Some believe the NL West is the strongest division in baseball, and it is easy to make the case.
The division entered Saturday at a major league-best composite 23 games over .500 despite free-falling San Francisco.
San Diego and Los Angeles are 1-2 in the National League in ERA, and the Diamondbacks are in the thick of the race with Randy Johnson on the disabled list and a young group of position players who can be expected only to improve as the season progresses.
And Colorado is the hottest team in the major leagues.
The Rockies had the best record in baseball since May 22, 20-8, before Saturday’s game against Toronto while winning eight of nine series (splitting the other), a streak that began when they won the final two games of a three-game set in Arizona.
They were four games over .500 after finishing a sweep of the Yankees on Thursday while beating Boston’s Curt Schilling and Josh Beckett, Baltimore’s Eric Bedard and the Yankees’ Mike Mussina, Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens.
In a division that is built on starting pitching, the Rockies stepped up with some solid work of their own.
Left-hander Jeff Francis is emerging as a stopper — 6-1 with a 1.86 ERA in his past nine starts — for a staff that had a 3.29 ERA during its run. The Rockies had a 5.00 ERA after 45 games, when they were 18-27.
“In the history of this organization we have seen what offensive baseball can be — it can be exciting. You sent a handful of players to All-Star games,” Rockies manager Clint Hurdle said.
“But championships are won with pitching and defense, and that’s something we have started to emphasize.”
The Rockies outscored the Red Sox and Yankees 33-10 in winning five of six.
“It definitely helps our confidence to beat teams like the Red Sox and Yankees, two of the best in baseball,” rookie Troy Tulowitzki said.
“The atmosphere is different, but the game on the field is the same as any other. You have to remind yourself of that.”
Since Aug. 18, 2006, Torii Hunter has 31 home runs, 91 RBIs … and no hint that Minnesota wants him back in 2008. He could enter free agency this winter, pending the Twins’ interest in signing him to a longterm extension.
“I want to be with the Twins, and that’s been my main goal. But I’m human and the silence makes you wonder,” Hunter said. “I think I’m a decent player. I can’t believe there hasn’t even been a conversation about it. That’s tough to swallow.”
Boston’s David Ortiz, who came up through the Twins’ system with Hunter, apparently is doing some recruiting.
“My best buddy and me, we’ve been talking a lot lately,” Hunter said. “He calls the Red Sox-Yankees the Super Bowl of baseball and tells me I am missing out.”
ACCORDING TO ELIJAH
The Elijah Dukes saga reached a low point when Tampa Bay placed Dukes on the temporary inactive list Friday after a series against the D-Backs in which he gave a 13-minute rant to a Tampa radio station and threatened a newspaper reporter.
Dukes did not start against the D-Backs but did call on Tampa station WDAE on Tuesday in the wake of his latest controversy, when he is accused of impregnating a 17-year-old foster child who was in his step-grandmother’s care.
He admitted he had an anger problem but said, “How many times have I ever shot someone? How many times have I ever stabbed someone? How many times have I ever gone to jail for brutally beating someone?”
A day later, Dukes threatened a St. Petersburg Times reporter in the visiting clubhouse at Chase Field, saying “You’ll get what’s coming to you” while using several vulgarities.
The Times reported last month that Dukes, whose father is in jail after being convicted of second-degree murder, had five children by four different women.
Dukes’ behavior has caused “disappointment and frustration,” Devil Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman said, and it appears the Rays may accelerate trade talks in the wake of Dukes’ demotion.
The last word
“I wouldn’t want people to look back at my streak and say, ‘Who was that guy?’ It’s better if I leave DiMaggio’s record alone. That’s a record that should be broken by somebody people have heard of.”
Chicago Cubs left-hander Rich Hill has given up home runs to San Diego center fielder Mike Cameron in four consecutive at-bats, the first two May 22 and the last two last Sunday. Cameron did his damage in 10 pitches. Albert Pujols had homers in four straight at-bats against Pittsburgh’s Ian Snell last season.
The Pirates will travel 6,387 air miles on a 10-day road trip that includes stops in all four corners of the country. The trip included stops in Seattle, Anaheim and Miami before a return to Pittsburgh. Looking ahead The NL West infighting resumes when San Diego plays Los Angeles, and San Francisco and Arizona hook up.