Adrian Beltre and Josh Hamilton are at the root of fun times in the heart of Texas.
The point has been made over and over (and over) again that it doesn't really matter how good a given baseball team is come October. What really matters is which team is the hottest.
When you look around Major League Baseball today, the first thing you notice is that there are more contenders around the league than usual. Four of the league's six divisions are still up for grabs, and there is a robust handful of teams in each league still jockeying for position in the wild-card races.
With October looming, some clubs have no choice but to be hot right now. Their postseason prospects all hinge on one last gasp.
Other clubs, such as the Giants and Reds, are just hoping to be hot when the playoffs get here. They already have division titles in their back pockets, but the last thing they want is to cool down just because the pressure is off.
For kicks, here's an interesting question: If the postseason was getting underway today, which contender would qualify as the hottest team in baseball?
For kicks, the answer lies ahead. Here's a rundown of the hottest contenders in baseball.
Last 10: 5-5
If their payroll could speak, it would say that the Dodgers are one of the elite teams in the National League. "Check out all the dollar signs and all the big names!" it would say...if it was really, really annoying.
Reality sings a different tune. The big trade the Dodgers made with the Red Sox in late August has produced laughable results, and right about now it's looking like the Dodgers are going to go out with a whimper rather than finish with a bang.
The Dodgers' 9-11 record this month is bad enough, but things look even worse when you zoom out further. They're 12-18 over their last 30 games and 32-34 since the All-Star break. What Magic Johnson has on his hands is a mediocre team masquerading as the Yankees.
Presently, L.A.'s biggest problem is its offense. The Dodgers have only scored 56 runs in the month of September, fewest in the National League. Their .225 team batting average this month ties them with the Astros for dead last in the majors.
Seeing as how their lineup features names like Matt Kemp, Adrian Gonzalez, Hanley Ramirez, Andre Ethier and Shane Victorino, this is more than a little concerning.
Credit where credit is due, the Dodgers' pitching has held up pretty well in September. They have a team ERA of 3.13, which is largely thanks to the club's bullpen.
The Dodgers will gladly take the good work their bullpen has done this month, but they'd no doubt prefer to have their starting rotation earning the lion's share of the credit. The more wins the rotation can provide, the better.
There's no way to go but up for the club's rotation in that regard. So far this month, Dodgers starters have exactly one win. Even for a rotation that was forced to go it alone without Clayton Kershaw for a couple weeks, that's just ridiculous.
Last 10: 5-5
The AL Central is the White Sox's division to win if they want it.
Evidently, they don't want it all that much.
The White Sox picked up a win on Monday night against the lowly Indians to snap their five-game losing streak, but their larger body of work over the last few weeks still leaves a lot to be desired. In addition to being under .500 in September to this point, the White Sox are just 11-16 in their last 27 games dating back to late August.
Chicago's recent struggles are pretty well-rounded. The White Sox's offense is only averaging 4.05 runs per game in September, and their pitching has put together a mediocre 4.25 ERA this month that comes complete with a .263 opponents' batting average.
Good teams and bad teams alike have gotten the better of the White Sox recently. They can't be faulted too much for getting swept by the Angels in Anaheim, but they'll be the first to tell you that they're too good to be losing series after series to the Royals.
For the moment, Chicago's lead in the AL Central is stuck at a single game. But they're not so much holding on to their lead as they are holding it out to the Tigers and saying, "Are...are you sure you don't want it?"
Lucky for them, the Tigers don't seem so sure that they want the AL Central, either.
Last 10: 5-5
Yes, the Tigers are playing better baseball than the White Sox.
But only barely, and to say they're playing better baseball than the White Sox barely passes for a compliment these days.
Detroit snatched a much-needed victory on the strength of Justin Verlander's right arm on Monday night, defeating the Royals by the final of 6-2 at Comerica Park. With the win, Detroit is now 4-3 in its last seven games.
...But also 4-5 in its last nine games, 11-11 in September and 14-14 in its last 28 games.
