise in the National League Central and have generally treated the A's recent surge as more of a charming fluke than a legitimate threat to the Angels' wild-card hopes. After all, there are plenty of reasons for their fans to throw up their guard to avoid being swept away by those seemingly fluky performances. Yet, here we are, almost a week after the non-waiver trade deadline, and that Orioles fade I've been expecting all season just hasn't happened, while the A's and the Pirates remain in playoff positions. It could well be that two of these three teams (likely the A's and Orioles won't claim both wild-card spots in the American League) do make it to the playoffs, and while that still doesn't seem likely, it's time to take these teams seriously.

The best of the bunch is the Pirates. They were just two games below .500 in April but have gone 51-34 (.600) since and have outscored their opponents by 65 runs since the start of June. Over that last stretch, dating back to June 1, the Bucs have scored 5.16 runs per game while allowing just four runs per game. Andrew McCutchen has been a huge part of that, hitting an incredible .397/.461/.692 with 14 home runs over that span, but he hasn't been a one-man show. Second baseman Neil Walker has hit .324/.397/.543 with 10 homers. Right fielder/first baseman Garret Jones has hit .299/.330/.554 with 11 homers. Third baseman Pedro Alvarez has hit .257/.335/.514 with 13 homers. Backup catcher Michael McKenry has hit .337/.388/.698 with eight home runs despite starting just 24 games. The Pirates had the third-worst offense in the National League last year and scored just 2.94 runs per game through the end of May this year, but the image of the Pittsburgh lineup as McCutchen and the seven dwarfs is officially outdated. Some of those bats will cool off (McCutchen's is not the least likely of them to do so), but the Pirates have a three-game lead in the wild-card race, are 15 games over .500 and made a big deadline addition by adding longtime Astros starter Wandy Rodriguez to stabilize their starting rotation and help cover for James McDonald's regression. They're not a lock for the postseason, but they're legitimate contenders and would have to go 20-35 (.364) the rest of the way to fail to become the first Pirates team since 1992 to avoid a losing record.

• The Press: Perennial underdogs in the hunt for October

If the Pirates are being lifted by their bats, the A's, who currently hold one of the AL wild-card spots by a half game over the Angels, are being carried by their arms. They have had the stingiest pitching staff in the AL this season (tied with the Yankees with a staff ERA+ of 116, but alone in allowing just 3.7 runs per game on the season) and they've really locked things down since the end of May. Going back to June 1, the A's have allowed just 3.5 runs per game and gone 36-21 (.631) over that stretch. By way of comparison, the worst offense in baseball this season has been that of the Marlins, who have scored just 3.7 runs per game. It's because of the stinginess of their pitching staff that the A's have been able to thrive despite a lineup that, due to a combination of injury and poor performance, has just two players who currently qualify for the batting title, Josh Reddick, and Jemile Weeks, the latter of whom has hit just .219/.304/.302 on the season.

What makes that particularly thrilling is that the A's have been doing that in the wake of having traded their two top two starting pitchers from a year ago, Gio Gonzalez and Trevor Cahill, and without any contribution from the injured Brett Anderson or Dallas Braden. Credit general manager Billy Beane, who picked the right moment to flip those two starters and got excellent, near-ready packages in return. Indeed, two of the A's best starters this year, Jarrod Parker (7-5, 3.44 ERA) and Tommy Milone (9-9, 3.91 after a rough outing against the Blue Jays on Sunday), were acquired in those trades (Parker for Cahill, a trade which also netted Oakland current closer Ryan Cook, and Milone almost as a throw-in in the Gonzalez deal). With minor league strikeout leader Dan Straily having just ascended to the big league rotation with a strong debut Friday night, the A's now have three rookies in their rotation, which hopes to get sabermetrics-inspired groundballer Brandon McCarthy back from injury this week and continues to get solid work from the unsinkable 39-year-old Bartolo Colon (2.53 ERA in 10 starts since June 1).

As for the Orioles, well, they've been just a game over .500 since the end of April and have been outscored by 69 runs over that stretch. Despite tying up their season series against the Rays with a 10-inning 1-0 victory Sunday, they seem destined to ultimately fall behind the Rays, whose season has followed a similar path, but who have outscored their opponents by 11 runs since the end of their own hot April and are expected to get Evan Longoria back in their lineup sometime this week for the first time since April. Still, it's August 6 and the Orioles have spent just seven days below second place in the AL East all season. They may not be much better than a .500 team, and might be overperforming even at that level given their run differential, but the last time the Orioles avoided a losing record was 1997 and they only need to play .444 ball the rest of the way to finish at .500.

