The Philadelphia Phillies, as anticipated, have been baseball’s most consistently dominant team during the 2011 season.
Cliff Lee’s addition to the duo of Cole Hamels and Roy Halladay has been stark enough to overcome Chase Utley, Brad Lidge and Roy Oswalt’s otherwise costly injuries, and they again appear on a crash-course with the World Series.
Many other teams have begun to heat up with the weather of late, however, and have thrust themselves back into—or to the head of—divisional and/or wild card races as we head to and beyond the 2011 trading deadline.
Teams still have two more days to give their rosters a facelift and make a final playoff charge, but these 10 in many cases have a head start on the competition with a hot month of July under their belts.
Are these hot streaks just outliers to an otherwise disappointing season, or are they signs that there may be a few more contenders than expected in 2011’s pennant races?
Read ahead to see if your favorite team is truly “kicking butt” right now, or if they need to step their game up in order to make this exclusive list.
Note: The last 25 games played the central role in creating this list, but teams far exceeding expectations or dominating the end of June into a steady July were also considered.
Hot Streak: 14-10, 7-3 last 10 games in AL East
While 14-10 (.583 or 94-win full-season pace) may not seem like “kicking butt” to you at first glance, it becomes very impressive when considering their opponents in the month of July.
The Blue Jays have played the Rangers, Yankees, Indians, Red Sox and Phillies in 18 of those 24 games—with two more against Texas to finish up the month.
That is an incredible 20 games against current playoff contenders or division leaders in a single month of scheduling, and the Jays deserve a ton of credit for coming out on top over that stretch.
Jose Bautista is crushing the ball again in July, as has become expected, and their recent trade acquisition of big-time outfield prospect Colby Rasmus will only help to further enhance their offensive attack.
They have a lot of work to do to jump the Tampa Bay Rays for third place, let alone the Yankees or Red Sox, but the future is very bright for baseball’s only team still north of the border.
Hot Streak: 45-30 after very poor 13-19 start, 7-3 last 10 games
Paced by the outrageously impressive numbers of perennial sluggers Prince Fielder (23 HR, 74 RBI, .286 AVG, 0.948 OPS) and Ryan Braun (21 HR, 71 RBI, 65 R, .324 AVG, .985 OPS), the Brewers have been one of the NL’s best since a forgettable 13-19 beginning.
The suddenly rapid return of Zack Greinke to a dependable swing-and-miss arm has certainly helped turn the tide as well—lowering his ERA from 5.63 to 4.50 since a June 28th blowout loss to the Yankees.
The trio of Gallardo, Wolf and Marcum, however, deserve most of the credit for initially stabilizing the staff after word of Greinke’s spring training injury.
Milwaukee has taken advantage of the Reds’ run of bad luck and has subsequently held off the upstart Pirates and steady Cardinals to stay atop the NL Central by playing .600 baseball since May 6th.
Due to Greinke’s steep decent and the acquisition of Francisco Rodriguez to turn a possible bullpen weakness into a strength, it appears the Brewers are here to stay over 162 games.
Hot Streak: 20-13, including 14-5 in their last 19 road games
Where do we even begin with the New York Mets?
Jason Bay is flailing around like a fish out of water, David Wright missed a big chunk of time, promising young star Ike Davis likely will not return, Johan Santana hasn't thrown a pitch in 2011 and their closer and top offensive weapon are now wearing other teams’ jerseys.
Sounds like a team fighting for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 MLB First-Year Player Draft, right? Well what if I told you that they were four games above .500 with at least an outside shot at a wild card push?
Terry Collins deserves a ton of credit for holding this team together with gum, spit and duct tape, and their recent run of success is shocking to put it mildly.
A 20-13 record is a 98-win pace over a full season, and the Mets should be praised for continuing to fight through injuries, trade rumors, ownership questions and other nightmares.
This resiliency is very refreshing for a team more commonly known for their heartless collapses—proving how much a change in managerial attitude can impact a team’s success and confidence.
Hot Streak: 19-9, including 12-game winning streak (July 4th through July 19th)
The only reason the Texas Rangers are not higher up this list is due to the fact that they are just 4-6 in their last 10 games played.
Texas’ recent 19-9 stretch is baseball’s second-best over that time period, however, and it is impossible to overlook a 12-game winning streak in the first half of the month of July.
Josh Hamilton has overcome an emotional roller coaster after playing a part in the tragic and completely accidental death of a fan to have a big month, and Nelson Cruz has returned to sending shivers down the spines of opposing pitchers.
The one big problem for Texas is that a divisional opponent has been equally as dominant—if not more so—and they are one bad week away from losing their current standing as an “if the season ended today” playoff team.
Their offense will have to stay hot if they have any hope of holding off a pitching staff that boasts the expected AL Cy Young winner (Jered Weaver), the best No. 2 starter in the AL (Dan Haren) and someone who is fresh off a no-hitter (Ervin Santana).
Hot Streak: 18-9, including a +45 run differential during that span
In the "duh" category of the list, the Phillies have been doing this from opening day to present day—compiling a .629 baseball all year long.
