Tampa Bay felt good enough about its rotation during the offseason that it dealt "Big Game" James Shields to Kansas City in an effort to keep payroll down and add prime prospects. After some early-season inconsistency, the Rays' pitching staff is back in sync and a key reason they have won 17 of their last 19, jumping past the Yankees and Orioles and into second place in the American League East, 1 1/2 games back of the first-place Red Sox. Tampa Bay's pitching staff has a Major League-best 2.14 ERA since June 29, including a 2.26 ERA -- also tops in the Majors -- for a rotation that is 13-2 in that surge. It also boasts a 1.82 bullpen ERA, lowest in the AL during the rally. Luke Scott is asserting himself offensive, leading the Rays with a .368 average, five home runs and 11 RBIs in the 21-game stretch. The remaining puzzle? How can Tampa Bay have suffered both losses in the last 19 games against Houston?
After a 16-8 run that provided some hope of at least regaining respectability, the Marlins have lost six of their last nine, including not only being swept in a three-game weekend visit to Milwaukee, but being shut out in all three games, including 1-0 in 13 innings on Sunday. They managed only 15 hits in the three games -- 14 singles and a Logan Morrison double -- and rookie shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria had six of those hits. Miami is one shutout short of the record for consecutive shutout losses suffered, which has happened 11 times, most recently by the 1968 Chicago Cubs. The 31 innings of scoreless baseball in Milwaukee during the weekend, combined with being held scoreless in the final six innings of a 5-2, 10-inning loss to Washington in the final game before the All-Star break, means the Marlins have gone 37 innings without scoring. That is 11 innings shy of the Major League record set by the 1906 Philadelphia A's and matched by the '68 Cubs. It's also the longest scoring drought in the Majors since Houston was held scoreless for 42 innings in '85. It's only the second time in Marlins history they have been shut out three times in a row (it also happened last August in the midst of a 30-inning scoreless streak). While Miami was shut out in 10 of its first 47 games this season, the club had gone 46 games without being blanked until it arrived in Milwaukee. The Marlins find hope in the fact they open a four-game series on Monday night at Coors Field, where only 76 shutouts have been thrown in the 1,500 games played since it opened in 1995.
It's been a far from perfect season for a Seattle team that convinced itself it could contend in an AL West that includes Oakland and Texas. The last two weekends, however, were perfect. The Mariners swept both the Angels, at home before the break, and the Astros, on the road after the break. It was the first two sweeps of a season for a team whose previous longest winning streak had been three games (twice). The break in the schedule meant Seattle's "Big Three" of Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma and Joe Saunders started and won all six games. For the long term, the lineup is promising. It features rookie catcher Mike Zunino, second baseman Nick Franklin and shortstop Brad Miller, who led the team during the six games with two home runs and seven RBIs. Seven of the nine regulars are 26 or younger, the exceptions being 40-year-old left fielder Raul Ibanez and 30-year-old designated hitter Kendrys Morales.
The Astros opened June by winning 14 of 24 games and feeling like the youth movement was settling in, taking three of four from both the Rockies and the White Sox, and sweeping three games from the Angels. So much for the expectations. Not only have the Astros lost 18 of 23 since, but they are only 2-9 at Minute Maid Park, where they were swept during the weekend by the Mariners, leaving them 17-35 at home, the only AL team with fewer than 21 home victories. And it's been a team struggle. Houston ranks 30th in baseball with a .221 batting average since June 21 and a 5.96 ERA, which is more than a run higher than second-worst Kansas City. Erik Bedard (4.34) and Bud Norris (4.70) are the only starting pitchers with ERAs below 5.70, and five of the players on the team with at least 30 at-bats in the last 23 games aren't even hitting .200. Brett Wallace has provided the most hope with a team-best .279 average among regulars. And over the next 19 games, the nine at home are with legitimate contenders Oakland, Boston and Texas.
The Dodgers have found a road to success. With a weekend sweep in Washington, they have moved to within a half-game of National League West-leading Arizona. That's nine games they have cut off the deficit since June 21, when they were sitting in fourth place with a 30-42 record. But then they have won 20 of 25 overall since then, including 12 of 14 on the road. What's more, they have sandwiched three-game sweeps in Arizona and Washington around splitting a four-game home series against Colorado. While rookie Yasiel Puig has cooled off from his opening month explosion (.204 his last 14 games), veteran shortstop Hanley Ramirez has carried the load since returning from the disabled list. During the Dodgers' 25-game surge, he has hit .400 and leads the team with 22 runs scored, eight home runs and 23 RBIs.
The Padres were shaking up the NL West in late June. With a 9-2 win at Miami on June 28, they regained a .500 record (40-40), moved into second place in the division, just 2 1/2 games behind the D-backs. And then the hard times hit, as San Diego lost the final three games in Miami, was swept in three-game visits to Boston and Minnesota before returning home for a July 8 loss to Colorado that gave it a 10-game losing streak. That was the foundation for a 19-game slide in which the Padres have managed only three wins and fallen back into last place in the division, 8 1/2 back of Arizona. Eric Stults has two of the three victories -- both against Colorado, during which allowed two earned runs in 16 innings. In the 17 other games of the fade, San Diego's rotation is 1-12 with a 6.83 ERA. The other win went to Edinson Volquez, who gave up three runs in five innings of a 5-3 win at St. Louis on Saturday. The Padres have hit only .225 and averaged only three runs in the 19 games.
Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com.