Welcome to Tigers baseball, where all dance moves consist of two steps forward and two steps back.
The Tigers are hitting the ball well enough these days, as they've scored 99 runs in September with a moderately impressive total of 24 home runs. They're also pitching pretty well, as their hurlers have compiled a 3.39 ERA with a K/9 of 8.3.
Just from looking at those numbers, you'd guess that the Tigers would be, say, 14-10 in September. If they were, they'd be in first place by now.
But these are the Tigers we're talking about. Their numbers don't add up, and the product will seemingly never be as good in reality as it was in theory way back in spring training.
Last 10: 4-6
When the Oakland A's were set to embark on their crucial 10-game road trip, they were looking back on a stretch that saw them win eight out of 10 and 17 out of 22. There was little doubt that they were the hottest team that the American League had to offer.
It all feels like a distant memory now. The A's 10-game road trip isn't going going so well. They're seven games in, and so far they have just two wins to show for their efforts.
What's worse is that the losses have come in all shapes and sizes. The A's got blown out in two straight games to start things off in Detroit, and they then proceeded to suffer two walk-off losses in New York and another just for kicks on Monday night in Texas.
So suddenly, the A's are losing more games than they're winning, which strikes me as being...well, pretty weird after watching the A's go a combined 37-15 in July and August.
The A's are hitting the long ball well enough these days, as they have 29 homers so far in September and an MLB-high 97 since the All-Star break. The problem they're having right now is that they're just not stringing together hits. Their .234 batting average in September ranks 24th in MLB.
Making matters worse is the fact that their starting pitching staff is uncharted waters. With Bartolo Colon, Brandon McCarthy and Brett Anderson all out of commission, the A's are relying on four rookies and a veteran of the Korean Baseball Organization who also happens to be a native Australian.
Even for Billy Beane, this is a pretty weird recipe for success.
Last 10: 4-6
The Nationals don't look like a hot team at first glance. They've alternated wins and losses in their last seven games, and these seven games were preceded by a three-game sweep at the hands of the Braves.
However, a closer look at Washington's struggles will show that things aren't so bad in D.C. these days. The Nats have lost six out of 10, to be sure, but their five losses to the Braves and the Brewers can be forgiven because Atlanta and Milwaukee are two of the hottest teams in baseball.
The Nats didn't exactly embarrass themselves in those five losses, either. Atlanta's average margin of victory in its sweep of the Nats was a mere two runs, and both of the games the Nats lost to the Brew Crew were close contests.
What these losses reaffirm is that there is no team that the Nats can't compete against. Just in case you weren't convinced by their MLB-best 93-60 record, of course.
If there is a reason to be concerned about the Nats these days, it's tied to the fact that their starting pitching staff has posted an uncharacteristically mediocre 3.70 ERA in September, according to FanGraphs. The absence of Stephen Strasburg seems to be taking its toll (albeit in a non-catastrophic way).
On the bright side, Washington's offense is as potent as ever. Nationals hitters have racked up 115 runs and slugged 39 homers this month. No team in baseball has hit more balls over the fence in September.
So don't weep for the Nats. They're fine and dandy.
Last 10: 6-4
The Reds may be deeper than any other team in baseball, but they're not exactly lighting the world on fire as they speed towards their second postseason appearance in the last three years. It's like they've just decided to grab a few beers and listen to old Lou Reed tracks until the regular season is over.
The Reds are a respectable 11-9 so far in the month of September, to be sure, but in the last couple weeks, we've seen them drop series to Houston, Miami and the Dodgers. Poor hitting has had a lot to do with Cincinnati's sudden mediocrity, as Reds hitters have produced only 65 runs and a .228 batting average in the month of September.
The bright side is that the team's pitching is still a huge strength. Reds pitchers have a 3.07 ERA in September, and that's thanks mainly to the 1.81 ERA posted by the team's bullpen this month. Bear in mind that this with minimal help from human flamethrower Aroldis Chapman, which should give you an idea of just how good Cincinnati's bullpen really is.
