Inside the NL East Standings: Like a Stone

Inside the NL East Standings: Like a Stone

Like a stone, as in the Phillies' playoff hopes are sinking like one. Of course they're not finished, but this is as bad as things have been. Four games under .500 is the furthest below the mark the Fightins have fallen all season, last reaching this low point after a 2-1 loss against San Diego on May 12. The last time they were 8.5 back was June 1... 2007.

Meanwhile, the Nationals own their largest lead of the season in the NL East at three games, and they are starting to build a case for legitimacy. Washington is 13-6 over the past 19, winning six of seven to top it off. Their success prompts a new question: no, not are the Phillies out of it, but at what point does the immediate focus shift to a Wild Card berth?

'07 stands out because, as everybody knows, "the team to beat" went on to win the division that year. However, their remarkable run to the playoffs was aided in great part by their foe at the time, the New York Mets, whose epic collapse enabled the Phils to sneak in on the final day of the season. The Mets watched like helpless bystanders as a seven-game lead melted away over little more than two weeks in September.

It could happen to anyone, I suppose, including the Nationals. There's a big difference in 2012 though, that being Washington is more like Philadelphia in '07 than the present-day Phillies are. Young, hungry, and eager to prove they belong, there's a lot of baseball left to play, but they don't appear to be going anywhere without a fight.

Perhaps the greatest difference is what, or whom, is driving each team? The catalyst for the Nationals during their recent surge has been Bryce Harper, who over the past 19 games has seen his batting average rise from .230 to .295, to go along with 18 runs, four home runs, and 19 RBI. The Phillies, what's left of them anyway, all seem to be asleep at the wheel, and if you're expecting Chase Utley or Ryan Howard to serve as a spark in a similar manner, we're talking about 30-somethings coming off of injuries, not a 19-year-old perennial All Star-in-the-making.

The answer to our question at the top depends on how you feel about the rest of the clubs in the East, but the time has come to admit the Nats could be a force to be reckoned with this year. None of this matters if the Phillies don't start to pick up the pieces themselves, but even if they turn the ship around and fast, they may have given Washington too big of a head start.

Twins (24-35)

Minnesota spent a good portion of the early part of the season as the worst team in baseball, and still own the worst record in the AL, but I wouldn't be chalking up Phils victories just yet. The Twins are 9-3 in their last 12, and have been playing at a plus-.500 clip since mid-May. Theyve been feeding off a lower class of opponents, but it's not like the Fightins are vastly better right now.

The difference for Minnesota has been at the plate, specifically with a young player named Ben Revere. Revere bounced up and down between the big club and the minors, but since his call-up on May 17, he's been one of the more productive hitters in the league. The 24-year-old centerfielder leads the club with a .327 average and nine stolen bases, and for the month of June, he cracks the top five for hits and runs in the American League.

Pitching is their downfall though. The Twins have the worst ERA in the league, and the only starter in their rotation with an ERA under 4.00 is Scott Diamond, who is 5-1 with a 1.61 ERA. Naturally, the Phils will catch the 25-year-old rookie in Game 3.

Blue Jays (31-30)

Toronto has taken a roller-coaster ride to it's .500-ish record. Ranking third in the AL in run production, and second in home runs, the Jays have the ability to break out for double-digit runs on any given night. Their dangerous lineup is powered by RF Jose Bautista and DH Edwin Encarnacion, who are both tied for fourth with an identical 17 home runs and 44 RBI -- though Bautista is more boom or bust, sporting a .228 average this season.

The Blue Jays haven't been able to get consistent production out of their pitching staff though. Unlike the Twins and Orioles, they're not littered with starters who have astronomical earned run averages, but they are lacking that dominant presence. If you can get to those guys, Toronto owns one of the worst bullpens in the league, currently ranked 13th in the AL.

On deck: vs. Colorado, vs. Tampa Bay, vs. Pittsburgh, @ Miami

NHL Notes: Desperate Senators hoping to avoid elimination

NHL Notes: Desperate Senators hoping to avoid elimination

OTTAWA, Ontario -- Guy Boucher has typically kept his team off the ice on off-days during the postseason. Not Monday.

The Ottawa coach opted for a half-hour practice ahead of Game 6 on Tuesday night to help his team "refresh" and "reload" after a 7-0 beating by Pittsburgh, one of the worst losses in team playoff history. Players thought the practice, as well as an encouraging chat beforehand, helped wipe the slate clean as they prepare for an elimination game. The Penguins lead the Eastern Conference final 3-2 and can return to the Stanley Cup Final with a win.

"We can't be sitting in our mud puddle," Boucher told The Canadian Press after practice. "We've got to get up and go."

Reloading against an opponent vying for back-to-back Stanley Cups means reverting back to strengths of the club. In Sunday's blowout loss, Boucher said, he thought his team tried to trade goals with the high-scoring Penguins -- an odd choice for a Senators team that thrives on shutting down opponents.

