By Joe Lemire
September 02, 2010

As the Reds run away with the National League Central -- and have a chance to pound the proverbial nail in the Cardinals' coffin when they travel to St. Louis this weekend -- the NL's next two hottest teams haven't had the luxury of running away with anything. The Phillies and Braves trail only Cincinnati for league's best record since Aug. 1, during which time Atlanta has held onto its slim three-game lead over Philadelphia, which has overtaken San Francisco by 1-1/2 games.

Before the season the Braves were expected to ride their great pitching and the Phillies had the NL's best offense. But both have remodeled their games. The Braves have scored the league's most runs (162) since the beginning of August while the Phillies have allowed the fewest (92).

Atlanta's offense has perked up even without the services of third baseman Chipper Jones, who was lost for the year with an ACL tear. Omar Infante has excelled as an everyday player in his absence, and the Braves have received balanced contributions from the rest of the offense while waiting for newly acquired Derrek Lee to perk up.

Starter Roy Oswalt, who carried a no-hitter into the sixth inning Wednesday night, has been a big addition for Philadelphia. He's 4-1 with a 1.89 ERA in seven starts for the red and white. The bullpen improved, too, going from a 4.18 ERA through July 31 to 2.79 since. Thus pitching has carried the Phillies while their big bats, Ryan Howard and Chase Utley, slowly get back on track after time spent on the disabled list.

For now, the Braves and Phillies must be content to beat up on the rest of the league as they await their time to duke it out one-on-one. The anticipation should keep building until the season's final dozen games when they play each other six times.

MLB Power Rankings
1 New York Yankees
Last Week: 3
Andy Pettitte is one of the most important men in baseball this month. His groin injury derailed one of his best seasons -- he hasn't pitched since July 18, at which point he was 11-2 with a 2.88 ERA. Before his injury, Yankees starters had a 3.73 ERA and a .242 batting average-against. The new edition of New York's rotation, with the struggling A.J. Burnett, Javier Vazquez and patchwork help from Sergio Mitre, Dustin Moseley and Ivan Nova, has a 4.98 ERA and a .294 average-against since Pettitte went down. The offense has kept the Yankees afloat, but they need a reliable No. 2 starter behind CC Sabathia come playoff time. They can hold their reclaimed No. 1 ranking with a successful pair of home series against the Blue Jays and Orioles.
2 Tampa Bay Rays
Last Week: 2
The most recent addition to the list of slumping Rays is Ben Zobrist, whose .511 OPS in August was fifth-worst in all of baseball. He missed a few games at the beginning of the month and hasn't been the same, batting .160 and slugging .210 with a sorry .301 on-base percentage. The Rays hope offensive help is on the way: They just acquired Rockies outfielder Brad Hawpe, promoted rookie Desmond Jennings and brought back club legend Rocco Baldelli.
3 Cincinnati Reds
Last Week: 4
First, there was Strasmus. Now there is Chapmania. Excitement abounds whenever a young flamethrower of great potential makes his debut. Cuban defector Aroldis Chapman threw a 1-2-3 inning of relief on Tuesday night. He is baseball's most influential late-season call-up, and his 100+ fastball could help the Reds bridge the gap to closer Francisco Cordero.
4 Atlanta Braves
Last Week: 6
Along with his All-Star Game MVP award, catcher Brian McCann etched his name in the history book in a farmore unusual category on Sunday: First player to hit a replay-reviewed walkoff home run. Against the Marlins, McCann's drive bounced back into play and the umpires ruled it had not left the yard, forcing him to stop at second base with an apparent double. Then call was overturned. Given the pause in action until the big decision, such a homer should have its own name -- maybe a haltoff?
5 Minnesota Twins
Last Week: 7
One man's take on their trade for Brian Fuentes: It was done to beat the Yankees in the ALDS. Sure, Minnesota needed another lefty in the bullpen after Brian Duensing was moved to the rotation, but it's especially important to neutralize New York's power in their home ballpark with its short rightfield porch. Fuentes pitched in Yankee Stadium in last year's ALCS and blew a save by giving up a home run to Alex Rodriguez in his role as the Angels' closer. With the Twins, Fuentes can just be a lefty specialist. He's held them to a .128 BA, .205 OBP and no home runs this season.
