5:46 PM CDT, August 10, 2013
With seven weeks left in the season, we're about to round the quarter pole and head for home. Here is some of what I have come to believe:
•The most likely World Series outcome is Tigers over Dodgers in a terrific matchup, with Detroit favored only because it would have home-field advantage.
No team has been better the last couple of months than the Dodgers, who turned things around in tremendous fashion after a 30-42 start that had put them in last place in the NL West, 91/2 games behind the first-place Diamondbacks.
Don Mattingly told reporters last week that team President Stan Kasten served notice at one point that he could be fired. Mattingly said something else almost as startling — that the talent he had on the field in spring training gave him thoughts of winning 100 games.
"That was our goal,'' Mattingly said. "Obviously, the first part of the season, that wasn't looking good.''
Led by Hanley Ramirez and Yasiel Puig, the Dodgers won 10 of 11 from June 22-July 3, then went 17-3 after the All-Star break.
The Tigers had seemed to tread water for much of the first half but entered the weekend having won 16 of 17, including a four-game sweep in Cleveland that pushed their lead over the Indians in the AL Central to seven games.
The Tigers were averaging 5.5 runs since the All-Star break and long ago had gotten their bullpen issues under control. When the White Sox got to Drew Smyly in the ninth inning last Sunday in a game Detroit won in 12, it marked the Tigers' only blown save in a stretch of 45 games, with the turnaround coming when Joaquin Benoit replaced Jose Valverde as closer.
The most dangerous teams the Dodgers and Tigers could face in the playoffs are the Braves, Pirates and Rays.
The Cardinals used a 20-6 May to assert themselves as a threat to get back to the NLCS, where they lost in seven games to the Giants a year ago, but life has been a struggle the last couple of weeks. Yadier Molina, an MVP candidate for voters buying into intangibles, is sidelined with a bad right knee, and his team has had trouble matching up to the best teams in the league with him less than 100 percent.
Entering a weekend series against the Cubs, the Cardinals had won only four of 15 games, getting swept by the Braves in three games and losing four of five to the Pirates and winning only one of four against the Dodgers.
The Braves, dormant since their 12-1 start, entered the weekend with a 13-game winning streak. The Pirates have been the NL's steadiest team and by winning five in a row against the Rockies and Marlins quieted concerns about August, which had been their "collapse month'' in 2011 and '12.
The Rays are dealing with a run of pitching injuries, with Matt Moore's sore elbow the biggest concern. He could be back next weekend.
The real fight to make the playoffs is going to be in the AL. Funny things can happen in September, as we saw in 2011. But while there's a good chance the NL playoffs teams will be the Dodgers, Braves, Pirates, Cardinals and Reds, the battle in the AL could be nasty.
Entering the weekend, eight teams — the Tigers, Red Sox, Rays, A's, Rangers, Orioles, Indians and Royals — were within 81/2 games of each other. None of those teams was more than 41/2 games out of the playoffs.
The Royals climbed back into the picture by winning 14 of 16 entering the weekend. They have the pitching to become a real factor, which could mean two of six AL teams on pace for 90 victories could battle to the finish. The Rangers, A's, Rays, Orioles — and even the first-place Red Sox — could be on the outside looking in at the playoffs.
Right place, right time: Chase Utley didn't want to go anywhere, and the Phillies gave him $27 million guaranteed to keep him for two more years (and three more vesting options). That's a curious decision to make with an injury-prone second baseman who will be 35 in December, but this is a franchise in denial about its fall from the ranks of the upwardly mobile.
To no one's surprise, Utley said nice things about his bosses.
"It all starts with our ownership group,'' he said. "They're willing to do what they need to do to put a product on the field. They want to win just as bad as we do. I truly believe we can get back to where we were."
The Phillies' focus shifts to Roy Halladay, who at 36 is rehabbing from shoulder surgery and will be a free agent after the season. Halladay said his willingness to stick around depends largely on whether pitching coach Rich Dubee returns. He and manager Charlie Manuel are in the last year of their contracts.
While the Phillies might regret keeping Utley, the decision is more understandable when considering ownership is building toward its next TV contract. The Phillies' local deal with Comcast is up after 2014, and they expect heavy bidding.
Tough-minded: The Pirates' victory Thursday, when they rallied from a 4-0 deficit against wunderkind Jose Fernandez to beat the Marlins in 10 innings, was their 28th comeback win and ninth walk-off. They are 16-29 when trailing after five innings, the most victories in the majors in those situations.
"It's just our mindset," manager Clint Hurdle said. "Offensively, we know we have some work to do, but we're long on guts. We keep playing to the end and grinding out at-bats."
The Pirates' success in late innings has a lot to do with their bullpen, which has been good even without closer Jason Grilli. They want him back in the worst way, however, and are encouraged his elbow is feeling good enough for him to start to play catch.
Grilli had converted 30 of 31 save opportunites with a 2.34 ERA before going on the disabled list July 23. The Pirates' bullpen converted its first six chances since then, with Mark Melancon and Vin Mazzaro earning the saves.
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