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 NBA: DeRozan scores career-high 43 points in Raptors' win

Best of NBA: DeRozan scores career-high 43 points in Raptors' win

TORONTO -- DeMar DeRozan scored a career-high 43 points and the Toronto Raptors rallied from a 17-point deficit to beat the Boston Celtics 107-97 on Friday night.

DeRozan shot 15 of 28 from the floor as he surpassed his 42-point effort against the Houston Rockets on March 30, 2015, helping the Raptors overcome the absence of fellow All-Star Kyle Lowry. Lowry sat out with a right wrist injury.

Serge Ibaka, acquired by trade from the Orlando Magic last week, scored 15 points in his debut, while fellow newcomer P.J. Tucker, picked up from the Phoenix Suns on Thursday, had a game-high 10 rebounds and nine points in his first game for his new team.

Isaiah Thomas scored 20 points for Boston, which also got 19 points each from Jae Crowder and Marcus Smart (see full recap).

Westbrook triple-double lifts Thunder over Lakers
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Russell Westbrook scored 17 points in his 28th triple-double of the season, and his new teammates fit in seamlessly as the Oklahoma City Thunder defeated the Los Angeles Lakers 110-93 on Friday night.

Westbrook also had 18 rebounds and 17 assists for the 65th triple-double of his career.

It was the first game for new Thunder players Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott, acquired Thursday in a trade with the Chicago Bulls. Gibson scored 12 points and McDermott added eight, even though they arrived Thursday night and weren't even available for shootaround on Friday.

Alex Abrines and Andre Roberson each set a career high with 19 points, and Steven Adams added 15 points and 10 rebounds for the Thunder.

D'Angelo Russell scored 29 for the Lakers (see full recap).

Pacers beat Grizzlies to snap six-game skid
INDIANAPOLIS -- CJ Miles made five 3-pointers and scored 17 points, Paul George had nine points and nine rebounds after remaining with Indiana following the trade deadline, and the Pacers snapped a six-game losing streak with a 102-92 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies on Friday night.

Monta Ellis finished with 16 points, Myles Turner scored 12, and Lavoy Allen, Jeff Teague and Thaddeus Young each added 10 for the Pacers.

The Pacers outscored the Grizzlies 64-42 across the middle two quarters and never relinquished their lead, leading by as many as 27 points in the second half. The Grizzlies finished the game shooting 41 percent from the floor (35 for 84).

Troy Daniels had 13 points for Memphis and Marc Gasol scored 12. Indiana outrebounded Memphis 50-39 and scored 29 points off 17 Grizzlies turnovers (see full recap).

Thrust into bigger role, Sixers' Holmes stars in win over Wizards

Thrust into bigger role, Sixers' Holmes stars in win over Wizards

BOX SCORE

For as much as the Sixers’ bigs are talked about, Richaun Holmes often is left out of the conversation. 

He’s not the centerpiece of the team like Joel Embiid nor was he heavily involved in trade talks like Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor. He is the backup center who bides his time on the bench and quietly stays ready when he gets the nod.

And on Friday, he was the standout player in the Sixers’ 120-112 win over the Wizards (see Instant Replay)

“He’s been sort of the person that people forget about because of the logjam of five men,” Brett Brown said. “We all sort of think, ‘Well, he should just accept it because he’s behind Joel and Nerlens and Jahlil. Good ol’ Richaun. Go to the D-League and it’s OK.’ And that doesn’t work. He’s a pro, he’s competitive. He’s handled it. He’s really been a wonderful teammate.”

Holmes was bumped up in the rotation following the trade of Noel to the Mavs. He moved into the second-unit role while Okafor started in place of the injured Embiid. 

Holmes recorded his first double-double with 12 points (6 for 9 from the field) and 10 rebounds (three offensive). He also blocked a career-high five shots, tying Embiid for the most by a Sixer this season. The second-year big man put together this impressive performance in 26 minutes off the bench. 

“Just play hard,” Holmes said of his approach. “Just go out there, show what you’ve been working on, play hard every second you’re out there. That’s the motto I’ve got.”

Holmes is averaging 16.1 minutes and has appeared in just 32 of the Sixers’ 57 games. This season he also spent time with the Delaware 87ers of the Development League to get playing time. Holmes embraced an opportunity similar to Friday’s a month ago when he scored 18 points in as many minutes against the Clippers. 

“I try to approach every game this season the same way, whether everybody was playing or people were hurt,” Holmes said. “Prepare like I’m going to play 30 minutes a game. I think having that mindset helped me to stay ready at all times and be aggressive when I had a chance.”

Brown did not rule out the possibility that Holmes could start at some point if he continues this production. The Sixers are limiting Okafor to 20 to 24 minutes per game, according to Brown. That, combined with Embiid’s injury, could lend itself to an increased role for Holmes. 

“I think in that environment, it wouldn’t seem out of the ordinary for Richaun to get a start from time to time,” Brown said. 

Even if he remains on the second unit, Holmes proved he can provide a spark off the bench. Dario Saric noted how Holmes’ impact on both ends of the floor bolsters the frontcourt in addition to a more offensively-minded Okafor (11 points, two rebounds). 

“I think he played unbelievably good in both ways,” Saric said. “Everybody knows he’s an elite guy finishing around the rim, and he stepped in Nerlens’ place, he replaced him unbelievably good. I hope he will get the same minutes for the next game because we have Jahlil, who is more like a post-up player, who likes more to score from the low-post block, and we for sure need some guy like Richaun who will play in both ways." 

Perhaps the person least surprised by Holmes' game was Holmes himself. It was the result he puts in long hours to produce.

“It’s all about the grind,” he said. “All about keep working, keep trying to move up, keep trying to get better every second and it’ll pay off.”