6 Philadelphia Phillies
Last Week: 10
Ryan Howard had just four hits in his first 36 at-bats, with 16 strikeouts, after returning from the disabled list...until Tuesday when -- probably coincidentally -- he had lunch with Barry Bonds, one of his workout partners during the past offseason. Howard homered that night and added a double the next day, his first two extra-base hits since returning from his sprained ankle. Whether it was the conversation or the "veal/chicken-parmesan-style dish," as the Philadelphia Daily News reported, it worked.
7 Texas Rangers
Last Week: 5
Yes, Cliff Lee is struggling. In seven August starts, he was 1-4 with a 6.35 ERA. But, no, there is -- probably -- no reason to panic. Lee has denied that a case of the Texas heat is simply taking its toll, which is likely true given that only two of his starts were at home and one of his worst was in Tampa Bay's dome. But despite missing all but one start in April and having a bad August, Lee still leads all AL pitchers (and trails only the Phillies' Roy Halladay overall) in Wins Above Replacement with a WAR of 6.0.
8 San Diego Padres
Last Week: 1
There's no Power Rankings curse, even if they lost seven straight after ascending to No. 1 for the first time this season, a jump that happened after they won their 76th game, which exceeded their total for all of 2009. "I think what we've done this year is way too special to waste at this point," pitcher Kevin Correia told reporters. And San Diego has been fortunate. Its nearest competitor in the NL West, the Giants, won only three games that week.
9 Chicago White Sox
Last Week: 12
Just before the Manny Ramirez circus arrived, the White Sox honored a classy competitor by retiring Frank Thomas' number before Sunday's game. The Big Hurt is a sure first-ballot Hall of Famer with two MVPs and career stats that include 521 home runs, a .301 average and a .419 OBP. It also should be noted that, in contrast to Ramirez, who was suspended for using a performance-enhancing drug, Thomas was the lone active player to willingly comply and be interviewed for the Mitchell Report.
10 San Francisco Giants
Last Week: 9
Darren Ford woke up Wednesday morning as a minor-leaguer in Erie, PA. By Wednesday afternoon, he was scoring the winning run in San Francisco as the Giants cut the Padres' NL West lead to three games. Ford, the Giants' only September call-up thus far, flew cross-country and listened to the game's first two innings in a car radio on his way from the airport to the ballpark -- his first time in any major-league park -- and in the eighth inning, he pinch-ran at first. He moved to second on a sacrifice bunt, and when Rockies starter Ubaldo Jimenez bounced a splitter, Ford took off for third and scored when catcher Miguel Olivo's throw sailed into leftfield. In describing the run to the San Francisco Chronicle, Ford said, "It was just like winning the World Series."
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MLB Power Rankings
11 Boston Red Sox
Last Week: 8
They are already playoff also-rans. Even GM Theo Epstein admitted recently that they need to catch "lightning in a bottle" if they are going to make up the seven games by which they trail the Rays for the wild card. No one would blame the Sox for starting a youth movement and playing for next year. Meanwhile, the Rangers have baseball's biggest division lead (9-1/2 games) and no one would blame them for resting their regulars more down the stretch. Why is this relevant here? The Red Sox and Rangers have the exact same record. Such is the power of geography.
12 Colorado Rockies
Last Week: 13
If Manny Delcarmen is the answer, you're better off not knowing the question. As Colorado lost Manny Corpas to Tommy John surgery, it acquired Delcarmen from Boston, where he'd lost favor with manager Terry Francona. In Saturday's must-win game at Tampa, for instance, Francona hadjourneyman Scott Atchison pitch the 10th inning instead of Declarmen, who had a 4.70 ERA and 1.39 WHIP in 44 innings. Perhaps the Rockies are hoping Delcarmen benefits from a change of scenery in the NL the way another former Sox reliever, Ramon Ramirez, did. Ramirez, who had a 4.46 ERA and 1.30 WHIP in Boston, was dealt to the Giants at the July 31 trade deadline, and has pitched 17 innings with a 1.06 ERA and 1.24 WHIP.
13 Toronto Blue Jays
Last Week: 14
Brandon Morrow has no one to blame but himself for his recent shutdown. The Jays wanted to place a limit of about 150 innings on the young starter this year, and when Morrow pitched so well in July and August -- since July 17 he's 5-0 with a 2.91 ERA, .196 average-against and 63 strikeouts in 43-1/3 innings -- he started going deeper into games and was shut down sooner than expected.
