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)

Best of NHL: Matt Murray, Penguins cruise past Habs

Best of NHL: Matt Murray, Penguins cruise past Habs

MONTREAL -- Eric Fehr and Jake Guentzel scored in the second period to lead the Pittsburgh Penguins past the Montreal Canadiens 4-1 on Wednesday night.

Defensemen Ian Cole and Olli Maatta also scored for Pittsburgh, which won its second game in a row after a three-game skid.

Sven Andrighetto scored for Montreal, which lost its second straight and has only two wins in its last six games. The Canadiens' offense remained in a rut coming off a 1-0 loss Monday in Detroit.

Penguins goalie Matt Murray was back in form after Monday's wild 8-7 win over Washington, making 19 saves. But Carey Price's woes continued as Pittsburgh outshot Montreal 26-20. Price allowed three or more goals for the eighth time in 10 games (see full recap).

Vanek, Nielsen lead Wings over Bruins
DETROIT -- Thomas Vanek and Frans Nielsen scored in a shootout, lifting the Detroit Red Wings to a comeback 6-5 win over the Boston Bruins on Wednesday night.

The Red Wings rallied from 3-0 and 4-1 deficits in the first period, and with 3:04 remaining in regulation, Gustav Nyquist scored to pull them into a tie.

In the shootout, Tuukka Rask and Petr Mrazek stopped the first shots they faced before Vanek scored for the Red Wings and Brad Marchand countered with a goal for the Bruins. Nielsen, who like Vanek joined the team last summer as a free agent, scored on the team's third attempt and Vatrano missed the net with a chance to extend the 1-on-1 duels.

The Bruins were dominant early before blowing a chance to keep Detroit at a distance in the Atlantic Division standings (see full recap).

Burns, Pavelski push Sharks past Kings
LOS ANGELES -- Brent Burns, Joe Pavelski and Tommy Wingels scored in the San Jose Sharks' seventh win at Staples Center in their last eight trips, 3-2 over the Los Angeles Kings on Wednesday night.

Joe Thornton had two assists and Martin Jones made 22 saves for the defending Western Conference champion Sharks, who wrapped up their regular-season series against their biggest rivals with three victories in five games.

After Burns scored his 19th goal in the opening minutes, San Jose hung on through a scoreless third period to continue its recent domination in downtown Los Angeles, including three victories in last season's first-round playoff series.

Tanner Pearson and Marian Gaborik scored for the Kings, who ended a seven-game homestand with four defeats (see full recap).

McDavid scores in OT, Oilers edge Panthers
EDMONTON, Alberta -- Connor McDavid scored the winning goal in overtime as the Edmonton Oilers won their fourth game in a row, 4-3 over the Florida Panthers on Wednesday night.

McDavid, who also had two assists in the game, got a breakaway late in overtime and got the puck away with 2.6 seconds left. Florida's James Reimer made the glove save, but the puck was ruled to be across the line via video review.

Zack Kassian, Mark Letestu and Jordan Eberle also scored for the Oilers, who have their longest winning streak since December 2015.

Vincent Trocheck, Michael Sgarbossa and Greg McKegg had goals for the Panthers, who have lost two straight (see full recap).

Joel Embiid, Sixers prove plenty with benchmark win over Raptors

Joel Embiid, Sixers prove plenty with benchmark win over Raptors

BOX SCORE

The Sixers weren’t supposed to beat the Raptors, were they? This was going to be an “easy” game for the visiting team, which was coming to Philadelphia on a back-to-back that started in Brooklyn. The Raptors are a playoff team, and second in the Eastern Conference at that. Not to mention, they had defeated the Sixers in their last 14 meetings.

Maybe easy would have been the case the last time the two teams played back in mid-December. For the Sixers, though, things have changed since then and a 94-89 win over the Raptors on Wednesday proved this recent success is not fleeting (see Instant Replay).

“I don’t think it’s a fluke,” Joel Embiid said. “We’re competing. We’re winning games. We’re playing great defense. We finally found what we’ve been looking for.”

The Sixers had been missing clearly-defined roles and a defensive identity (see story). Now that Brett Brown has whittled down his roster to 10 players and laid out a starting five and second unit, the team has been gelling in those two aspects. The Sixers have won seven out of their last nine games, with the Raptors being the highest caliber of competition.

The Raptors entered the game averaging 111.5 points per game, first in the East and third in the NBA behind only the Warriors and Rockets. They had scored less than 100 points in just seven games this season. Additionally, the Raptors had been held to under 90 points by a single opponent: the Spurs. Not bad company to be in. 

Embiid led all players with 26 points (including 12 for 14 from the free throw line) to go with nine rebounds (see highlights). The Sixers staved off 25 points (11 for 21 from the field), six assists and three rebounds from DeMar DeRozan and 24 points (11 for 16 from the line), four rebounds, four assists and five steals from Kyle Lowry, who fouled out. The Raptors shot 25 percent from three and 65.2 percent at the free throw line.  

“We’re playing with a spirit, we’re playing with a defensive mindset,” Brown said. “There is a belief within each other amongst the team that is the best that it’s been since I’ve been here.”

The Sixers' winning stretch began against subpar teams, opponents who earlier in the season some would look at the schedule and say, the Sixers could probably take that one, as they tried to project a batch of victories. The Sixers turned those wins over the Nuggets, Timberwolves and Nets into momentum and carried it into a matchup against the Knicks.

Even though the Knicks are looking lost this season, they still have veteran offensive firepower that can take over a game against a struggling opponent. The Sixers made noise by beating them at the buzzer, then escalated their performance against the postseason-hungry Hornets and Bucks. 

The Raptors are different, though. There is no questioning their success and potential to make a deep playoff run … again. Nonetheless, the Sixers handled this well-seasoned opponent with composure and confidence down the stretch. 

They stayed together when DeRozan hit a jumper with 1:53 to play to give the Raptors their first lead since the second quarter. The Sixers responded to the one-point deficit with a 7-0 run to push the edge up to six points with 20.7 seconds to go.

“I think it says we’re for real. It shows our consistency that we’ve built throughout the year,” Nerlens Noel said. “We’re relentless. We have a young group of guys that know how to play the game and play it the right way and will come out there and compete against anybody in this league. I think the perception should be a whole different one now.”

The Sixers showed they can compete with top talent. Their wins aren't just coming from teams at the bottom of the standings. 

"That gives us a lot of confidence," Embiid said. "Coming into the game, we had a lot of confidence. Winning against the second-best team in the East is just amazing. We’re going to keep on working."