Inside the NL East Standings: As Tight As It Gets?

Inside the NL East Standings: As Tight As It Gets?

You have to wonder how much longer things can stay the way they are now in the NL East, with all five clubs currently playing above .500, none more than three games out of first place. You have to go all the way back to 2005 to find the last time every team in the division was .500 or better after May, when rather amazingly they actually finished that way.

If something like that were to happen here again, it probably bodes well for the Phillies. The Braves won the pennant that season with 90 wins. The only time it's taken a lower total since then was in '07, when the Fightins edged out the Mets on the final day of the season with 89.

How exactly does that benefit the Phils? They're currently on pace to finish with 84, which in all likelihood wouldn't even be enough to qualify for a Wild Card berth, let alone come out on top of their division. Washington is currently on course to win 94.

The good news is they probably don't need to get to 102, and history suggests in such close races, they may not even need 90. The Phillies played better baseball in the month of May, finishing 16-11, and are possibly still on the upswing, going 12-6 over their last 18, so there is still time to put themselves in a favorable position, and as opponents beat up on one another, for others to fall around them.

Where they really need to improve is against their own division. The biggest difference in '05 was Atlanta's success against the rest of the East, going 42-33 against rivals. The Phillies were 38-37, and finished two games back. In fact, the team with the best record in the division has won it every year going back to '04, but these games are especially meaningful in a tight race. The Phils are 9-12 right now, but they have plenty of opportunity to head back in the right direction, beginning tonight against the Marlins.

Plus, help is on the way. As many followers have been quick to point out, the Phillies managed to hang within three games of first place, and 1.5 back of the second wild card, despite going without two of their biggest stars, while facing numerous injuries along the way. The longer the lead is tightly contested, the greater their chances to pull ahead quickly once reinforcements arrive.

vs. Miami (29-22)

The Phillies have seen every division opponent, including the Nats and Mets twice, since they last played the Marlins, taking two of three in their second series of the season. It's been a tale of two months for Miami though -- after going 8-14 in April, they just completed a best-in-Majors 21-8 May that elevated them back into contention for the NL East lead. Finishing a sweep over Washington yesterday didn't hurt matters, either.

The Marlins are just all-around hot right now. Tonight's starter, Mark Buehrle, had four of his five wins last month, and Carlos Zambrano, who goes on Sunday, went 3-1 with a 2.85 ERA. Offense allowed the less effective Ricky Nolasco and Josh Johnson to reach three wins in May as well. Hanley Ramirez and Giancarlo Stanton were among the most productive hitters in the NL over the past 31 days, both of them landing inside the top eight players for hits and RBI. They are a dangerous opponent on all fronts.

vs. LA Dodgers (32-19)

The Phillies recently received a bit of good news about their upcoming series with the Dodgers. National League MVP candidate Matt Kemp went on the 15-day DL this week, knocking LA's most potent offensive weapon out of the picture. That could also have a serious impact on two-time All Star Andre Ethier, who currently leads the league with 44 RBI.

It's always about pitching when you talk about the Dodgers though, and once again, they have one of the best staffs in baseball. The club's 3.20 ERA is second in the NL, and while everybody knows about Clayton Kershaw, their best stuff has come from an unlikely source. At 7-1 with a 2.14 ERA, 33-year-old Chris Capuano is in the midst of a career year. He's never finished a full season with an ERA below 3.95.

With or without Kemp, this figures to be a huge four-game series for the Phils against the club with the best record in the NL.

@ Baltimore (29-22)

The Orioles have been a pleasant surprise this season, but are currently mired in a five-game losing streak, and have dropped eight of their last 10. They've been tied for the AL East lead or ahead since May 6, and for much of April before that, but it won't last at this rate. As you can see, just like the NL East, all five teams are above .500.

Baltimore still has a pretty good team, with an offense keyed by a breakout season for centerfielder Adam Jones. The 26 year old already has 16 home runs (t-3rd) and 34 RBI (t-8th), and leads his team with a .314 average as well. Unfortunately, their pitching has become a sore spot of late, carrying a 4.16 ERA in the month of May. The Orioles allowed six or more runs in five of the previous 10 games, and at least four in all eight during this rough patch.

They still have the best bullpen in baseball (2.32 ERA), and Jason Hammel (6-2, 3.06) and Wei-Yin Chen (4-1, 3.31) have been quality up front, but the rest of the Orioles rotation has been horrendous.

On Deck: @ Minnesota (18-32), @ Toronto (27-24), vs. Colorado (21-29)

Vince Velasquez feels the heat in Phillies' Sunday loss to Pirates

Vince Velasquez feels the heat in Phillies' Sunday loss to Pirates

BOX SCORE

PITTSBURGH --- Vince Velasquez wasn’t able to stand the heat Sunday afternoon.

The game-time temperature was 89 degrees with humidity to match at PNC Park. The Phillies' right-hander admitted he didn’t handle the weather well.