Reds pitchers will have to keep the good work coming if the team is to finish strong. Before the season is over, the Reds have to take on a hot Brewers team and a Cardinals team that can swing the bats as well as any team in the Senior Circuit.
Oh, and don't think the Reds have nothing to play for just because they've won the NL Central. A division title is nice, but a division title and a No. 1 seed that comes with home-field advantage would be even better, especially seeing as how they have one of the best home records in all of baseball this year.
Last 10: 6-4
Over the last few days, people have begun to say things like "Watch out for those Rays!" and "Here come the Rays!" It's like they're a team of John Jacob Jingleheimer Smiths.
The Rays have everyone singing their praises because they're doing that thing that they usually do this time of year. They played possum in the first couple weeks of September, but they've since won five in a row over Boston and Toronto.
Apparently, beating these two teams is worthy of much praise. It's not like they're two of the worst teams in the American League, after all.
Let's be real about the Rays. What they're doing right now is beating up on defenseless teams. The Red Sox and Blue Jays have 14 wins between them this month, and both clubs are dealing with team ERAs over 5.00 in September.
That makes them ill-equipped to compete with anybody, much less a Rays team that has a solid 3.26 ERA in September. Their starters have a 3.20 ERA this month and are responsible for nine of the 12 wins the Rays have earned.
Tampa Bay's true test will come in its final seven games. The first four are on the road against the White Sox, and the last three are at home against the Orioles.
The Rays shouldn't be disregarded as a threat in the AL wild-card race, but they shouldn't be feared until they start beating some teams their own size.
Last 10: 5-5
As the Cardinals were as cold as can be not too long ago, the Phillies were as hot as can be not too long ago, winning 15 out of 19 in late August and early September. With their pitching staff intact and performing well for the first time in a long time, they looked like a legit threat.
And then they lost three out of four to the Astros for no good reason. They managed to redeem themselves with a three-game sweep of the Mets after that, but this past weekend saw them lose two out of three to the Braves.
There's no shame in losing to the Braves these days, but Philly's postseason prospects suddenly aren't looking so hot. The Phillies' good vibes have all but disappeared in the wreckage of a 5-5 showing in their last 10 games.
They now find themselves 5.5 games out of the NL wild-card race and on the lookout for answers.
Their pitching isn't the problem. Phillies pitchers have a 2.88 ERA in September, third-best in baseball. For their part, Phillies hitters have accounted for 104 runs this month for an average of 4.95 per game.
If the Phillies keep on as they've been keeping on both at the mound and at the plate, they should be able to stay in this thing until the bitter end.
Then again, the Nats may have other ideas. The Phillies have to play them six times between now and the end of the season.
Last 10: 7-3
Not too long ago, the Cardinals were as cold as cold can be. They lost eight of 10 at one point, thus inviting the wolves to close in around them in the NL wild-card race. They were basically doing an impression of Liam Neeson from The Grey.
Right about now, the Cards are thanking the baseball gods for giving unto them the Astros and Cubs. They've proven to be just the kind of punching bag that the Cardinals were looking for.
The Cardinals are currently in the midst of a stretch of nine games against Houston and Chicago, and so far they've won six of seven. They've allowed an average of 2.57 runs in the seven games.
Granted, because these are the Astros and Cubs we're talking about, the Cardinals' recent hotness must be taken for what it's worth. Just because the Cardinals are capable of beating up on them doesn't mean they're capable of beating up on teams like, say, the Nationals and the Reds.
Then again, we'll find out. When the Cardinals return home for a season-ending six-game homestand later this week, they'll get to test themselves against none other than the Nats and the Reds.
They'll have to get used to playing, you know, actual big leaguers again.
Last 10: 6-4
Few people outside the state of Arizona are paying the Diamondbacks much attention these days. As far as most of the general public is concerned, the Diamondbacks were out of the race weeks ago.
