The Giants weren't supposed to have enough hitting to complement their great pitching. The Marlins were said to be too young. The Rangers were at least a year away. And the Rockies, well, they appeared to be buried back in May. Only the Marlins had a winning record a year ago, but they're all now genuine threats to play beyond the first week of October. At week's end only two games separated the Rockies, Giants and Marlins in the NL wild-card race, and the Rangers had overtaken Boston in the AL race. Here's a closer look at baseball's most surprising contenders.
What to like: Through Sunday the rotation was seventh in the majors with a 4.09 ERA, the lowest in franchise history by 49 points. Troy Tulowitzki (18 homers since June 6) has rediscovered his stroke from his rookie year in 2007. The club's run differential of +76 is the game's sixth best.
Surprise stat: The Rox are baseball's only team with four double-digit winners, and their 71 quality starts tops the majors.
Unsung heroes: The bullpen. In the last year G.M. Dan O'Dowd has acquired a closer (Huston Street), setup man (Rafael Betancourt) and lefty specialist (Joe Beimel) without giving up much. Betancourt hasn't allowed a run in nine appearances, and the pen's ERA, 4.79 before his July 23 acquisition from Cleveland, is 3.46 since.
What to worry about: They still have huge home-road offensive splits (48 points of batting average and 124 points of OPS).
Playoff odds: Even
What to like: Their ace, Josh Johnson (12--2, 2.85 ERA), is in the Cy Young discussion; shortstop Hanley Ramirez (10 multihit games in 11 games since Aug. 5) is giving the team the production expected of a superstar; and rookie leadoff man Chris Coghlan (a .420 hitter this month) is providing an unexpected boost. Also, Nick Johnson, a deadline addition from the Nationals, has a .500 OBP with his new team.
Surprise stat: Despite the loss of Kevin Gregg, last season's closer, the bullpen's 3.74 ERA is ninth best in the majors.