2. Tim Lincecum is no longer the worst pitcher in baseball.

Lincecum went 3-10 with a 6.42 ERA in his first 18 starts this season and ranked as the worst ERA qualifier in baseball over the first half of the season. After his 13th start, I wrote that the Giants needed to pull him from the rotation, speculating that his wildness and drop in velocity might be indicative of a shoulder injury. The Giants kept him in the rotation, and he went 1-3 with a 7.66 ERA over his next five games. Lincecum had just three quality starts in 18 tries before the All-Star break, but four of his five starts since the break, including Sunday's start in Colorado, have been quality, and Lincecum has now gone 3-1 with a 2.48 ERA since the break with peripherals that are almost a dead match for his career rates (1.22 WHIP vs. 1.22 career; 9.6 K/9 vs. 9.9 career; 2.92 K/BB vs. 2.90 career).

But Lincecum isn't all the way back. He walked five men against just three strikeouts in holding the Rockies to one run over six innings on Sunday, and two starts ago gave up five runs in 4 2/3 innings against the punchless Padres, who are third-worst in the major in runs scored per game. He hasn't regained any of his lost velocity. Rather, Lincecum told The Associated Press after his last start that he's simply pitching with more confidence.

"I don't think anything is different," Lincecum said. "I'm not throwing any harder, obviously. I'm not throwing any different kind of pitches. I think it's just the conviction on the pitches. Every pitch before you throw it is with a purpose."

It remains to be seen if Lincecum has really put his first-half struggles behind him, but if he has, don't dismiss Lincecum's explanation just because it's impossible to prove. Confidence won't turn a replacement level player into a star, but a crisis of confidence can drag a star down to replacement level, or in Lincecum's case, below it. If you don't believe me, just ask Steve Blass or Chuck Knoblauch. You can't tell just by looking at the numbers at what point Lincecum's poor start to the season began to erode his confidence, or if, for some reason, he entered the season without it, but it makes sense that the All-Star break, a period that he hasn't had to himself since 2007, gave him the necessary timeout to build himself back up. That mental break, incidentally, what might have come earlier if the Giants had skipped one of his starts back in June. Meanwhile, if Lincecum really is back on the beam, he could be the difference-maker the Giants need to hold off the Dodgers in the NL West, where his win on Sunday preserved a half-game lead for San Francisco.

3. The Cubs' future begins to take shape.

I do a call-in spot on a Quincy, Illinois, radio station every so often. This year, every time they have asked me about the Cubs' performance, my response has been that, with the exception of Starlin Castro's progress or lack thereof, until the Cubs called up their top prospect, first baseman Anthony Rizzo and center fielder Brett Jackson, they were just biding time. Rizzo, who turns 23 on Wednesday, got the call on at the end of June, was inserted directly into the third spot in the batting order, and has hit .310/.348/.550 with nine home runs, including one on Sunday, in 33 games. On Sunday, Jackson and fellow former-first-round pick Josh Vitters joined him on the major league roster. Jackson, who just turned 24, started in center on Sunday, hit second just ahead of Rizzo, and went 2-for-4 with a walk and a run scored.

Jackson, who was ranked the 32nd best prospect in baseball by Baseball America before this season, is an all-around talent in center field who combines power, speed, and defense with the potential to hit 20 home runs and steal 20 bases annually (he had 15 homers and 27 steals in just 33 attempts in Triple-A this year). He'll also take his share of walks. The only flaw in his game is an excess of strikeouts. He had 158 in 106 games for Iowa before his promotion and has only seen his strikeout rate increase as he has climbed the organizational ladder. That needs work, but the total package looks something like a pre-2011 Curtis Granderson or the player Austin Jackson is maturing into. Rizzo, meanwhile, is a classic heart-of-the-order slugging first baseman.

