Phillies surge back into NL East race

When this week began, just four days ago, we had an inkling that things might get interesting. All you needed to do was look at the standings on Monday morning, along with the upcoming schedule. The combined difference between the first-place and second-place teams in the six divisions was only 22½ games. And in five of the six divisions, the first-place team would play the second-place team; in the other (the American League Central), this year's first-place team would play last year's.

And this morning? The combined difference between first and second place is 19½ games. That might not seem so different from 22½. But oh, how things have changed in four days.

Frankly, if you're a fan of drama in the American League, this hasn't been a great week.

Sure, while the American League East now vaguely resembles a pennant race, I'm afraid the actual result of the Yankees' sweep of the Red Sox will be less drama rather than more. The Yankees haven't missed the playoffs since 1994, so the real drama, if you're not personally involved in the Red Sox-Yankees wars, is all about the Yankees' making the playoffs or not making the playoffs.

And even if you are personally involved in the wars, still not much changed this week. The Red Sox now have a five-game lead over the Yankees in the East (which they probably won't blow) and a seven-game lead over the Mariners in the wild-card standings (which they definitely won't blow). Essentially, the Red Sox are still in great shape, and now the Yankees are in very good shape. Just like most of the last dozen seasons. Which isn't all that exciting for most of us.

In the Central, the Indians have won six straight games, including a three-game sweep of the Twins, whose fading wild-card hopes are now dead. Meanwhile, the Tigers destroyed the Yankees -- it was the most one-sided road loss in Yankees history -- then lost two straight to the Royals in excruciating fashion. On Tuesday they collected 16 hits but scored only three runs, and on Wednesday they didn't score any runs at all. On Thursday they beat the Royals, but that was little solace with the Indians opening up a 4½ -game lead. Not that all is right in Cleveland. The Indians' closer, Joe Borowski, leads the AL with 39 saves, but he also has a 5.60 ERA, having giving up at least one run in seven of his last 12 outings, including a blown save Thursday and a near-miss on Tuesday.

Out West, the standings seem to finally be catching up to the statistics. The Mariners have lost all four games this week, and all of them in Seattle, while the Angels have won six straight … three of them in Seattle. Now the M's are 5½ games out of first place, and have to set their sights on beating out the Yankees for the wild card. Which hardly seems like a fair fight.

Fortunately, it was a wonderful week in the National League. Not one team remotely has locked up a playoff spot, and nine teams still have legitimate aspirations.

The East tightened up considerably, thanks to the Phillies' four-game sweep of the Mets. Entering the series, the Mets were six games ahead of the second-place Phillies and seven ahead of the third-place Braves, leading some naysayer to write on Tuesday, "Five games is just too many games in the standings to make up in five weeks. I don't think the Mets will clinch until nearly the end, but they will clinch."

Or not. The Mets have now lost five straight, the Phillies have won five straight, and their run differentials are essentially identical (Mets plus-50, Phils plus-48). If you'd told me five months ago that in September the Phillies without Freddy Garcia would be threatening the Mets with Pedro Martinez, I might have smiled condescendingly. Now? Not so much. That said, the Mets still have the edge. Of their 29 remaining games, only nine are against teams with winning records: three against the Phillies, six against the Braves. And six of those games are at Shea Stadium. Meanwhile, the Phillies have 13 games against winning teams, plus three in St. Louis.

It's been a good week for the Cubs, who beat the Brewers twice (in three games) and extended their tenuous lead in the Central to 2½ games over the Brewers, three over the Cardinals. Like the Mets, the Cubs are favored by the schedule. After playing host to the Dodgers in a four-game series next week, they don't play another (currently) winning team the rest of the season. Meanwhile, the Brewers play four games in Atlanta, and finish the season with four against the Padres, who still might be angling for their own playoff spot. The one "wild card" is Ben Sheets, who looked great in his six innings Wednesday night and might be the division's biggest story of the week.

Nobody should be terribly surprised that the Padres took three of four from the first-place Diamondbacks. After all, considering the series was in San Diego, that was the second-most likely outcome. Still, now that the Padres are just one game out, doesn't it seem almost inevitable that they'll finish atop the standings? After all, the Padres have outscored their opponents by 66 runs. The Diamondbacks have been outscored by 37 runs; other teams with similar run differentials this season include the Orioles, the Royals, the Rangers and the Reds. The Diamondbacks sport the worst run differential in the National League West.

Must they sink in the standings with statistical/metaphysical certainty? No, of course not. They might be better than their run differential (this is a popular theory in Arizona). Or they might catch a few extra breaks down the stretch (this is a popular thought among their front-office people). But this week the Diamondbacks went from favorites to underdogs in the West, and the Dodgers -- who swept the Nationals -- went from pretenders to contenders in the wild-card race.

Rob Neyer writes for ESPN Insider and regularly updates his blog for ESPN.com. You can reach him via rob.neyer@dig.com. His most recent book, "Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Blunders," is available everywhere.