14 St. Louis Cardinals
Last Week: 11
Mired in a 4-10 slump, the Cards tried to change their luck by shaving their heads in the clubhouse before Monday's game. Manager Tony La Russa gave his stamp of approval, saying his players were now so ugly that they would have no reason to stay out late at night. The cuts did not, however, help their cuts, as their bats failed to produce a run in consecutive 3-0 losses to the Astros on Monday and Tuesday. The Cards lost again Wednesday, 5-2. A better option might be simply playing Colby Rasmus, who recently had a 10-game stretch in which all he did was pinch-hit twice despite his respectable .348 OBP and 19 home runs.
15 Florida Marlins
Last Week: 16
Last year's Cy Young Awards to Zack Greinke and Tim Lincecum proved that voters aren't as obsessed by wins as they used to be. That's a good thing for ace Josh Johnson. Brian McCann's replay-aided walkoff home run completed the seventh lead that Marlin relievers have blown for Johnson this season. His 11-5 record, 2.28 ERA and 8.8 K/9 ratio makes for a good season, but it would look a whole better if he had 18 wins instead.
16 Los Angeles Dodgers
Last Week: 15
Manny ought to send K-Rod a thankyou card. If not for Mets closer Francisco Rodriguez, Ramirez would have had the indignity of leaving his team in the most unseemly fashion of the season. In his final at-bat as a Dodger, Manny was ejected for arguing a called first strike while pinch-hitting with the bases loaded and his team down 8-2 to a division rival. He was let go on waivers without compensation the next day. But that's still better, of course, than Rodriguez, who was arrested after suffering a season-ending thumb injury while allegedly assaulting his girlfriend's father in the Mets' team lounge.
17 Houston Astros
Last Week: 21
It seems safe to say that rookie manager Brad Mills has found his groove. The Astros have won 22 of their last 34 games with a healthy plus-43 run differential in that span, including four series sweeps. They took a four-game set from the Phillies and, most recently, three against the Cardinals, for which they were rewarded with a third-place tie in the NL Central. It's the first time since April 25 that they've been that high in the standings.
18 Oakland Athletics
Last Week: 17
With A-Rod on the D.L., starter Dallas Braden didn't get to face his nemesis (who he'd blasted for running across his mound) when the A's were in New York this week. But the two have apparently patched up their differences -- Braden gave A-Rod a poster and game ball from his perfect game and A-Rod signed 10 "Get Off My Mound" shirts for charity -- even though the spunky pitcher still invited heckling from Yankees fans before his Thursday start. "That's part of the excitement," Braden told the New York Post. "They've had a while to think of some good stuff, so don't disappoint (me)."
19 Detroit Tigers
Last Week: 18
The story of Max St. Pierre is why September call-ups can be truly heartwarming. The 30-year-old catcher toiled in the Tigers' minor-league system for 14 seasons and 978 games before getting promoted on Wednesday and receiving assurance from manager Jim Leyland that his next at-bat will be his first in the majors. St. Pierre's background is unusual for a baseball player: He grew up in Quebec as a French-speaking Expos fan and says that it took him an entire year of youth baseball before he made contact with a pitch.
20 Los Angeles Angels
Last Week: 20
A key component to Jered Weaver's success this season: increased reliance on his curveball. Weaver is having a career year (11-10, 3.12 ERA, 200 strikeouts in 182 innings) while throwing his curve at a career-high rate of 13.2 percent of all pitches. According to FanGraphs, his curve's value -- denoted by wCB/C, a funky name for a stat that describes how many runs the pitch saves above average for every 100 times it's thrown -- is at a record high and ranks seventh in the majors.
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MLB Power Rankings
21 New York Mets
Last Week: 19
Less than a week after saying the Mets were still in the playoff picture, GM Omar Minaya traded rightfielder Jeff Francoeur to Texas for a utility infielder. Francoeur, who was batting .237 with a .293 OBP and 11 home runs in 401 at bats, only really had two great tools: throwing arm and affability, the latter a major plus in the Mets clubhouse but not in the quest to win games.
22 Milwaukee Brewers
Last Week: 22
On Sunday, they played their first day game with Miller Park's retractable roof partially closed due to gripes about the shadows on the field. With the roof open during the day, hitters had been in a different amount of light than pitchers, and only visiting teams seemed to be able to figure out how to handle it. In day games prior to Sunday, opponents were scoring six runs per game and had outscored the home team 144-95.
