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Posted: Thursday August 27, 2009 4:01PM; Updated: Thursday August 27, 2009 4:01PM
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National League contenders make surprising autumn run

Story Highlights

The Cardinals and Rockies have given the NL a surprising boost in August

After the Red Sox dropped him, John Smoltz had a stellar debut with the Cardinals

It's been a tough week for the Red Sox, who took on- and off-field losses

The Yankees may be the best team in baseball this year, which is why they still sit atop the Power Rankings, but the two most surprising teams in baseball both reside in the National League. Who would have thought in late August that the Cardinals and Rockies (along with the Phillies and Dodgers) would look like legitimate threats to reach the World Series? Suddenly, the National League is looking just as deep and dangerous as the AL.

MLB Power Rankings

York Yankees
Last Week: 1
Another series win over the Red Sox, a comfortable lead in the AL East and their big money offseason acquisitions (CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira) performing like the Cy Young and MVP contenders they're paid to be. Yep, things are going pretty well in the Bronx these days. So well, in fact, that attempts to stir up controversy are falling flat. Over the weekend in Boston, A.J. Burnett and catcher Jorge Posada had a disagreement over pitch selection that contributed to Burnett's shelling in a 14-1 loss. Naturally, this being the Yankees, everyone expected some major drama. Instead, to paraphrase the immortal Judge Smails, they'll get nothing and like it. Burnett took the blame for the crossed signals, and manager Joe Girardi, sounding an awful lot like Joe Torre, said, "I think people are trying to make a bigger story out of this than it needs to be." Can you blame them? The Yankees used to win with drama. Now they just win.
2St. Louis Cardinals
Last Week: 3
The man who just might give the Cardinals the boost they need to reach the World Series is John Smoltz, who made a stellar debut against the Padres by pitching five shutout innings with nine strikeouts on Sunday. The person who gave Smoltz the boost to get back to the majors, though, remains unknown. According to the future Hall of Famer, he was throwing at Georgia Tech to try and keep in shape during his time off after the Red Sox released him, and things were going so badly he considered shutting himself down for the year. Then "someone" noticed that his heel had drifted behind the rubber when he was pitching from the stretch. Smoltz didn't know who first noticed it, but only that once he corrected it, his accuracy and confidence immediately improved. Now he's back with the Cardinals, who, with a nine-game lead in the NL Central, can pretty much spend September finding out just how valuable Smoltz can be for them in October.
3Philadelphia Phillies
Last Week: 4
Phillies fans have made almost as many headlines this season as their front-running team, which now has a seven-game lead and looks like it's ready to run away from the rest of the NL East. There was this tragic and ridiculous incident at the ballpark earlier this summer, and last week, Phils fans took their fighting spirit on the road. But Philly fans aren't all bad. They did come up with this T-shirt to celebrate the arrival of Cliff Lee, who has been nothing short of dominant in his first month with the club and given them the bona fide ace they lacked in the season's first four months.
4Los Angeles Angels
Last Week: 2
Amidst an impressive summer that has seen them climb to a four-game lead in the AL West, it has been easy to forget that this Angels team had endured tragedy and hardship that makes what teams like the Mets have faced ridiculously inconsequential by comparison. Back in April, 22-year-old pitcher Nick Adenhart was killed by a drunk driver the same night he made a stellar season debut against the A's. Last Monday, Adenhart would have turned 23, and on Thursday, the Angels play a make-up game for the one that was cancelled the day after Adenhart's death. The team is also planning a blood drive for Saturday in Adenhart's honor. Adenhart has not been forgotten by his teammates, who wear a patch on their jersey, hang Adenhart's jersey in the dugout, and keep his locker empty. Jared Weaver has gone even further, writing Adenhart's initials in the dirt on Monday before he pitched. A nice moment in an otherwise forgettable week for the first-place Halos, who dropped two of three at home in a possible playoff preview with the Tigers.