Uh, not so much. The D-Backs are still in this thing, and they're not going down without a fight.
Even after its loss to Colorado on Monday night, Arizona has still won six of eight and eight of 12 overall. The D-Backs are scoring roughly 5.5 runs per game in September, and their pitchers have only surrendered 16 home runs this month.
Aaron Hill and Justin Upton are doing much of the heavy lifting, as both of them have OPS's over .900 and have combined for eight home runs and 25 RBI. Miguel Montero has pitched in 14 RBI of his own despite the fact he only has one home run this month.
The D-Backs are still 5.5 games out in the NL wild-card hunt, but they can't be counted out because of what their schedule looks like in the season's final days. They get to close things out with six home games against the Cubs and Rockies, who are a combined 14-31 in September.
The D-Backs are a long shot, but they've earned the right to keep playing for at least a few more days.
Last 10: 6-4
Because the Rangers are just 13-9 in September and 6-4 in their last 10 games, it looks like they're playing merely good baseball. As opposed to, you know, great baseball.
However, such small snippets have a tendency to be misleading when it comes to the Rangers. They haven't tended to put together long winning streaks this season, but one thing they've managed to do better than any other team in the American League is avoid losing streaks.
That's a proud tradition the Rangers are continuing these days. They've won four out of six and five out of eight after their walk-off win against the A's on Monday night. The last time they lost more than two games in a row was back in the middle of August when they dropped three straight to the Yankees. To date, that's still the only three-game losing streak they've suffered in the second half.
In September, the Rangers have played typical Rangers baseball. Their pitching staff has a respectable 3.88 ERA, and their hitters have produced 34 home runs. Only the Nationals have slugged more long balls this month.
This is why it seems like the A's and the Angels can never make up any ground in the AL West. They can get as hot as they want, but it appears no hot streak will ever be good enough to overcome the Rangers and their perpetual warmness.
Last 10: 7-3
Sound the alarm! The Orioles have lost two out of three!
Oh, sorry. Got a little overexcited there. After all, the O's entered their doubleheader against the Blue Jays on Monday as winners of nine of their last 12 games and 21 out of their last 30. I was under the impression that they couldn't do something as horribly embarrassing as losing two out of three.
Lest you think I'm overstating how embarrassing things are for the O's right now, let the record show that they lost to Ricky Romero on Monday. Good teams aren't supposed to do things like that.
This is not to say that the O's are disqualified from being a good team, of course. They're still within striking distance of the Yankees at 1.5 games off the pace in the AL East, and they can rest easy knowing that at the very least their offense is coming to play these days. The O's lead all of baseball in runs scored in September, and only the Rangers and Nationals have hit more home runs.
The Orioles should be able to stay hot. Their next five games are all at home, and they're against Toronto and Boston.
Combined, the Jays and Red Sox have one fewer win than the Orioles do this month. If the O's can't beat them...well, I guess I'll have to take back those mean things I say about the Rays, won't I?
Last 10: 8-2
The Yankees went 5-9 to close out August, and they then opened September by going 4-6 in their first 10 games.
The universe appeared to be on the verge of imploding back into itself, which science tells us wouldn't be a good thing for anybody.
But don't worry. We're safe. The Yankees have since won 10 of 12. One of the games they lost was started by David Price, and the other loss came against a ticked-off A's team. Such losses can be forgiven.
In addition to all the wins, it seems like the Yankees are getting more good news every day. Ichiro is swinging the bat like it's 2004, CC Sabathia was excellent the last time he took the mound, and Andy Pettitte has allowed zero earned runs in 11 innings since he was activated off the disabled list.
Things were looking awfully dire for the Bombers for a while there, but not so much anymore.
And it gets even better. The rest of the way, they only play the Twins, Blue Jays and Red Sox. In some circles, these three teams are known as "Tweedledee," "Tweedledum" and "Tweedledepressing."
