1. American League West race. Here's an amazing fact about this Texas Rangers team that is now just two games behind the Houston Astros in the American League West: Colby Lewis leads the team in innings. I mean, no offense to Lewis, as he's 14-8, has taken his turn all season long, and is a pretty remarkable comeback story after missing all of 2013, but he has a 4.68 ERA. The other division leaders have guys such as Dallas Keuchel, Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw, Jacob deGrom and Matt Harvey, or David Price. The Rangers have a guy with a 4.68 ERA.
The Rangers beat the Mariners 3-0 behind Yovani Gallardo on Monday -- talk about an under-the-radar offseason trade. Gallardo has a 3.16 ERA, although he rarely goes deep into games. He pitched 5⅓ innings against Seattle, has gone six innings just once in his past seven starts and hasn't gone more than seven innings since June 27. Manager Jeff Banister seems to understand that keeping Gallardo on a short leash is the right move, even if he has a shutout going. Banister's manipulation of the rotation and bullpen has been a key to the Rangers slowly grinding back from a 9½-game deficit on May 20. In fact, would you bet on the Rangers right now to catch the Astros, who lost 10-9 to the A's on Monday?
The Astros just started a 10-game road trip. They're now 27-39 on the road. That road trip concludes with four games against the Rangers.
The Rangers have 12 games left against the Mariners and A's (plus three against the slumping Tigers) while the Astros have just eight (with three against the sort-of-tough Diamondbacks to end the season).
It's a different Texas rotation. Gone are Wandy Rodriguez and Ross Detwiler. In are Cole Hamels (3.89 ERA in six starts) and Derek Holland (2.37 ERA in five starts with 25 K's and three walks). Lewis and Gallardo are solid. Martin Perez has a 5.03 ERA in his nine starts, but that ERA was bumped up by one bad outing (1 IP, 8 R). He has been good otherwise.
Carlos Gomez hasn't clicked yet for the Astros, hitting .231/.273/.331 in 34 games.
Having been in first place all but eight days since April 19, the pressure is on the Astros to hold on.
Which feel-good story wins out? I'm going with ... nah, I've made enough predictions. Play the games and we'll watch.
2. New York Mets. What's the difference between a three-game lead and a five-game lead? I'm sure if you ask Mets fans, it feels like a lot more than two wins. The first game of the big three-game showdown in Washington looked like it would go to the Nats when they scored five runs in the bottom of the fourth to take a 5-3 lead. Surely, Max Scherzer -- who had surrendered three home runs at that point -- would take this lead and put it away. This is why he's getting $200 million, to win games like this one. He couldn't do it. Ruben Tejada and Curtis Granderson doubled in the fifth and then Yoenis Cespedes doubled leading off the sixth, went to third with one out on a Scherzer balk and scored on a sacrifice fly. Scherzer didn't come out for the seventh, done after 102 pitches. The Nationals’ much-maligned middle relievers then proceeded to quickly cough up the lead as the Mets scored three runs. The Mets' bullpen, meanwhile, tossed 5⅔ scoreless innings, allowing three hits and striking out nine.
As big a victory as this was for the Mets, the story of game was the continued struggles of Scherzer. He's now winless in his past seven starts with a 6.08 ERA, and since July 7 he's 2-5 in 12 starts with a 5.05 ERA. You can point to his 86-12 strikeout-walk ratio in 71⅓ innings in that span, but he also has given up 17 home runs. This was third game since July 24 he has allowed three home runs in a game. Yes, he's still racking up strikeouts, but he's also getting lit. The primary issue seems to be fastball location: Twelve of those 17 home runs have come on fastballs. Cespedes and Michael Conforto homered on fastballs on Monday (Kelly Johnson connected on an 0-1 changeup).
Bottom line: Scherzer's strikeouts and walks look pretty. The ERA is OK but not that glittering sub-2.00 it was much of the season. Five of his 11 wins have come against the Phillies and Marlins. In 12 starts against winning teams he has two wins and a 3.53 ERA. That's not an ace.
3. Jackie Bradley Jr., Boston Red Sox. On Aug. 5, Bradley was hitting .102. Of course, that was only 59 plate appearances, as he'd spent much of the season in Triple-A or as a backup outfielder. But that only reinforced the notion that Bradley remained a gifted defensive outfielder but with the bat of a bench player. A lot can change in just a few weeks. On Aug. 6, he went 1-for-2 with two walks. Three days later he went 2-for-3 with a triple, home run, walk and five RBIs. He had a two-hit game the day after that, and in a 22-10 slugfest against the Mariners on Aug. 15 he went 5-for-6 with three doubles and two home runs, becoming just the eighth player since 1914 with five extra-base hits in a game.
He hasn't slowed down since and went 4-for-4 with a double, home run and four RBIs in Monday's 11-4 rout of the Blue Jays. His season line is now .312/.385/.631. His numbers since Aug. 6: An absolutely insane .424/.480/.880, with seven home runs and 32 RBIs. He leads the majors in average, doubles and runs during this outburst and ranks fourth in RBIs. And he's still hitting ninth in the order. Anyway, how good is Bradley? He's not this good, of course, but I don't really have any idea how good he is. Heck, Kelly Shoppach is one of those eight players with five extra-base hits in a game. Still, this stretch certainly ensures he'll head into 2016 with a starting outfield position once you factor in his Gold Glove defense and Hanley Ramirez's move to first base.
What explains what's going on? He has always had a pretty good eye at the plate, although when he hit .198 last season in more than 400 plate appearances, he was often criticized for being too patient and getting into too many pitcher's counts. So maybe it's just learning that balance between aggressiveness and swinging at strikes. There's certainly some luck involved, as his BABIP is a crazy .552 the past month. He's hammering mistakes. Confidence probably helps as well. Maybe I'll do a blog this week looking back at the video of his hits to see what's going. Whatever the reasons, he's fulfilling a promise to his grandmother.
4. Atlanta Braves win! The 12-game losing streak is over with a 7-2 victory over the Phillies as Hector Olivera hit his first major league home run in front of the smallest crowd in the 12-year history of Citizens Bank Park. (Good job, Phillies, in increasing your lead to two games over the Braves for the No. 1 overall pick next June.) What a losing streak it was, by the way. The Braves were outscored 103-28, had a 8.14 ERA and hit just .213. None of the losses were by one run and only one came by two runs. Now they're 4-23 over the past 27 games in one of the worst stretches by a major league team in recent history. The 2013 Astros did lose their final 15 games, but seven of those were by one run. At least they had some close games.
5. Grumpy Cat. The world's most famous cat since that one that played the piano threw out the first pitch at the Arizona Diamondbacks game. And, yes, he didn't seem to enjoy it. Maybe he enjoyed the Diamondbacks' 6-1 win over the Giants. Patrick Corbin -- a less controversial pitcher coming back from Tommy John surgery -- threw six scoreless innings to improve to 5-3 with a 3.32 ERA.