Three up, three down: Pirates plundering competition
Pittsburgh's big week puts it atop MLB heap; AL Central experiencing difficulties
Pittsburgh had the best record in the big leagues in June (17-9) thanks to a 16-5 stretch to end the month, which saw the Pirates become the first big league team to win 50 games and jump past Cincinnati and St. Louis into first place in the National League Central. It hasn't gone unnoticed. While the Pirates home attendance ranks 14th in the NL, ahead of only Miami, they have averaged 36,961 for their last six home games -- a 14,943 per game increase from the first 35. Pedro Alvarez is only hitting .241, but he has gone 15-for-27 with five home runs and 10 RBIs during the Pirates' nine-game winning streak, the team's longest since a 10-gamer in 2004.
The Pirates took a gamble on Francisco Liriano, and confidence in Gerrit Cole paid off. Liriano went 4-1 with a 2.27 ERA during the team's 21-game surge, and Cole, the former No. 1 Draft pick, is 4-0 since his June 11 debut. Liriano opened the season on the disabled list for the sixth time in his career -- this time, with a break in his right arm suffered during the holidays. The lefty, however, is making good on the incentive-laden two-year deal he signed as a free agent in the offseason. He is 7-3 with a 2.23 ERA since his season debut on May 11.
DOWN: American League Central
It was a tough week for the division. The five teams were a combined 7-18 against teams from outside the AL Central, including division-leading Detroit being swept in three games by the Angels and losing two of three to Tampa Bay. Cleveland was the only member with a winning record (6-2), but that came at the expense of a four-game sweep of the AL Central-rival White Sox. That also allowed the Indians to pull within percentage points of division-leader Detroit. Minnesota split four games with Kansas City but was swept in a two-game series against Miami. The AL Central is 118-130 against teams from outside its division this year. Cleveland (27-25) is the only team in the division with a winning record against outside competition. The division even has a losing record (29-34) in Interleague Play, while the AL West is 33-31 vs. NL teams and the AL East is 32-19.
Yasiel Puig is getting all the attention, but he's not flying solo in Los Angeles. The Dodgers have won eight of their last nine games, and while they remain in last place in the NL West, they are only four games behind first-place Arizona, having cut 5 1/2 games off the deficit in the last nine games. Puig has hit .400 in the Dodgers' nine-game climb into contention, but so has Hanley Ramirez, who came off the disabled list and rejoined the lineup June 4. What's more, Ramirez has hit four home runs and has 10 RBIs in the nine games, tied for tops in the NL in both categories during that stretch. Of course, the Dodgers' ascension isn't all their own doing. They have taken advantage of an Arizona team that has lost six of its last seven games, and 14 of its last 22. Arizona hasn't had a starting pitcher win a game since Wade Miley on June 5, the day before the slide began. Arizona starters are 0-10 in those 22 games with an NL-high 5.15 ERA, having worked 122 1/3 innings, second fewest in NL to Milwaukee (117 1/3).
Bad got worse for the Yankees. In first place by a game on May 25, they have lost 21 of 33 since, including five of six in the last week, which ended with the team's third five-game losing streak in the last 33 games. They have fallen into fourth place in the AL East, 6 1/2 games back of division-leading Boston. They've used seven starting pitchers during that stretch with little help for a rotation that has a 9-18 record and 4.57 ERA in the 33 games. The only multiple winners on the staff are CC Sabathia (4-3 with a 5.08 ERA) and David Phelps (2-3 with a 6.84 ERA). But it's the offense that has really undermined the Yankee effort. They match Houston for a big league-worst .224 batting average since May 25, but the Astros have scored 115 runs. That's 13 more than the Yankees, who have scored fewer runs than any team in the bigs. Is it just a coincidence that the slide began the day Curtis Granderson went on the disabled list for the second time this season, suffering a broken left foot? Vernon Well has hit .137 with 22 strikeouts in 95 at-bats since then, and Mark Teixeira was hitting .151 with 19 strikeouts in 53 at-bats before he gave into the wrist injury that sidelined him to open the season and opted to undergo surgery.
The Rangers have climbed back on top in the AL West. After suffering a six-game losing streak, they have rebounded to win 10 of their last 13 games, and they have put the run together against quality teams. They began by taking three of four from Oakland -- which has slipped into second place in the division -- swept St. Louis and then took two of three at the Yankees and at home against the Reds. And this week, they host Seattle and Houston, each in a three-game series. They are a combined 12-4 against the two, including taking five of six from the Astros. Nelson Cruz has asserted himself offensively, hitting .333 with four home runs and 17 RBIs. The only other regular hitting better than .265 in the last two weeks is Leonys Martin, who has hit .381 with 11 runs scored and four RBIs in 12 games.
The Giants salvaged the final game of a visit to Colorado on Sunday, snapping a six-game losing streak that has seen them fade into fourth place in the NL West, just a game ahead of the last-place Dodgers. The offense has gone south. A 3.99 ERA in the seven games isn't eye-popping, but it's not all that bad. But with an offense that averaged a worst-in-baseball 2.4 runs during those eight games, there wasn't much margin for pitching error. Buster Posey did his part, hitting .440 with four home runs in the eight games. Meanwhile, Pablo Sandoval was hitting .130, Brandon Crawford .125 and the center fielder duo of Gregor Blanco and Juan Perez were a combined .143. And now the Giants head to Cincinnati for a four-game visit.
Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.