Philadelphia lost Jayson Werth to free agency, Chase Utley and Brad Lidge to injury and is still waiting for Roy Oswalt to return from a back problem—which they hope will not be too much longer.
None of that has slowed down the juggernaut Phillies roster, however, as Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels have been more than enough to carry them through to MLB’s best overall record.
Can anything derail their season, or will they hoist their second World Series title in the last four years?
Only time will tell, but Ruben Amaro Jr. is one of the most aggressive GMs in baseball—so his recent acquisition of stud All-Star outfielder Hunter Pence has solidified their already stacked roster.
Hot Streak: 18-9, including a very impressive 11-3 on the road
Already the third NL East team to crack the Top 10, the Florida Marlins have been on fire in the past month—ironically doing most of their damage away from Sun Life Stadium.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the Marlins incredible stretch is the absence of ace Josh Johnson, who was having a Cy Young season before going down for the year in May with shoulder inflammation.
Even more surprising has been Hanley Ramirez awakening from his season-long coma to hit .301 with 5 HR, 21 RBI, a .393 OBP and ,920 OPS in the month of July—playing an integral part in the team’s recent success.
The Marlins have plenty of young talent, but it has not quite all come together for them in 2011. The future could be bright, so long as their new stadium is a success and opens up a little more payroll flexibility for them to actually keep that talent.
Hot Streak: 22-11, including 14-5 last 19 games at home
The Giants of 2011 personify resiliency, and I suppose we should expect nothing less from the reigning champions of baseball.
They have lost their catcher and offensive leader Buster Posey for the season—as well as spark plug Freddy Sanchez—but they just keep on winning in spite of their shortcomings.
Ranking just 28th in MLB in runs scored with just 380, San Francisco still has managed to play to the fifth best record in baseball—all while absorbing the league’s twelfth best run differential.
Their acquisition of Mets star Carlos Beltran for top prospect Zack Wheeler was a very bold move, and Brian Sabean is sending a clear message that the Giants are going full-bore for a repeat.
I have learned to never count this team out, and I still feel in my heart that they’re the only thing stopping the Phillies from an NL pennant in 2011.
Hot Streak: 24-11, 16-9 in the month of July
Boasting the American League’s best one-two punch on the mound with Jered Weaver (14-4, 1.79 ERA) and Dan Haren (10-6, 3.01 ERA), the Angels have sprinted right back into the playoff race.
A 24-11 (.686 or 111-win pace over a full season) stretch speaks for itself, but it is even more important considering how well their biggest competition has been playing down in Arlington.
They were able to pick up two games in the standings on a team that was 22-13 (.629) in their own right over the last 35 games, and that has put a lot of pressure on the Rangers to continue to hold off their relentless charge.
Ervin Santana’s no-hitter was the cherry on top of a hot July, and the No. 1 team ERA in the AL (and AL’s No. 4 bullpen ERA) has carried a very inconsistent offensive attack in Anaheim (11th in the AL).
I will never pick against a front-end of a pitching staff like the Angels have at their disposal, so I’m going to go out on a limb and say they take the AL West crown come season’s end.
Hot Streak: 23-12, including 15-4 in last 19 games at Turner Field
While many teams would be intimidated or discouraged by having MLB’s best team in their own division, the Atlanta Braves seem to thumb their nose at the perennial powerhouse.
Playing remarkable baseball over the last 35 games, the Braves have welcomed the resurrection of second baseman Dan Uggla—hitting .297 with a .380 OBP, 7 HR, 16 RBI and .961 OPS in July.
This has helped lead them to the National League’s best home record in the month, as well as remain within striking distance of the NL East divisional race.
Most prognosticators would say that Atlanta poses the biggest threat to a Phillies NL pennant chase outside of San Francisco, as their far superior bullpen and comparable team ERA can match up (at least on a competitive level) with Philadelphia in a seven-game series.
It will be fun to watch if Atlanta makes a splash before the deadline to counter Philadelphia and San Francisco’s moves for Hunter Pence and Carlos Beltran respectively, but they will remain a top contender for a World Series trip either way.
Hot Streak: 62-30, including an MLB-best 18-6 in July
Though the stampeding Red Sox were humbled in beginning the season 2-10, they are playing .674 baseball since stubbing their toe in the season's opening weeks—a pace generating 109 wins over a full season.
The Red Sox have not just been beating opponents over the past few months; they have been flat out bludgeoning them into submission. They followed up a +57 run differential in June with a +51 run differential in July, and are showing absolutely no signs of slowing down.
David Ortiz, Josh Beckett and Adrian Gonzalez have consistently dominated the league over the course of the year--with Gonzalez specifically posting numbers straight out of a video game. In fact, I'm not sure I could even have 50 extra-base hits and 87 RBI in 102 games on my Sony PlayStation.
Dustin Pedroia’s reemergence as an MVP player over the past month—with a .404 AVG, 8 HR, 19 RBI and a 1.202 OPS—has somehow made the already dominant Sox even better, which is a very daunting proposition for the fading Yankees (11-11 last 22 games).
They will continue to be a force to be reckoned with until the postseason begins, and there is not much doubt in my mind that they will be representing the American League in the World Series—barring injury of course.