Philadelphia, PA – Major League Baseball could have six entertaining division races this year, given that none of the first-place teams is currently in front by more than six games.
Several teams that are not in either first or second place of their respective divisions, however, still have the potential to get on a hot streak and fight their way to a playoff spot.
Let's take a closer look at some squads that it would be wrong to write off with three months to go in the season:
The Los Angeles Dodgers got off to a tremendous start, only to see key injuries to their best hitter (Matt Kemp) and hottest early season pitcher (Ted Lilly) bring them back to the pack in the National League West. The San Francisco Giants have overtaken the Dodgers, but lurking right behind those two team are the defending division champion Diamondbacks.
Early in the season, Arizona was getting poor production from such hitters as Ryan Roberts, Paul Goldschmidt and Jason Kubel.
Briefly losing at-bats to Cody Ransom and Josh Bell at third base, Roberts put it together with a solid May performance (.288 with 14 RBI in 25 games that month). His overall numbers (.237, six home runs, 32 RBI) are still a dip from last year's final line (.249, 19, 65), but he's been respectable if you throw out his dreadful April, when he batted just .152.
There were rumors briefly in May that Goldschmidt could be sent to the minor leagues. Expected to build on his solid showing after being called up late last season, Goldschmidt stumbled out of the gate. His April numbers were extremely disappointing: a .193 average with one home run and eight RBI. His OPS was a mere .569.
Goldschmidt has been on fire since, raising his season totals to .297, 11 and 36. His OPS is all the way up to .915.
Kubel, a key free-agent signing during the offseason, wasn't producing early in the year. He hit a combined four home runs in the first two months, but he turned his hitting around in a big way in June, finishing with seven homers and 27 RBI. He now has a .297 overall average with 12 homers and 51 RBI.
Arizona also has straightened out its starting rotation after a rocky beginning. Struggling Josh Collmenter went to the bullpen for a while in favor of Wade Miley, who has become the surprising staff ace.
Daniel Hudson will undergo Tommy John surgery soon and miss the rest of the season. Joe Saunders is currently battling shoulder weakness, but the Diamondbacks should get a boost from recent call-up Trevor Bauer, the organization's top pitching prospect.
Arizona has the ability to stay in this race until the end. It can outhit both Los Angeles and San Francisco. If it keeps getting solid pitching like it has lately, it wouldn't be a complete surprise to see the Diamondbacks repeating in the division.
They were bad in April, great in May and bad again in June. The inconsistent Marlins have been mediocre overall, with a 38-41 record that puts them eight games behind first-place Washington the NL East.
With two wild-card berths available in each league this year, the Marlins are really just five games out of a playoff spot. That's why they shouldn't be counted out just yet.
Yes, Miami has underachieved. Its 4.18 team ERA is tied for 12th in the NL, and its 302 runs scored are 14th in the league in that category. Despite those disappointing stats, the Marlins are still very much in the hunt, which probably bodes well for the second half of the season.
Leadoff hitter Jose Reyes is starting to pick up his game, and he's the key to Miami's offense. Hanley Ramirez (.259, 12 homers, 43 RBI) has not played to his usual high standards, but he's a good bet to have a big second half, based on his track record.
Miami has an elite run producer in Giancarlo Stanton (.283, 19 homers, 50 RBI), but will need better production from Logan Morrison (.235, eight homers, 28 RBI) and Gaby Sanchez (.194, two homers, 16 RBI) to get to the postseason. They have done it in the past, so the ability is there. If they don't pick up their play, perhaps the Marlins could add a bat at the trade deadline.
The pitching should be better in the second half. Ace Josh Johnson, after a slow start, is Josh Johnson again. Despite some shaky moments, closer Heath Bell has been mostly effective over the last five weeks, surrendering no earned runs in 13 of his last 14 appearances.
BOSTON RED SOX
After their colossal collapse to end last season, the Red Sox have had their share of turmoil this year. New manager Bobby Valentine has rubbed some people the wrong way, but he probably should be commended somewhat for helping a team with so many injury woes remain in the playoff chase.
The Red Sox are tied for third place, 6 1/2 games behind the AL East Division- leading New York Yankees. New York is facing some adversity now, with starting pitchers CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte joining all-world closer Mariano Rivera on the disabled list.
Adversity, meanwhile, is nothing new to the 2012 Red Sox. Projected starting left fielder Carl Crawford (wrist and elbow injuries) has yet to play this season. Starting center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury (shoulder) was shelved after playing in just seven games.
Projected closer Andrew Bailey (thumb), a key offseason acquisition, has yet to pitch this year. John Lackey (elbow) and Bobby Jenks (back) are out for the season.
Crawford, Ellsbury and Bailey are expected back, perhaps sometime later this month. Daniel Bard, who failed in his transition to the starting rotation, should soon be back from a minor-league stint to bolster the bullpen.
If healthier, this would be a really good team, perhaps even capable of rising up and stealing the division title. Despite all the injuries, Boston sits just one-half game out of the AL's No. 2 wild-card spot. Even minor improvement in the second half could land the Red Sox a postseason berth.
KANSAS CITY ROYALS
OK, this is the longest shot of the teams mentioned here. The Royals are only 36-42. They're in fourth place in the AL Central Division, 5 1/2 games out of first place.
Kansas City doesn't have the kind of pitching staff that usually puts together an epic winning streak, and Tommy John should probably be named the team's mascot. Felipe Paulino is expected to require Tommy John surgery, which would make him the fourth Royals pitcher (Danny Duffy, Joakim Soria and Blake Wood are the others) to fit into that category this year.
In addition to the pitching problems, here's the stunning stat: Kansas City ranks 13th among 14 AL teams in runs scored, with 321 through 78 games. Offense was expected to be a strong suit for the Royals, but they've been underachieving.
The recent return from injury of catcher Salvador Perez should boost the offense. First baseman Eric Hosmer is heating up, too. Although his overall numbers are a major disappointment (.237, nine homers, 36 RBI), he has serious second-half breakout potential.
The Chicago White Sox, the surprising division leaders, are a threat to maintain the top spot. Third-place Detroit still has a great chance in the AL Central, too. After all, the Tigers were the overwhelming preseason favorite, they possess the most talent, and they're still within striking distance of the division-leading White Sox (just 3 1/2 games behind). Cleveland is just two games back.
What's to like about the Royals is that they didn't give up after an early season 12-game losing streak left them at 3-14. They've been 33-28 since. If they keep improving, they're going to have a chance because 86 wins or so could take the AL Central. That is, unless the Tigers get on a roll.