It's not like the Pirates are overwhelming anybody. They are, however, playing steady and have won 11 of their past 16 games. That has cut three games off their deficit to NL Central leading-St. Louis, which they now trail by a game. Coming off a stretch in which they won two of three from the Cubs, Giants and Dodgers before splitting four games with Cincinnati and sweeping three from the Angels, the Pirates head toward the All-Star break with 14 of their next 17 against teams with losing records. The exception is a three-game visit by Oakland July 8-10. Gerrit Cole, the No. 1 pick in the 2011 Draft, has provided a definite boost, winning his first three big league starts -- the only pitcher drafted No. 1 overall to start and win each of his first three big league appearances. The constant has been the back end of the bullpen. Closer Jason Grilli (26-for-27 in saves) and setup man Mark Melancon have a combined 1.38 ERA. During their 11-5 run, the rotation is 9-2 with a 2.39 ERA and the lineup has unloaded 16 home runs, second-most in the NL in that period.
Coming off 28 wins over the past two years with the Angels, Dan Haren, a veteran of postseason appearances with St. Louis in 2004 and Oakland in 2006, was signed to a $13 million free agent deal by Washington with the idea he could provide veteran stability. It's been a struggle. After opening the season 4-3, Haren is 0-6 in his last eight starts, all of which the Nationals lost. His 7.85 ERA over his past seven starts is two runs higher than that of Arizona's Wade Miley, who has the second-highest ERA in the NL during that stretch. While Haren is 4-9 with a 6.15 ERA overall, the rest of the Nationals rotation is 20-19 with a 3.55 ERA. The Nationals problems are bigger than Haren. A team favored to make it to October, they were five games above .500 on May 10 (20-15), but are 17-23 since. They are coming off back-to-back losses to a Colorado team that had lost five in a row. Haren and Ross Detwiler combined to retired only 21 batters in those two losses. As if the fact Wilson Ramos and Bryce Harper are both on the disabled list -- although the hope is that they will both be back within 10 days -- isn't concerning enough, Jason Werth came out of Sunday's game with a left groin strain.
UP: Blue Jays
A first-month disappointment, the Blue Jays are starting to meet expectations. They equaled a franchise-record by extending their winning streak to 11 games on Sunday, giving them 15 wins in their past 18 games. Now comes a good test for a team that has swept three consecutive series for the first time since 1998. The Jays open a week-long road trip with a three-game series at AL East-rival Tampa Bay starting Monday, and then visit division-leading Boston for a four-game weekend set. Shortstop Jose Reyes, out since suffering a sprained left ankle April 12, is expected to come off the disabled list for the Red Sox series. Josh Johnson provided the latest bit of good news by earning his first victory in eight starts for the Jays. Casey Janssen has closed out all five save opportunities during the 11-game winning streak, during which the bullpen has allowed two runs in 28 2/3 innings. With Edwin Encarnacion and Adam Lind both hitting four home runs and driving in 12, the Jays the led the AL with 70 runs scored and 20 home runs during that 11-game stretch.
Oakland picked a bad time to go into a funk. In losing seven of their last 10 games, the A's fell into second place in the AL West behind a Texas team that has won five in a row, while becoming only the third AL team to sweep a series of at least three games at Busch Stadium. The Rangers got the streak started by taking the final two games of a four-game series from the A's. In the past two series, Texas has shut down Oakland's Yoenis Cespedes (1-for-15) and St. Louis' Matt Holliday (0-for-10), and in each of the last six situations in which the opponent has taken a lead, the Rangers have erased it in the next at-bat. The A's not only lost three of four to the Rangers during their recent slide, but two of three to Seattle both at home and on the road. The A's bullpen, which had the second-lowest ERA in the AL (2.89) through June 3, is 0-4 with three blown saves in four opportunities and a 5.54 ERA in the past 10 games.
The Padres are refusing to be ignored. They have won nine of their past 13 games, and find themselves not only 3 1/2 games back of NL West-leading Arizona, but they are just a half-game behind both the Giants and the Rockies. They have flexed their muscles -- though they hit .232 during their last 13 games, their 16 home runs are second in NL to only Cincinnati since June 10. Most important, they have committed an NL-fewest four errors during that time. Jason Marquis has provided stability for a rotation that is 6-1 with a 2.55 ERA during the 13-game run. He's 2-0 in three starts during that stretch, and the Padres have won each of his past five starts. But can the Padres withstand a series of key injuries? Center fielder Cameron Maybin (left knee) is most likely out until next month. Ditto lefty Clayton Richard (left shoulder strain). Next week, however, could bring the return of shortstop Everth Cabrera, hitting .305 and leading NL with 31 stolen bases when he was sidelined by a left hamstring strain; first baseman Yonder Alonso, leading the team with 29 RBIs when a bruised right hand sidelined him May 31, and second baseman Jedd Gyorko, out with a right groin strain.
DOWN: White Sox
Four weeks ago, the White Sox had reclaimed a .500 record (24-24) and were in third place in the AL Central, four games back of Detroit. It seems to be such a distant memory. They have lost 18 of 25 since, and woke up Monday in last place in the division, 10 1/2 games back of the Tigers and 3 1/2 behind fourth-place Minnesota. They took two of three from Kansas City during the weekend, their first series victory in the past four weeks, during which they have hit only .246 and scored only 95 runs, third-fewest in the AL. Their rotation is 3-13 with a 4.82 ERA during the slide, and that includes Chris Sale, whose 3.08 ERA belies his 0-4 record. And the next few weeks aren't promising. Only six of the 19 games remaining on their schedule before the All-Star break are against teams with losing records -- the Mets on Tuesday and Wednesday, the Cubs on July 8 and three games at Philadelphia on July 12-14.
Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com.