When a playoff contender takes a look at the final few weeks of its regular season schedule, the natural focus turns to the games against teams they are competing with for the pennant.
But how many times do we see those clubs stumble against the overlooked foes that they thought were simply playing out the string. The five teams below possess enough talent to ruin the hopes of several would-be World Series hopefuls.
5. New York Mets
The goal set by GM Sandy Alderson and echoed by team captain David Wright in attaining 90 wins has all but faded away. Instead, the Mets are on track for another year of 90 or more losses. Let that not sway you from thinking the Amazin’s provide some flashes of excellence.
For a club that has struggled mightily in trying to score consistently, the Mets have the NL leader in hits (Daniel Murphy, albeit now on the 15-day DL) and the third-best in home runs (Lucas Duda). Curtis Granderson also has pop (16 homers), despite a batting average that is creeping towards the Mendoza line.
Juan Lagares prevents hits and runs with all-around fielding ability—making him a leading candidate for a gold glove award in center field and earning praise from the opposition. With a bit more offense, manager Terry Collins will have to start him every day.
One given that the Mets do have is talented young arms—both at the big league level and in the minors. For those set to be with New York in the regular season’s final month, Jacob deGrom is a starter yet to be fully solved by the rest of the NL. The rookie went 4-1 in July and has held batters to a .210 average since the All-Star break. Zack Wheeler has certainly bounced back from a rough beginning. After June, the 24-year-old’s record is 6-1 with an ERA at 2.49.
4. Houston Astros
If you thought a string of 90-plus losses was bad, how about the recent futility of the Astros? But their doormat status will soon be a thing of the past with the emergence of such names at Chris Carter, Jose Altuve and George Springer.
Arguably the hottest hitter of the summer, Carter has gone deep 20 times dating back to July 1. In that span, he’s also posted , 48 RBI, and a batting average of .290. Twelve of those homers and 29 of those runs driven in have come during the month of August.
#Astros Chris Carter now has 20 HR over his last 189 plate appearances, he has 48 RBI in 45 games during that time.
— Ace of MLB Stats (@AceballStats) August 28, 2014
This long-ball ability has eased the absence of Springer, who has been sidelined for the past couple of weeks with a quad injury—expected to return to Bo Porter’s lineup in early September. Until being sidelined, the rookie was credited with 20 home runs and 51 RBI.
While Carter and Springer provide the power, Altuve readily revs up the ‘Stros with his speed on the basepaths. The second baseman’s 49 steals ranks as the best among all AL players. But let’s not forget what he can do with the bat, as his average (.332) and hit total (182) both lead the majors.
This trio won’t be easy to handle for the AL West’s top three clubs: Oakland, Seattle and the first place Los Angeles Angels. Collectively, the Astros have 14 more games against them over the final few weeks.
3. San Diego Padres
Granted, this team can’t hit. After all, their team batting average in June was an historically-bad .171.
So, how is it that Bud Black’s team—which continues to be at the bottom of the barrel in all noted offensive categories—has gone 14-10 in the month of August and is not in the cellar of the NL West?
The answer, mostly, can be attributed to a facet that keeps most contending teams afloat in an era where runs are at a premium, as San Diego’s pitching staff boasts the second best team ERA in the NL (only Washington is better).
For starters, Tyson Ross leads the club with 12 victories as well as a 2.64 ERA and 176 strikeouts. He, Ian Kennedy (10 wins and a 3.75 ERA), and Andrew Cashner are more often than not the victims of poor run support. Still, they are more than capable of matching the front-running Dodgers and Giants strong arm for strong arm.
Huston Street may now be closing up north for the Los Angels Angels, but Joaquin Benoit is embracing his newly-appointed role. The 13-year veteran (in his first season with San Diego) has converted on eight of nine save opportunities since July 25.
2. Chicago Cubs
Theo Epstein’s plan is slowly coming to fruition. The executive’s rebuilding pieces are now being showcased on a daily basis for a fan base desperate to see a winner.
Jorge Soler came through right off the bat—literally. In his major league debut on Wednesday at Cincinnati’s Great American Ballpark, he drilled a home run in his first plate appearance. This was similar to the feat accomplished by Javier Baez 22 days earlier—who went deep in the 12th inning of his initial game.
2014 Cubs are first team in history to have two players, each age 22 or younger, HR in their 1st MLB games (Baez/Soler)
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) August 28, 2014
Prior the addition of some useful offense, Kyle Kendricks provided instant pitching help. In eight starts, he’s posted a 5-1 mark with a superb 1.78 ERA and a WHIP of 1.01. That includes 7.1 innings of shutout ball against the NL Central-leading Milwaukee Brewers on Aug. 12
Anthony Rizzo has been a part of the majors dating back to June 2011, arriving as a member of the San Diego Padres. He is making himself a household name as a Cub. Having taken off with a 23-home run, 80-RBI effort in 2013, Rizzo has shot up into the upper echelon of sluggers with the numbers recorded so far this season: 30 homers, 71 runs driven in and 81 runs scored.
With all this young talent, which also includes shortstop Starlin Castro, mistakes are bound to happen. So are collective team efforts that can equal a string of victories (they are 14-12 in August). If that happens, they can certainly influence the Central race—facing St. Louis, Milwaukee, and Pittsburgh in succession beginning tonight. Chicago also gets its crack at the Blue Jays and Dodgers next month.
1. Tampa Bay Rays
At eight games out of the Wild Card and even further behind in the divisional race, it’s safe to say that Tampa is finished as far as playoff hopes are concerned. That’s not to say, by any stretch, the Rays can’t influence how the postseason chase unfolds.
Even minus lefty ace David Price (now a Detroit Tiger), Tampa can’t be taken lightly. After starting out a league-worst 24-42 by June 10, they rebounded—ultimately getting to 61-61 on Aug. 15, to become the fourth team in major league history to reach the .500 mark after falling 18 games under in the same season.
That’s been the club’s high-water mark, as Joe Madden’s bunch is three games under and well out of the race.
It has proven to be too big a hole to climb out of. However, this team is playing more like the Rays of the past few seasons rather than the Rays of April through mid June. The managerial brilliance of Maddon combined with a still-solid pitching staff as well as the bats of Evan Longoria and James Loney provide a scary proposition to divisional foes such as the Orioles (who they play three times), as well as the Yankees and Blue Jays (six games apiece).
If the Rays can’t get to the postseason, they’d like nothing more than to see another team’s chances ruined at their expense.