Angeles Dodgers
Last Week: 5
Remember when the Dodgers were rampaging through the NL West, and Manny Ramirez was being hailed as a conquering hero even after he returned from a drug suspension? Those days seem very far away now that the Dodgers' NL West lead has been sliced to two games, the smallest it has been in four months, and Ramirez is being booed by the home fans. The Dodgers are just 10-13 this month, while Ramirez has not been himself since returning in early July. In 47 games back, he's hitting .285 with only 7 home runs and 26 RBIs, and has no home runs and two RBIs in their past 11 games.
6Colorado Rockies
Last Week: 8
Are we watching the greatest comeback in baseball history? Possibly. After a loss in Houston on June 3, the Rockies were 20-32 and 15 games out in the NL West. Even after a loss on Wednesday to the Dodgers, they're still just three games out in the West and still four games ahead in the wild card. Other teams have made more ferocious runs to snatch a postseason berth (the '51 Giants, '78 Yankees, and '95 Mariners all had much less time to turn their seasons around than the Rockies did), but those teams were all decent teams to begin with. No team has done a 180 like the Rockies since the 1914 Boston Braves, who came from last place on July 18 to win the NL pennant and eventually the World Series. According to the website, the Braves that year had a <0.1 percent chance of reaching the postseason. On the date they bottomed out in the standings, the Rockies still had a 2.0 percent chance. Their current odds of reaching the playoffs? 74.1 percent.
7Boston Red Sox
Last Week: 7
A tough week for the Red Sox. They lost two of three at home to the first-place Yankees in a crucial series on the field, and then suffered a difficult off-field loss as well. In fact, it would be easy to look at their difficulty of late with the Yankees (lost five of six) and Rangers (lost seven of nine this year), and assume that their championship aspirations are dashed for good. That sky-is-falling attitude has been especially prominent in recent weeks, and Kevin Youkilis, for one, is getting tired of it, telling the Boston Globe. "The problem with the game and all sports ? I understand everything's not positive in this world. And negative stuff sells. But I come to the ballpark and go to a football game or basketball games. I don't even think you can take kids to a game anymore. There's so much negative yelling and screaming at players. People don't even root for their team anymore. They just root against the opposition's players. They're so angry at people. I get sick of the questions. After we lose a game, [they're saying] it's over in the AL East. What are you gonna do now?" If anyone can get away with a rant like that, it's Youkilis, one of the most popular -- and best -- players on the team. But the reaction should be very interesting to watch. After all, it isn't exactly a new development that fans and media make life more difficult for Boston athletes.
8Texas Rangers
Last Week: 6
Michael Young was named AL Player of the Week last week, but almost no mention is made of him being a contender for the much more prestigious AL MVP, even though his performance makes him a strong candidate. Young entered Wednesday night's game batting .329 with 22 home runs and 66 RBIs, and in his first season at the hot corner, he ranks in the top five among AL third baseman in fewest errors (seven), assists (189) and total chances, and he's credited by his manager for keeping the still very young Rangers in striking distance of their first playoff appearance in a decade. "We have a young club and Michael Young is the elder statesman," said Ron Washington. "It's his team. Michael is the one that leads the way. We've got some pretty good players, but Michael Young is the man."
9Tampa Bay Rays
Last Week: 10
The Rays opened their Ring of Fire road trip by wearing all black on the team plane to Toronto, but even if they looked like they were going to a funeral, they've played like they were reborn, winning eight of 11 overall. They beat Roy Halladay in the opener and have witnessed a major resurgence from Carlos Pena. Normally, a .220-something hitter is not who you would expect -- or want -- to be carrying a ballclub chasing a playoff spot, but that's what is happening for the Rays, for whom Pena has suddenly turned into Albert Pujols. Pena batted .474/.560/1.421 over a six-game stretch with six home runs and 14 RBIs, including a walk-off single in a critical win over the Rangers. Pena's hot streak comes just in time for Carlos Pena Poster Night at the Trop on Sept. 4, and just in time to keep the Rays fragile postseason hopes alive.
10Detroit Tigers
Last Week: 12
Which was the bigger playoff omen for the Tigers this week: taking the first two games in Anaheim against the best team in the AL West, or seeing two of their players engage in a brief dugout confrontation? The former showed that the inconsistent Tigers could be very dangerous come October, and the latter showed they are a very good bet to get there. The Justin Verlander-Gerald Laird skirmish on Monday was much ado about nothing. At least when compared to some other notable dugout flare-ups, like Reggie Jackson vs. Billy Martin in 1977, Jeff Kent vs. Barry Bonds in 2002, Prince Fielder vs. Manny Parra in 2008, Michael Barrett vs. Carlos Zambrano in 2007, or Dioner Navarro vs. Matt Garza, also in '08. But here's where it could mean something: each of those fighting ballclubs eventually fought their way to the playoffs.
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