LA jumps Houston for No. 1 spot, NL Central-leading Brewers impress
By Alyson Footer
The National League Central race wasn't supposed to be this compelling. Before the season started, the general understanding was that there really wouldn't be a race -- the defending World Series champions would coast to the division title and a couple of other teams, if they were lucky and everything went right, would be contenders only in the Wild Card standings.
But here we are, with just over half the games having been played, and the NL Central situation is one of the most intriguing in baseball -- and not because of what the Cubs are doing, but what they're not.
And what the Cubs are not doing is winning much. And their biggest threat? The Brewers, a club generally regarded as a team that will be very good -- in a couple of years. That schedule seems to have been accelerated. Milwaukee is one of the few teams that spent the final 10 days before the All-Star break making a strong push, going 8-2 to give itself -- dare we say it? -- a nice cushion heading into the break. The Brewers are 5 1/2 games up on the Cardinals and Cubs, and they play their next 10 games against sub-.500 teams.
Biggest jump: There really wasn't a ton of movement this week, which is reflective of the time of year it is -- with three months in the books, the teams that were going to find their groove pretty much have by now, and are holding steady. The Nationals are the only top 10 team to take a significant leap, improving from No. 6 to No. 3. They had a decent week heading into the break, taking both games of a rain-shortened series from the Mets and splitting a four-game set with the Braves. On a slightly less significant scale, the Cardinals also jumped three, from 17 to 14.
Biggest drop: Again, nothing major in this category, either. The Rockies dropped two spots, from No. 7 to No. 9 after going 4-5 in their past nine games heading into the break. They'll open the second half on the road with the Mets, before hosting the Padres and Pirates next week.
Power Rankings Top 5
1. Dodgers (2 last week)
Really, the only thing separating the Dodgers from the Astros for the top spot is, simply, wins. Los Angeles has 61. Houston has 60. The Dodgers are dominating through their pitching. Overall they have the lowest ERA in the NL at 3.15, the lowest opponents batting average (.223) and the highest strikeout total (868). Their starting pitchers have a Major League-best 3.24 ERA and .226 opponents average. The relief staff is also first in the NL with a 2.99 ERA.
2. Astros (1)
The Astros, while pitching very well -- their team ERA of 3.93 is the third lowest in the American League and their .234 opponents batting average is the lowest -- are fueled by a vaunted offense that has been the story of their season. They lead the AL with a team slash line of .289/.355/.500. They are the only team in the league to have a .500 slugging percentage -- the next highest is the Yankees, at .450.
3. Nationals (6)
The top batting averages in the NL League belong to Nationals hitters -- Daniel Murphy (.342), Ryan Zimmerman (.330) and Bryce Harper (.325). Zimmerman's .596 slugging percentage is the third highest in the NL, Harper's .590 is fourth, and Murphy's .572 is tied for seventh. The Nats also have the continued luxury to play in a division with no challengers. Their 9 1/2-game lead over Atlanta is understood to be pretty safe, even with ongoing bullpen issues.
4. Red Sox (4)
No movement for Boston in the Power Rankings. The Red Sox just continued consistent play that keeps them in the top five. They were 6-4 heading into the All-Star break but had several offensive breakouts during that 10-game stretch. They outscored opponents 55-36 through that stretch.
5. D-backs (3)
Arizona kind of limped into the All-Star break, going 3-6 against the Rockies, Dodgers and Reds. Like the Rockies, the D-backs could benefit from a break from playing the Dodgers. They'll get that break coming up the rest of this month, when the team plays 19 consecutive games against non-NL West opponents.