"If we stay away from our strengths there's no chance," Boucher said on Monday. "We're aware of that. We got slapped -- hard enough. The reality sets back in" (see full story).

NHL: Former All-Star Bill White dies at 77
CHICAGO -- Bill White, a former Chicago Blackhawks all-star defenseman and a member of Canada's 1972 Summit Series team, has died. He was 77.

The Blackhawks announced White's death Monday.

White, a Toronto native, started his career with the Los Angeles Kings in 1967 before being traded to Chicago during the 1969-70 season. He formed an imposing tandem on the Blackhawks' blue line with Pat Stapleton and helped the team reach the playoffs in all seven of his seasons in Chicago.

He appeared in six consecutive All-Star games between 1969 and 1974 and briefly served as head coach of the Blackhawks for the final 46 games of the 1976-77 season.

White finished his career with 50 goals, 215 assists and 495 penalty minutes in 604 NHL games with Los Angeles and Chicago, adding seven goals and 32 assists in 91 playoff appearances.

"The Chicago Blackhawks organization extends its thoughts and heartfelt condolences to Bill White's family as we mourn his loss," the team said. "He will be remembered as a leader, generous teammate and tough player to play against. His energetic style helped the Blackhawks see great success during his tenure with the team."

He joined Canada's squad for the 1972 Summit Series against the Soviet Union after Game 1, finishing with a series-best plus-7 defensive rating while acting as a key part of Canada's penalty-killing unit.

NFL Notes Rams' All-Pro Aaron Donald skips OTAs amid contract talks

NFL Notes Rams' All-Pro Aaron Donald skips OTAs amid contract talks

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- All-Pro defensive lineman Aaron Donald has skipped the Los Angeles Rams' first day of organized team activities while he negotiates a long-term contract extension with the club.

Rams general manager Les Snead says the team knew Donald wouldn't be at their training complex Monday.

Snead acknowledged Donald's absence is because of their contract negotiations, which are reaching "the serious part." The GM is confident Donald will be a long-term fixture on the Rams' line.

The Rams exercised their fifth-year option for 2018 on Donald last month. He will make nearly $7 million next year. Snead has repeatedly said the Rams plan to sign Donald to a long-term deal.

Donald is a three-time Pro Bowler and a two-time All-Pro in his three-year career.

Vikings: Zimmer takes time off after latest eye surgery
MINNEAPOLIS -- Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer finally relented, taking some time away from the team to allow his right eye a proper recovery from his latest surgery.

Better in the spring than during the fall, he realized.

As Zimmer departed Monday for some rest and relaxation at his vacation ranch in rural Kentucky, general manager Rick Spielman said the organization anticipates a return by Zimmer "in a few weeks." Players will take the field Tuesday for the first of 13 scheduled offseason practices, including the three-day mandatory minicamp that runs June 13-15.

"We all agree Mike's health is the priority, and we believe rest and recovery are in his best interest for the long term," Spielman said.

Zimmer directed a free youth football camp Saturday at team headquarters. He revealed to reporters that he underwent an eighth procedure on the eye last week, a trying seven-month stretch that has included several unplanned operations (see full story).

Jets: Former 2nd-round pick Smith waived
FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Wide receiver Devin Smith has been waived from the injury list by the New York Jets.

A second-round draft pick from Ohio State in 2015, Smith rarely saw the field for the Jets. He tore his ACL during the offseason workout program after he appeared in four games last season. He started that season on the physically unable to perform list while rehabbing from another ACL tear suffered in December 2015.

If Smith clears waivers, he would revert to the Jets' injured reserve list.

"It's bad luck and bad timing because the kid worked so hard to get back," coach Todd Bowles said last month during the NFL draft. "He has to persevere and adversity will help him get stronger. But unfortunately in this game, over my course of time playing and coaching, you see these types of things. Some of the best athletes get hurt and don't get a chance to get on the field, and it's just bad timing, bad luck."

The Jets also re-signed wide receiver WR Deshon Foxx on Monday. Foxx originally signed with the Jets in January and was waived May 9. The Connecticut product first signed with Seattle 2015 after going undrafted and was waived/injured with a hamstring injury that August.

Buccaneers: TE Howard signs rookie deal
TAMPA, Fla. -- Tight end O.J. Howard has signed his rookie contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Howard, who was the 19th overall pick in last month's NFL draft, signed a four-year deal on Monday that includes a team option for a fifth season. He is the first of Tampa Bay's six draft picks to sign.

Howard, who is 6-foot-6 and 251 pounds, was a third-team Associated Press All-America selection last season. He started 12 of Alabama's 14 games last season and had 45 receptions for 595 yards and three touchdowns.

The drafting of Howard and signing DeSean Jackson in free agency should give Jameis Winston more options in Tampa Bay's passing game.

The Buccaneers also announced that defensive end Jacquies Smith has signed his restricted free agent tender.