23 Baltimore Orioles
Last Week: 27
The AL's best record in August (18-10) belonged, not surprisingly, to the Twins, who passed Chicago for the Central lead. The second-best mark last month, however, was a big surprise: The Orioles were 17-11 and passed the Pirates on their way out of the majors' worst record. Likely no coincidence, new manager Buck Showalter took over in Baltimore on Aug. 3 and began his tenure with a four-game winning streak en route to a 17-10 start.
24 Chicago Cubs
Last Week: 24
Anyone and everyone is chiming on the Cubs' managerial search. When the organization recently inducted Andre Dawson into its team Hall of Fame, he opined that he never expected Ryne Sandberg to be a manager when they played together, calling it "far-fetched" on ESPN radio, but adding that Sandberg has "prepared himself for this moment." Harry Caray's widow added her own support to Sandberg's candidacy, and Yankees manager Joe Girardi has not flat-out denied his interest. Another report indicated that former Marlins skipper Fredi Gonzalez may be a leading candidate. This dizzying array of daily stories is starting to resemble the "will-he-or-won't-he run" buzz that surrounds a presidential race or Brett Favre.
25 Arizona Diamondbacks
Last Week: 29
News broke last week that they are considering offseason changes to minimize offense at Chase Field by changing the dimensions or height of the fences or even installing a humidor to battle the dry desert air. "We have a launching pad now," team president Derrick Hall told the Arizona Republic. "We have a team that's hopefully going to be built around young pitching." Chase Field and Milwaukee's Miller Park are the most home-happy NL stadiums at 2.56 per game, according to Two AL parks, Toronto's Rogers Centre and New York's Yankee Stadium, have seen even more this season: 2.87 and 2.78 per game, respectively.
26 Kansas City Royals
Last Week: 23
Not being on their 40-man roster is the only possible reason why Triple A prospect Mike Moustakas won't get a September call-up though he's proving worthy of a big-league look. On Monday night, Moustakas, the No. 2 overall pick in 2007, delivered 11 RBIs while going 4-for-6 with three home runs and a double. Two of the homers came in the same inning. He hit .347 with 21 home runs in 66 Double A games and has now hit .298 with 13 home runs in 46 Triple A games.
27 Washington Nationals
Last Week: 25
With Stephen Strasburg set for Tommy John surgery on Friday, Nats fans can at least take solace in the recent outing by Jordan Zimmermann, the projected No. 2 starter behind Strasburg for years to come. Zimmermann allowed just one baserunner (a double) in six innings at Florida on Tuesday night, striking out nine. It was his second major-league start since similar surgery of his own last year.
28 Seattle Mariners
Last Week: 26
Hot streaks can get buried when they don't happen at the start of the season. Everyone knew Ubaldo Jimenez was 6-0 with a 0.87 ERA and 44 strikeouts over 41-1/3 innings in his first six starts because those numbers doubled as his season stats. Mariners ace Felix Hernandez had an even more impressive streak recently that escaped attention because of poor run support and it's late in the season. In August, King Felix started six times, but was only 3-2 even though he had an 0.82 ERA and 51 strikeouts in 43-2/3 innings, better numbers than Jimenez's that seemed less dramatic because they merely dropped Hernandez's season ERA from 2.79 to 2.38.
29 Cleveland Indians
Last Week: 28
Power Rankings will set aside its sarcasm for a week and wish a quick recovery to legendary pitcher Bob Feller, who this writer had the pleasure of meeting at the Hall of Fame five years ago. Feller, 92, revealed on Sunday that he is battling leukemia. But there was also a positive reason for his name in the news over the weekend: Talk of Aroldis Chapman's 105-mile-per-hour fastball drew comparisons to "Rapid Robert," who reportedly threw one 107.9 back in the day.
30 Pittsburgh Pirates
Last Week: 30
While the former worst-team-in-baseball (the Orioles) ascended one spot in the standings -- and seven spots out of the Power Rankings cellar -- there was no such turnaround for the dreary Pirates, who had the worst record in the majors in August (8-21) and continued to see their run differential worsen after allowing 166 and scoring only 99. They got swept by fellow NL Central also-ran Milwaukee over the weekend and followed that by getting thrashed 14-2 by the Cubs on Monday. Another bad week in more than a decade-and-a-half of bad seasons.
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