Last 10: 7-3
Whatever you do, don't call them the "Barves" right now. Such mockery has no business being tied to the Braves these days.
The Braves have won 14 of 21 games this month, and in the last couple weeks they've pulled off a sweep of the Nationals and outpitched the Phillies. Such things aren't so easily done.
Atlanta's pitching is certainly at the center of the team's fine run in September. Braves pitchers have compiled a 2.70 ERA this month, and it's been a complete effort. Their starters have a 3.22 ERA in September, and their relievers have an MLB-best 1.62 ERA. Craig Kimbrel has yet to give up an earned run while striking out 18 in 9.1 innings pitched.
If you're scoring at home, that's a K/9 of 17.8. Kimbrel is pitching like a man who would rather not go through what he went through last September if he can help it.
The Braves aren't done yet. Their last nine games are against the Marlins, Mets and Pirates. Combined, the three of them have a record of 20-44 in September.
Last 10: 7-3
Hey, remember when the Angels were underachievers?
OK, fine, maybe you think they still are, but you won't if you restrict your point of view to what's happened in Anaheim over the last couple weeks. The Angels have won 14 of 21 this month and 22 of 31 dating back to the middle of August.
Because they were thriving so much on their offense for a few months, what's surprising about the success of the Angels this month is how much it's tied to their pitching staff. Angels starters have an MLB-best 2.55 ERA this month, and they're responsible for 12 of the Angels' 14 wins.
The Angels' pitching was particularly impressive in their recent sweep of the White Sox. Chicago scored only five runs in the three games it played in Anaheim, and all three games were won by Angels starters.
As a result of their efforts, the Angels have moved to within two games of the A's in the AL wild-card race with nine games still to play on their schedule. Six of those are against Seattle.
If Mike Trout and Albert Pujols can get going again, there may be no stopping the Angels. They look like the team they were supposed to be all along.
Last 10: 7-3
It feels like the Brewers suffered some kind of horrible defeat in splitting a four-game series at the Nationals, but in reality that was an acceptable result given the circumstances (i.e. the whole "best team in baseball" thing).
Just as important, Milwaukee's apparently eternal hotness is still alive and well. They've won seven of 10, 16 of 22 in September and 25 of 33 dating back to August.
The Brewers have their bats to thank for their September hotness. Only the Orioles have scored more runs than the Brewers have this month, and their .286 team average ranks second behind only the Giants. Rickie Weeks, Norichika Aoki, Ryan Braun, Aramis Ramirez and Corey Hart all have OPS's over .900 in September.
The Brew Crew finds itself 3.5 games out in the NL wild-card race after losing to the Nats only to watch the Cardinals win a few hours later, but it would be foolish to count the Brewers out now after how far they've come.
Let's wait at least a few more days before we do that. Their three-game series against Cincinnati over the next few days could kill their season for good.
Either that, or Milwaukee will keep its season on life support before heading home for six games against Houston and San Diego.
Last 10: 8-2
If there's a word to describe how hot the Giants have been lately, it's "incredihot."
"Magmalike" and "Shakira-esque" would also be acceptable.
Only the Brewers have won more games than the Giants this month, and the Giants deserve to be ranked ahead of them on this list for a couple reasons.
One: The Giants have been hotter lately. They've won 10 out of their last 12, and one of the losses was a game that featured their B-squad due to a massive celebration the night before.
Two: The Giants are swinging the bats just as well as the Brewers. Their .301 team batting average in September is tops among all MLB teams, and the Giants are also averaging 5.43 runs per game this month.
Three: The Giants have a 3.69 team ERA in September even despite the fact Ryan Vogelsong's ERA is still over 8.00 for the month.
That pretty well covers it. What's more, it's hard to imagine the Giants cooling down seeing as how their last nine games are against three beatable teams in Arizona, San Diego and the Dodgers.
It all depends on whether they feel like making a run at the NL's top seed, or if they feel like making like the Reds and going into "chillax" mode.
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