The weekend's three up, three down
THREE UPPHILADELPHIA has suffered through a regrettable season, but it's not Cole Hamels' fault. The lefty has given the Phillies plenty of reason to rejoice in the decision last month to keep him from testing free agency in the fall by signing him to a six-year, $144 million deal that includes an option for 2019. It is the second-biggest contract given a pitcher -- behind the seven-year, $161 million CC Sabathia received from the Yankees -- and the biggest contract ever given a Philadelphia athlete. Hamels takes the mound at Milwaukee on Friday night having worked 22 consecutive shutout innings, and having shut out Atlanta and the New York Mets in his past two starts. He joined Johan Santana of the Mets as the only pitchers to have back-to-back shutouts this season, and Cory Lidle (2004) and Cliff Lee (2011) as the only Phils pitchers to accomplish that in the past three decades. Hamels is 13-6 with a 2.91 ERA this year, and the argument could be made he's pitched better than that. In six of the 10 starts he has not won -- four no-decisions and the six losses -- the Phillies have scored two or fewer runs. It's that type of effort that made the Phils decide to gamble on Hamels' arm, even though it means they have $64.5 million guaranteed next year to three starting pitchers: Hamels ($19.5 million), Lee ($25 million) and Roy Halladay ($20 million). ATLANTA received such a lift from Kris Medlen as a fill-in starter that the Braves, with Tommy Hanson coming off the disabled list on Friday, have decided to use a six-man rotation through the month, figuring it will help with aches and pains to provide an extra day of rest each time through. Hanson, after all, has had his back flare up twice since the All-Star break. Tim Hudson has pitched with a bone spur in his left ankle the last two months. And Ben Sheets, who was out of baseball for two years, showed signs of rustiness in his sixth start for the Braves, allowing five runs in six innings on Sunday vs. the Mets at Citi Field. Medlen, meanwhile, shut out San Diego on Thursday and is 3-0 with a 1.05 ERA since being returned to the rotation. The Braves have won all four of his starts and are now 17-1 in the past 18 games he has started. Atlanta also continues to get a lift from in-season addition Paul Maholm, who is 2-1 with a 1.56 ERA since arriving from the Cubs, has a 1.19 ERA since June 29, during which time he is 7-1 with his team having an 8-1 record when he starts.
The WHITE SOX continue to hold off the Tigers in the American League Central, taking a 2 1/2-game lead into their weekend series at Kansas City. And in addition to getting three games against the struggling Royals, Chicago also gets reinforcements with the return of Paul Konerko, who has been on the concussion disabled list.The Sox did win five of seven without Konerko on the active roster, but they will welcome back the first baseman who has hit .316 with 18 home runs and 54 RBIs. Initially, he figures to DH, with Adam Dunn, who moved from DH to first base in Konerko's absence, remaining in the field for at least a few more games. While Dunn is hitting only .207, he has had an impact -- team highs with 34 home runs (tops in the Majors) and 81 RBIs. He also leads the AL with 84 walks.
THREE DOWNTEXAS was able to escape from New York with a 10-6 victory on Thursday before heading to Toronto, hoping Yu Darvish can regain a clue about the strike zone. The Rangers are only 16-15 since the All-Star break, and while Darvish is looking for what would be a club-rookie-record 13th win on Friday, he's been a part of their struggles. Darvish is 2-4 in his past seven starts, with a 6.60 ERA. He's allowed only 39 hits in 45 innings, but has given up 26 walks. Key for the Rangers is while they are only a game over .500 since the midseason respite, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim are only 14-19. And while Oakland is 19-12 since the break, the second-place A's are still six games back of the Rangers. And for good measure, the Rangers are done in New York for the regular season. Texas is 24-47 in regular-season games against the Yankees since the start of the 2004 season, and had lost eight in a row at Yankee Stadium before Thursday's win, in which it had 10 hits, scored 16 runs and hit .400 with runners in scoring position. In the first three games of the set, the Rangers had a combined four runs on 14 hits and were 1-for-11 with men in scoring position. MILWAUKEE thought it caught a break when right-hander Francisco Rodriguez accepted arbitration last fall instead of becoming a free agent, even though he was going to be the eighth-inning man in a Brewers bullpen anchored by John Axford. So much for that idea. While Axford did run his consecutive save converted streak to 49 games in April, his season has been a bust so far, and Rodriguez hasn't come to the rescue. The Brewers just completed a 1-5 road trip that not only included three walk-off losses, but also back-to-back walk-offs at Houston, the Astros' first two walk-off wins of the season. It ended with Colorado rallying for a walk-off win on Wednesday to complete what was only the second series sweep of the season for the Rockies. They took a four-game sweep from Houston from May 28-31. Rookie Jim Henderson, who suffered his first loss in Houston on Saturday, blew the save and got a second loss on Wednesday. Henderson did, however, rebound in Thursday's homestand opener by chalking up save No. 3, getting the final two outs in a four-inning shutout effort by the Brewers' bullpen against Philadelphia. Just the same, Milwaukee's bullpen leads the Majors with 23 blown saves (eight by Axford and six by Rodriguez) and 29 losses, and the team has suffered 24 last at-bat losses, including 10 walk-off defeats. PITTSBURGH has enjoyed success this season thanks to a strong-armed pitching staff, but as the arms get weary, the observers are becoming leery of whether the Pirates can hang on. They go into the weekend six games back of Cincinnati in the National League Central, but clinging to the second NL Wild Card spot by one game over both San Francisco and St. Louis. They open a three-game series at St. Louis on Friday night. All is not well for the Pirates, who are coming off a 4-7 homestand that began with Erik Bedard's 4-0 shutout of Arizona but then saw them not only lose seven of the next 10, but also give up 72 runs. The opposition scored at least five runs in each of the 10 games. Late July addition Wandy Rodriguez has now dropped three in a row, allowing 12 runs in 18 2/3 innings.
Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.