As for Vitters, the third-overall pick in the 2007 draft has been something of a disappointment, falling out of Baseball America's top 100 before the 2011 season, but he did hit .304/.356/.513 with 17 home runs for Triple-A Iowa before being called up and won't be 23 until the end of August. The Cubs are doing the right thing by bringing him up now to be part of this core with Rizzo, Jackson, and shortstop Starlin Castro, who is the youngest of the four. He stands an excellent chance of being an upgrade on the .212/.293/.350 performance the Cubs have received from their third basemen to this point in the season, and might yet turn into an above-average major leaguer.

Not to be left out of this discussion is 25-year-old power-hitting catcher Welington Castillo, who has been up and down this year as well as on and off the disabled list, but has now started three of four games since being called up in the wake of the Geovany Soto trade, homering in two of them, including Sunday's contest. Together Castillo, Castro, Rizzo, Jackson, and Vitters form more than half of the Cubs' lineup and should continue to do so for years to come. The Cubs may be 17½ games out of the wild-card race with the third-worst record in the majors, but their fans still (or maybe finally) have something to get excited about when watching their team the rest of the season.

4. Superstars on waivers ... nothing to see here.

It was big news when the Phillies placed Cliff Lee on waivers Thursday, and bigger news when the Dodgers put in a claim for him on Friday, but Lee's waiver period ended Sunday afternoon without him changing teams. This was big news because it leaked out, but this sort of thing happens behind the scenes repeatedly every August.

The July 31 trading deadline marks the end of the period during which players can be traded without passing through waivers, but after that deadline waivers become revocable, meaning players can be taken off waivers by their teams if another team claims them. As a result, a great many players are placed on waivers in August. Some clear without a claim and are thus available for trade for the rest of the season. Some are claimed and recalled by their original teams, be it after recognizing the claiming teams' lack of interest in a trade or failing to work out a trade with that team. We rarely hear about either.

Waiver priority is in reverse order of the standings starting with the league of the player's current team followed by the other league (so Lee only got past nine teams before the Dodgers claimed him). Often, a team will put a claim on a player simply to block a team with a better record from acquiring him under the assumption that the player's team will recall him (though, on occasion, the players' original team will just let that player go, which is how the White Sox wound up assuming Alex Rios' contract in 2009).

Putting a player on waivers in August is not a significant move. It doesn't mean a team has decided to trade a player or that it has discussed a deal with another team that it hopes will put in a claim. It's rarely more than a testing of the waters.

The Phillies tested the waters with Lee, found that he couldn't get through, were likely unsurprised that the Dodgers didn't suddenly make an offer they failed to make before the deadline, and recalled him. He was never off the Phillies roster. As Lee told reporters after his start on Sunday, "It's a standard deal. ... It happens all the time. I don't understand why it's a story. There are a lot of guys who are probably on this team that were put on waivers and claimed, too, but nothing ever came of it."

Chances are another player of Lee's caliber is out there on waivers right now, but the chances of that player being traded are somewhere between slim and none.

5. Hold the holds, please.

Joe Blanton pitched well in his Dodgers debut, holding the new-look Cubs to two runs over six innings while striking out five, and the Dodgers won the game, but not the way you'd expect given Blanton's line. If I told you that deadline pickups Brandon League and Randy Choate were credited with holds in the game you'd probably be even more confused as the two newest Dodgers relievers combined to allow three runs while recording just two outs as the Dodger bullpen blew the 4-2 lead Blanton and the offense had handed to them.

Here's what happened. League replaced Blanton with a 4-2 lead to start the seventh. He gave up a single to his first batter, got Vitters to fly out, then was pulled for Choate, who was brought in to face a trio of lefties. Those lefties walked, singled (Jackson), and hit a sac fly (by Rizzo) that plated League's runner. Choate was then removed to Javy Guerra could face the righty Alfonso Soriano. At that point, League and Choate had combined to face five batters, retired just two of them, let one run score, and left the tying and go-ahead runs on base for Guerra. Guerra came in and gave up a bases-clearing double to Soriano. Guerra was credited with blowing the save, as well he should have been, but League and Choate, who put all of the save-blowing runs on base, each received a hold. None of the three pitchers did their job, but two were credited with having done so.

A hold is rewarded when a pitcher enters a game in a save situation, gets at least one out, and leaves without relinquishing the lead, but it seems there should be something else in there about bequeathed runners or finishing innings. I don't know anyone beyond perhaps the odd fantasy player who puts much stock in holds, yet they continue to clutter up box scores despite telling us less than nothing about how a pitcher pitched.