Some division leaders appear to be pulling away. Some races are getting closer. And as we inch toward inevitable September showdowns in the last full month of the 2012 Major League Baseball season, we have to wonder: Where are we right now? Who are the favorites? And who's the best team in baseball?
The popular pick these days would have to be the Washington Nationals. Prior to Sunday's game, they had won eight in a row, and despite the understandable slump that 19-year-old phenom Bryce Harper has been going through, the rest of the team is clicking. With the best pitching in the Majors, it's not hard to understand why.
Then again, how can you fault the Yankees? They've suffered through inconsistency in their starting rotation, but they can flat out pound the ball, and that counts for something. Right now, it counts for a huge lead in the always-tough American League East.
There's no doubt that the Reds would still get some votes for the best team in baseball at this juncture. Looking for another club that's used the same five starting pitchers from the end of Spring Training until right now? Sorry. Cincinnati is the only one.
And the Texas Rangers, the two-time defending AL champions, are at it again, right there in first place in the AL West, having ridden out some down times and some starting-rotation question marks. Will Josh Hamilton heat up again and help carry his team back to the Fall Classic?
But don't forget about the rest of the contenders, such as the Tigers and White Sox, battling for AL Central supremacy, or the Giants and Dodgers, conducting their usual rivalry at the top of the National League West. Don't discount the Rays, who are still hanging in the AL East race. Or the Braves, for that matter, who have a strong record in the NL East. Don't write off the Cardinals. As we saw last year, it's never wise to count St. Louis out.
For the third season, MLB.com has set up a panel of experts to vote on the top 15 teams each week. Three former Major League players -- Larry Dierker, Mitch Williams and Frank Thomas -- are part of the process, as are columnist Peter Gammons and Carlton Thompson, vice president and executive editor of MLB.com. Former general manager and current MLB.com analyst Jim Duquette, along with MLB.com columnists Mike Bauman, Hal Bodley, Anthony Castrovince, Richard Justice, Matthew Leach and Jesse Sanchez are also part of the group.
Agree? Disagree? The power to rank the teams is yours.
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Ace Stephen Strasburg is fast approaching his innings limit, but what do you know? Jordan Zimmermann has been pitching like the team's ace anyway, Gio Gonzalez isn't half bad himself, and Michael Morse is starting to crush the ball on a regular basis. No wonder this team is absolutely torrid.
The bats are still sizzling, and even recent callup Mike Olt is making his presence felt. Coupled with the Angels' recent struggles, the Rangers remain comfortable atop the AL West, although the starting pitching still needs to improve to make an October impact.
A quick observation, and we're talking quick: If Cincinnati gets a lead and takes it into the ninth, the game is over, and it happens fast. Just look at the numbers closer Aroldis Chapman has been putting up lately. One concern: a reported setback for Joey Votto. Then again, the Reds have been playing just fine without him lately, haven't they?
CC Sabathia's on the disabled list, which could turn into an October concern, but right now, nothing seems to be disturbing this team -- or its sizable lead in the AL East. It must be something about that loaded lineup.
If Atlanta wasn't in the same division as Washington, the Braves might be leading somewhere else. Manager Fredi Gonzalez's group has been getting production from everywhere. Freddie Freeman's getting hot, and the pitching's getting healthier, with Ben Sheets a big help and Tommy Hanson possibly coming back from the DL soon.
Apparently all those concerns about how first-year manager Robin Ventura would take to his new responsibilities have been forgotten, and resurgent seasons by Alex Rios, Adam Dunn and an unexpected power breakout by A.J. Pierzynski have the South Siders north of the rest of their division.
The deficit in the NL Central is sizable, but the Wild Card dreams are very much real for skipper Clint Hurdle's feel-good team, and the way Andrew McCutchen and A.J. Burnett are playing, it seems like it would be shocking if Pittsburgh didn't have its first winning season since 1992. Can the Bucs do more? We'll find out.
After Sunday's victory, Tampa Bay has won six games in a row, making it the hottest team in MLB, and it's doing it with every last inch of its roster. It can't be understated how important the mere presence of Evan Longoria in this lineup is to the Rays, and it'll be even more important when he gets back to his old, healthy self.
Great starting pitching, good relief work, just enough offense to get it done and a bunch of scrappers filling in the empty spaces ... does this sound familiar? Manager Bruce Bochy hopes it sounds a lot like 2010, and San Francisco's place in the standings agrees.
Well, what do you know? After all the deserved talk of what a great season the Pirates are having, the Cardinals finished Sunday's play nine games above .500 and right in the NL Wild Card mix. One big reason: Adam Wainwright. He's simply been one of the best pitchers in baseball since the All-Star break. Another: Allen Craig, now showing the world that he's a very good hitter.
Clayton Kershaw's looking like a NL Cy Young Award candidate, Matt Kemp's rounding into NL MVP-contender form and the new additions -- Hanley Ramirez, Shane Victorino, Brandon League and Joe Blanton -- are just getting acclimated. The standings and common sense say the Dodgers will be right there with the Giants the rest of the way.
Bullpen hiccups and sudden starting-rotation woes have crippled manager Mike Scioscia's team of late, just as Albert Pujols has cemented himself as the Pujols everyone knows. Even after Sunday's loss, Jered Weaver has still been lights-out, but Dan Haren, Ervin Santana and, yes, Zack Greinke all have to do more to take the load off an overworked relief corps.
Justin Verlander is Justin Verlander, but perhaps more important for the postseason fortunes of manager Jim Leyland's crew, the offense is rolling right now. Miguel Cabrera has been sensational, and Austin Jackson might be the real MVP of the team, which is making the race in the AL Central one of the more exciting ones in the game.
Manny Machado, anyone? It seems like a great move to call up the uber-prospect shortstop as Baltimore remains in the hunt in the AL East and the Wild Card, and the 20-year-old has been playing like he belongs. Which is just what manager Buck Showalter has been preaching to his surprising team all season long.
When a guy (Brandon Inge) dislocates his right shoulder and gets the game-winning hit on the same day, you know something special is going on. Will mojo -- and a very good pitching staff -- be enough to get this club to the postseason? Who knows, but lefty Brett Anderson's coming back soon, and he won't hurt.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.