Where do you look for the best record in the Major Leagues in a rapidly evolving season? Well, the same place where the stars at night shine big and bright.
Deep in the heart of Texas, to be specific, the two-time-defending American League champions are at it again, putting it all together on both sides of the ball, and they've overtaken the Dodgers as the club with the best standing in the land ... for now.
But does that make them the best in ball? Maybe, maybe not.
Consider that the Yankees, who on Sunday night somehow managed to not only score a few runs against but actually win a game started by R.A. Dickey, aren't far behind the Rangers. They have a 43-28 record and are sitting atop the tough AL East with a 2 1/2-game lead over Baltimore.
And don't count out the Dodgers. Sure, they've been in a funk lately, but who wouldn't be without the services of one of the best players in the game in outfielder Matt Kemp? It's been astounding to see the Dodgers keep it together for as long as they have, and Kemp is probably only a few more weeks away from returning. A case can still be made that they're right at the top of the heap, and they're still in charge in the National League West.
And what about the Nationals? Washington remains 41-29 and in first place in the NL East. Stephen Strasburg leads the league in strikeouts. The rest of the rotation has been lights-out. Michael Morse, who hit 31 home runs last year and just came back from a lat strain, hasn't even gotten hot yet.
But that doesn't necessarily make them the best in the Majors either. Maybe it's the Cincinnati Reds, who lead the NL Central and are getting a somehow-quiet Cy Young-caliber season from their ace, Johnny Cueto, who won again Saturday with seven innings of shutout ball over the Twins.
Maybe it's the Pittsburgh Pirates, who are just a game behind the Reds.
Maybe it's the White Sox, who added Kevin Youkilis on Sunday. Or maybe someone else.
For the third season, MLB.com has set up a panel of experts to vote on the top 15 teams each week. Three former Major League players -- Larry Dierker, Mitch Williams, and Frank Thomas -- are part of the process, as are columnist Peter Gammons and Carlton Thompson, vice president and executive editor of MLB.com. Former general manager and current MLB.com analyst Jim Duquette, along with MLB.com columnists Mike Bauman, Hal Bodley, Anthony Castrovince, Richard Justice, Matthew Leach and Jesse Sanchez are also part of the group.
Texas once again is getting hot at the right time. The Rangers have won 12 of 15 and went 14-4 in Interleague Play, which was the best mark in the Majors this year. On Sunday, they got three key RBIs from Leonys Martin, who was hitting ninth and wasn't even on the 25-man roster until recently. That's called depth.
The Bronx Bombers used a key home run from Robinson Cano to put the cherry on a balanced attack, and some might think they deserve the top spot in this poll simply for getting to Dickey, who had been historically good of late. More key to the Yanks' fortunes have been the settling of Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova into a solid rotation, the successful return of Andy Pettitte and Rafael Soriano's stellar work since taking over the closer's role.
Pundits might be jumping off this train, but can they hold on long enough for Kemp to come back and reinvigorate them? The pitching is still good and will get better when starter Ted Lilly and relievers Javy Guerra, Blake Hawksworth and Matt Guerrier return. In other words, there's still a lot to like about manager Don Mattingly's club.
Good starting pitching can do wonders, and great starting pitching, well, it can make some people believe you're the best team in baseball even when your highest-priced hitter, Jayson Werth, is sidelined, and another one of your biggest bats, Ryan Zimmerman, is in a prolonged slump that might be more about his shoulder than anything else.
The imminent return of outfielder Drew Stubbs should help a team that's getting a historic season from Joey Votto, whose on-base percentage is at .484, and a 3.57 team ERA that ranks fifth in the National League.
The biggest disappointment of the early season has been one of the biggest stories in recent weeks. The Angels, buoyed by huge contributions from rookie Mike Trout and second-year slugger Mark Trumbo, are back in the thick of it, having won 11 of 15. Jered Weaver is back. And oh yeah, Albert Pujols (remember him?) has 44 RBIs.
They lost one of their relievers for eight games because of pine tar, but the Rays and their 3.50 team ERA, good for second in the AL behind the Angels (3.42), are sticking on this list because they find a way to win games. A Sunday doubleheader sweep of the Phillies gave Joe Maddon's squad momentum; will All-Star third baseman Evan Longoria, who has experienced a setback in his rehab, soon follow?
Buck Showalter's Birds continue to hang in there in the AL East and continue to believe they're a winning team. That might be more than half the battle, and when they can pull out games the way they did Sunday, beating the Nationals in a nail-biter, that only helps. Two quick ones this week against the Angels and a home series against Cleveland will give Baltimore more opportunities to keep surprising.
Matt Cain wasn't perfect after his perfect game, but he was pretty darn good, particularly Sunday, and all things seem to be fine with San Francisco's starting staff. Even Tim Lincecum, maybe. "The Freak" rebounded after a tough first inning in his last start and could build on that, which would be dangerous for the rest of the league. Offensively, where would this team be without Melky Cabrera? It's difficult to wonder.
Chicago finished the weekend at 38-34, giving them a half-game lead over Cleveland in the AL Central. Most important, though, was the bold move by general manager Ken Williams to trade for Kevin Youkilis. The White Sox immediately have upgraded their third-base situation and get a playoff-tested veteran and offensive force who also knows how to fit into a clubhouse.
R.A. Dickey on Sunday proved even power knuckleballers are human, but that doesn't mean he won't pitch in the All-Star Game, and it certainly doesn't mean his Mets are out of the October conversation. The Amazin's are 39-34 and in second place in the division. Now they'll see if Bobby Parnell can handle the closing job with Frank Francisco on the disabled list.
One of the main reasons Boston made the Youkilis trade was the emergence of rookie third baseman Will Middlebrooks. With Middlebrooks now officially unchallenged at the hot corner, a good fill-in option with new acquisition Brent Lillibridge, and a solid pitching prospect in Zach Stewart as the other half of the haul, Boston will get back to the business of improving. Dustin Pedroia getting over his thumb woes will help in that area.
One side note of Pittsburgh's developing story is that outfielder Andrew McCutchen is exploding on the scene as one of the best players in the Major Leagues -- not just the Senior Circuit. But this different-hero-every-night team seems to be finding ways to win all the time, from a weekend gem by Brad Lincoln to a steadily creeping-north batting average from Pedro Alvarez.
We never expected what we got out of this team late last year, so it's hard to know what to expect this season. First-year manager Mike Matheny has been doing well juggling an ever-evolving lineup and pitching staff. A huge key is the continued resurgence of Adam Wainwright, who seems to have forgotten that he ever had Tommy John surgery.
Don't look now, but the D-backs have won four in a row and are two games over .500 at 37-35. That's interesting, especially on the heels of their incredible 2011 campaign. Something else that could be very interesting: Thursday's likely Major League debut of right-hander Trevor Bauer, who was selected No. 3 overall in last year's First-Year Player Draft.