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BEST MATCHUP (opponents with best combined Prospectus Hit List rankings): Cleveland Indians (8th) @ Boston Red Sox (3rd)

This might be hard to fathom given recent perceptions to the contrary, but the American League Central is now, arguably, the strongest division in baseball–at least at this particular juncture in the season.

Here are the average Prospectus Hit List Rankings for each division:

11.6 – American League Central
13.0 – American League West
14.0 – American League East
14.4 – National League East
17.7 – National League Central
23.2 – National League West

Having the team with the best won-loss record in baseball helps and, although the Twins are going through a rough patch, the rise of the Indians and the continued decent play of the Tigers have put the division at the top. And why not praise the Royals while we’re at it? They’re contributing by staying ahead of the Rockies so that they can keep out of the 30th spot. You go, Big Blue! Way to represent your division!

The 20-game swing for the Americans in interleague play has helped create the dichotomy between the top and bottom halves. The National League West has slipped down an average of five places since about a month ago while the rise of the Rangers and Angels–and the A’s getting off the mat–have pulled the AL West up an average of seven spots since late May.

Are the Red Sox on the verge of putting the division away early as was suggested by Dan Shaughnessy in the Boston Globe over the weekend? It sure seems like it’s possible, but things never look so rosy as when a team has won 12 of 13 games. We need to look back no further than a Saturday night in October of last year when the Yankees were piling up 19 runs on a Red Sox team that looked as though they were playing under a death threat if they tried to win.

Right now–at this very moment–every division but one seems as though it’s on the verge of being sprung by the leader. The Nationals are the only first-place team that appears visibly vulnerable. The Angels look like they’re on the runway ready for takeoff. The White Sox and Cardinals have already secured big leads. The Padres are living in a world of reluctant pursuers.

Shaughnessy’s prediction is not an outrageous one, really. The Orioles will continue to fade, leaving just the Yankees to make a run at it and they appear to be in total disarray–or they did up until the point they rallied to eclipse the Mets on Sunday night. A combination of a hot team, one that is fading and one that is not living up to expectations certainly looks like a recipe for a runaway.

SECOND-BEST MATCHUP (opponents with the second-best combined Prospectus Hit List rankings): Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (4th) @ Texas Rangers (7th)

When a young guy does a Tom Petty and punches a water cooler and breaks a bone, apologists will say it was a rookie mistake or the foolishness of youth. When a 40-year old does it in the 17th season of his big-league career in the midst of what might be his best year ever–what do you call that? I believe the medical term is “dumbassery.”

For whatever it’s worth, the Rangers got through the interleague vortex without adding to their incredibly low total of two sacrifice bunts.

What’s the hardest thing in the world to do? How about putting together a top-to-bottom solid starting rotation for a major-league team? Looking around the majors, no team has five starters in double figures in VORP. The White Sox, Padres, Nationals and Marlins have four each. So do these Angels in the persons of Bartolo Colon, Paul Byrd, Jarrod Washburn and John Lackey. If Kelvim Escobar were well, he’d be a slam dunk to round out the quintet but he’s not and that’s what ratchets up the difficulty level of pulling off this trick: there are so many roadblocks to finding five worthy guys and keeping them all healthy.

This is also why I am so amused every spring when buckets of ink are spilled on battles for the fifth starting spot on a large number of teams. What does it matter? The rotation isn’t going through the whole year intact, so who cares who the number five guy is coming out of camp? Chances are he’ll be number three or four or gone by the time the year is done, anyway.

WORST MATCHUP (opponents with worst combined Prospectus Hit List rankings, provided both are in the lower half): San Francisco Giants (27th) @ Arizona Diamondbacks (25th)

Apart from no-hitters–which, as you probably know if you weren’t sniffing glue during basic math, cannot have a ratio of team-vs.-team hits–you don’t get many hit counts as one-sided as the Giants 16-0 loss to the A’s on Sunday. San Francisco was out-hit 24 to 1. As this chart illustrates, it’s the largest gap between teams since 1972:

Gap – Hit ratio: Participants (score), date
23 – 24 to 1: Oakland over San Francisco (16-0), June 26, 2005
22 – 31 to 9: Milwaukee over Toronto (22-2), August 28, 1992
21 – 25 to 4: Florida over Atlanta (20-1), July 1, 2003
21 – 25 to 4: Minnesota over Cleveland (23-2), June 4, 2002
21 – 24 to 3: Anaheim over Chicago White Sox (19-0), May 10, 2002
21 – 23 to 2: Baltimore over Toronto (23-1), September 28, 2000
21 – 26 to 5: California over Boston (20-2), June 20, 1980
21 – 28 to 7: Montreal over Atlanta (19-0), July 30, 1978
21 – 24 to 3: Pittsburgh over Chicago Cubs (22-0), September 16, 1975
20 – 21 to 1: Colorado over Florida (17-0), September 17, 1995

The second game on that list featured 26 singles by the Brewers. Kevin Seitzer and Scott Fletcher combined for 10 hits out of the eight and nine holes. The game from 1975 set the record for the largest shutout victory ever (22-0). That game is also famous for Rennie Stennett going 7-for-7. The game from 1980 is one that physicists are still puzzling over. Their quandary? How did the diminutive Fred Patek generate enough torque to leverage three home runs in a single game, Fenway Park or no?

BIGGEST MISMATCHUP (opponents with greatest difference in Prospectus Hit List rankings): Cincinnati Reds (27th) @ St. Louis Cardinals (1st)

Of all the teams in the majors–including the other teams hugging the bottom of the Hit List–no club appears to be in more disarray than the Reds. While we’ve come to expect the sub-.500 hijinx of teams like the Devil Rays and Royals, there is something about the plight of the Reds that has the look of a burning train that has left the tracks, blown through an orphanage and is now heading for the nuclear power plant.

Jason Marquis is eighth on the Cardinals with a VORP of 10.4. That’s eighth offensively. The heck with Rick Ankiel–make this guy a position player! Marquis only lost one game to the designated hitter bedevilment of interleague play. He pitched but did not bat in Toronto on June 15. Remember how Tony La Russa used to get funky with his mind and bat the pitcher in the eight hole? Nobody could quite figure out why he was doing it and nobody could find any proof that it helped the team in any way shape or form other than giving the player in the ninth slot a good dose of humility. Appearances by Marquis might be a good time to dust off that strategy.

Anyway, pitchers will sometimes have an amazing season with the bat only to revert to form (see: Johnson, Walter) the next year. This is Marquis’ second decent year in a row with the bat after some rough sledding early in his career.

James Click contributed research to this column

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I’ll be having a chat on Thursday, June 30 at 1:00 p.m. Eastern Time. It would be cool if you could join me. If you can’t, I am not going to lay a whole blame trip on you. You might be at work and they might have a restrictive internet policy or something. I understand. It’s your life. Live it the way you see fit–as long as you’re not hurting anyone. Live by the Golden Rule, I say. It’s simple but it works. Anyway, that’s 1:00 p.m. Eastern Time on Thursday.