Chicago had better stay focused on the present (a weekend visit by Seattle) and not the future (next weekend's showdown with American League Central-rival Detroit). The White Sox have been the overlooked surprise of the season. They weren't predicted to have a winning record, much less contend, but with 39 games remaining, there they are, atop the AL Central thanks the impressive rebounds by right-hander Jake Peavy, outfielder Alex Rios and designated hitter Adam Dunn.
The Mariners arrive in last place in the AL West, but they are surging. They bring with them an eight-game winning streak, their longest in five years, and a 61-64 record, having already equaled last year's victory total. Felix Hernandez, Franklin Gutierrez, Jason Vargas, Chone Figgins and Shawn Kelley are only players from Opening Day 2010 still in the organization. Hernandez and Vargas anchor a pitching staff that has keyed a 25-13 run since the All-Star break with a 3.00 ERA, second lowest in the big leagues.
Tampa Bay is making another late-season run, having gained eight games on the AL East-leading Yankees in the past 36 days. The Rays now find themselves 2 1/2 back, but just as important, they have taken a 2 1/2-game lead on the three teams tied for the second Wild Card slot -- Baltimore, Detroit and Oakland. Tampa Bay has a chance to derail the A's this weekend, having opened a three-game visit by Oakland (which ends Saturday because of the Republican Convention) with a 5-0 win on Thursday night.
Alex Cobb has given the Rays a lift. He is 4-0 in five starts this month, allowing three runs in 30 innings of the four wins, and Tampa Bay rallied to turn an 8-0 deficit into a 10-8 win against the Angels on Saturday in Cobb's one stumble. But then, pitching is the key to the Rays, who are 25-14 since the All-Star break thanks to a staff that has a Major League-leading 2.19 ERA -- 2.62 for the rotation and 1.22 for the bullpen -- since the break.
Houston is busy unloading, including the dismissal of manager Brad Mills, and is talking about looking ahead, but the Astros admit they could reach into their past for a bit of credibility. Owner Jim Crane said the idea of bringing back Roger Clemens to pitch at the age of 50 is being discussed. And while it would be perceived as a publicity stunt, Astros officials say the idea would be for Clemens to create a work ethic for the team's young pitchers.
With a 6-33 record since the All-Star break, the Astros would have to win 20 of their final 39 games to avoid matching last year's club-record 106 losses. They have to win 24 of their final 37 games to avoid the second 100-loss season in franchise history. The pitching has been a problem. Since the All-Star break, Houston pitchers have a 5.54 ERA, highest in the NL. The rotation ranks 15th with a 5.67 ERA to supplement a 4-25 record, and the bullpen is 2-8 with two saves in nine opportunities and has a 5.31 ERA.
A year ago, Pittsburgh lost a questionable 4-3, 19-inning game at Atlanta in late July, and its season crashed. The Pirates went from tied for the NL Central lead to fourth place, 24 games out, losing 43 of their final 62 games and finishing with their 20th consecutive losing season. This year, the Bucs won a 19-inning game, 6-3, at St. Louis on Sunday, but were immediately swept in a three-game visit to San Diego this week, allowing the Cardinals to move a game ahead of them for the second NL Wild Card spot.
Can the Pirates rebound and avoid a season-ending fade like they suffered a year ago? The schedule is in their favor. They open a three-game series against Milwaukee on Friday night, the start of a stretch of 28 games against NL Central teams, but more important, the start of a stretch in which the Bucs have 12 of 15 games at home. And they are good at PNC Park, where they are 37-23, the third-best home record in the NL.
It's no tea party. Not only were the Red Sox swept by the Angels at Fenway Park this week, but their 14-13 loss on Thursday was the first time Boston lost a game in which it scored at least 13 runs since a 22-13 loss to the Chicago White Sox on May 31, 1970 -- more than 42 years ago.
That's the kind of year it has been. The Red Sox are 29-37 at Fenway Park, where they have not had a losing record since going 39-42 in 1997 and have had only nine losing records since 1934. They are winless in seven extra-inning games at home, have issued 14 bases-loaded walks, and are trying to avoid their first losing season since 1997 and a last-place finish for the first time since 1992.