"You're going to go through various conditions, and it's something that you've got to really take into consideration -- to really lock in, stay hydrated because it can mentally drain you,” Velasquez said. “It kind of took a toll on me but I have to make the best of what I've got.”

Velasquez wound up pitching six innings in the blistering heat but did not factor in the decision as the Pittsburgh Pirates beat the Phillies 5-4 on pinch-hitter Adam Frazier’s leadoff home run in the seventh inning, his first in the major leagues, off fellow rookie Edubray Ramos (see Instant Replay).

Velasquez had his worst of his five starts since coming off the disabled list June 26, allowing four runs and seven hits while walking four and striking out five. He threw 107 pitches, 64 for strikes.

In his first four outings after begin activated, he was 3-0 with a 1.88 ERA to raise his record to 8-2.

“Just looking at his body language, he showed that he was struggling to find the strike zone,” Phillies manager Pete Mackanin said. “He didn't have his best location. He did a good job; he just made a couple bad pitches when they scored the two runs. Obviously, he wasn't at his best, but he kept us in the game.”

While that kind of outing can breed confidence in a 24-year-old pitcher, Velasquez took no consolation in it. He was bothered about not being able to hold a 4-2 lead in the bottom of the sixth inning, giving up a tying two-run home run to Matt Joyce.

“I knew it was my last inning when I went out there and I have to be able to close it out there,” Velasquez said. “I’m disappointed in that. I need to be better in that situation.”

Joyce’s blast came on pitch after Starling Marte doubled on an 0-2 pitch. That, too, annoyed Velasquez.

“That's just a matter of finishing at-bats,” Velasquez said. “You've got to lock in on 0-2 counts when you're ahead. You've got to finish the at-bat. Knowing that that was my last inning, that's where you have to bear down and give it all you've got.”

Ramos then gave up the game-winning homer to Frazier an inning later, the first long ball given up by the 23-year-old right-hander in 14 career outings. The Phillies wound up losing two of three games in the series and are 3-7 since the All-Star break to drop to 10 games under .500 at 45-55 through 100 games.

“It’s a game we should have won but I put us in position to lose it,” Velasquez said.

Dallas Cowboys bus involved in fatal crash in Arizona

Dallas Cowboys bus involved in fatal crash in Arizona

KINGMAN, Ariz. -- Four people were killed Sunday when bus carrying Dallas Cowboys staffers but no players collided with a van on a northwestern Arizona highway.

The fatalities were passengers in the van, Arizona Department of Public Safety spokesman Quentin Mehr said. But the bus occupants emerged uninjured.

"All on the bus came through OK with some bumps and bruises," Cowboys spokesman Rich Dalrymple (DAHL'-rimp-ul) said in an email.

Dalrymple said the bus was only carrying members of the franchise's staff but would not say how many. There were no players on board.

The two vehicles collided in the afternoon on U.S. 93, about 30 miles north of the city of Kingman, according to DPS.

The crash shut down at least one lane of the highway that serves as the main route between Phoenix and Las Vegas.

The bus was on its way to a Dallas Cowboys fan event in Las Vegas. Charles Cooper, manager of GameWorks entertainment center in Vegas, said the session with 50 to 75 fans was scheduled for 3 p.m. PDT. People were already waiting when the president of a Las Vegas Cowboys fan club called to relay news of the accident. The event was subsequently canceled. Cooper says the team mascot was supposed to appear.

After the Las Vegas stop, the bus was scheduled to go on to Oxnard, California for the team's training camp. Members of the organization typically take a bus two weeks before the camp starts and make stops along the way.

Report: Phillies preparing for possible Jeremy Hellickson trade to Marlins

Report: Phillies preparing for possible Jeremy Hellickson trade to Marlins

Jeremy Hellickson may be staying in the NL East past the trade deadline. 

Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports reported that the Phillies are scouting the Marlins' minor league teams in advance of a possible Hellickson deal. 

This comes on the heels of a report from a radio host in Miami that Marlins starter Wei-Yin Chen may need Tommy John surgery. Chen left with an elbow sprain during Wednesday's loss to the Phillies and was placed on the disabled list. Ironically, Chen was starting against Hellickson, who will face Jarred Cosart in place of Chen on Monday.

Hellickson's value rebounded significantly this season after struggling in Arizona and Tampa Bay the last few seasons. After dealing with a shoulder injury, Hellickson pitched to ERAs above 4.50 in each season from 2013-15, leading to the Diamondbacks trading him to the Phillies for limited value. 

However, in 20 starts, Hellickson, who will be a free agent after the year, has anchored the Phillies' rotation, bringing a 3.84 ERA over 119 ⅔ innings into Monday's scheduled start. He also has a nearly career-best strikeout rate and has regained his signature command that made him a strong performer with the Rays.

The Phillies are aided this trade deadline by a lack of starting pitching options available on the market. With many teams in contention looking for an additional starter, Hellickson is an attractive piece who could help a team in a pennant race.