The Giantsweren't supposed to have enough hitting to complement their great pitching. TheMarlins were said to be too young. The Rangers were at least a year away. Andthe Rockies, well, they appeared to be buried back in May. Only the Marlins hada winning record a year ago, but they're all now genuine threats to play beyondthe first week of October. At week's end only two games separated the Rockies,Giants and Marlins in the NL wild-card race, and the Rangers had overtakenBoston in the AL race. Here's a closer look at baseball's most surprisingcontenders.
What to like:Through Sunday the rotation was seventh in the majors with a 4.09 ERA, thelowest in franchise history by 49 points. Troy Tulowitzki (18 homers since June6) has rediscovered his stroke from his rookie year in 2007. The club's rundifferential of +76 is the game's sixth best.
Surprise stat:The Rox are baseball's only team with four double-digit winners, and their 71quality starts tops the majors.
Unsung heroes:The bullpen. In the last year G.M. Dan O'Dowd has acquired a closer (HustonStreet), setup man (Rafael Betancourt) and lefty specialist (Joe Beimel)without giving up much. Betancourt hasn't allowed a run in nine appearances,and the pen's ERA, 4.79 before his July 23 acquisition from Cleveland, is 3.46since.
What to worryabout: They still have huge home-road offensive splits (48 points of battingaverage and 124 points of OPS).
What to like:Their ace, Josh Johnson (12--2, 2.85 ERA), is in the Cy Young discussion;shortstop Hanley Ramirez (10 multihit games in 11 games since Aug. 5) is givingthe team the production expected of a superstar; and rookie leadoff man ChrisCoghlan (a .420 hitter this month) is providing an unexpected boost. Also, NickJohnson, a deadline addition from the Nationals, has a .500 OBP with his newteam.
Surprise stat:Despite the loss of Kevin Gregg, last season's closer, the bullpen's 3.74 ERAis ninth best in the majors.
Unsung heros: DanMeyer and Kiko Calero. The two relievers were cut loose by the A's within fivemonths of each other in '08 but have emerged as forces in the Marlins' pen.Calero is striking out 11 batters per nine, and Meyer has a 2.76 ERA.
What to worryabout: Their defense, long a problem, is still trouble (74 errors, ninth mostin the majors).
Playoff odds: 5to 2.
What to like:That their starters, led by Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain, have the best ERA inbaseball (3.56) is no news flash. That their relievers (3.42) do as well is ahuge one.
Surprise stat:Everybody knows what a collection of free swingers they are, but to have only2.2 walks per game is absurd.
Unsung hero:Pitching coach Dave Righetti. Sure, he has the game's best one-two startingcombo, but the consistency of the rest of the staff has been remarkable. Thesuddenly stalwart bullpen ranked in the bottom third of most major categorieslast season.
What to worryabout: Even with the summer pickups of Ryan Garko and Freddy Sanchez, theGiants are last in runs scored since the All-Star break. Overall they're 29thin runs and homers, and last in OPS.
Playoff odds: 5to 1.
What to like:Their rotation has been brilliant. The staff's 4.13 ERA, 124 points lower thanlast year's, is the eighth best in baseball. They don't hit for a high average,but they've blended power and speed nicely.
Surprise stat:Through Sunday the Rangers had 106 stolen bases, the third most in baseball,and their 84.1% success rate was first. (They are also 9--3 against the Angels,7--2 against the Red Sox.)
Unsung heroes:Scott Feldman and Tommy Hunter. The righty-lefty power combo of Neftali Feliz(16 strikeouts, no walks, two hits allowed in his first 8 2/3 innings) andDerek Holland is the future of the rotation, but Feldman, 26, and Hunter, 23 (acombined 17--6 with a 3.41 ERA), have kept manager Ron Washington from beingtempted to rush his prize young arms.
What to worryabout: Thought to have an excess of quality catchers, the Rangers have gottenlittle production from the position, and now Jarrod Saltalamacchia is on the DLwith shoulder fatigue.
Playoff odds: 7to 5.
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DILIP VISWANAT/GETTY IMAGES (TULOWITZKI)
RECIPE FOR A RACE Tulowitzki's bat (left), Josh Johnson's arm and Ian Kinsler's legs are all essential to their teams' postseason hopes.
J PAT CARTER/AP (JOHNSON)
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TOM DIPACE (KINSLER)
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