Player of the week: Alex Rodriguez

Sorry, Magglio Ordonez, the MVP race is officially over. With a dazzling display of power hitting last week, Alex Rodriguez removed any doubt as to who the best player in the American League has been this year. Over a recent five-game stretch, A-Rod went 11-for 19 (.579), with seven homers (at least one in every game) and 11 RBIs. His most impressive performance came on Sept. 5 in the New York Yankees’ AL wild-card showdown with the Seattle Mariners. Ailing with ankle problems, A-Rod wasn’t even supposed to play in the game, but in the seventh inning, he homered twice, becoming the first Yankee in 30 years to pull off that feat.

BASEBALL STORY LINES

1. With just a little over two weeks left in the regular season, the legitimate contenders for playoff positions are dwindling. The American League division races seem locked up, with at least each leader sporting a five-game lead. Heck, even the wild-card race has a definite leader, the New York Yankees, who are up fourgames on the Detroit Tigers. But in the National League, things are much different. The best race is in the NL Central, where Prince Fielder, left, and the Milwaukee Brewers have been battling Derrek Lee and the Chicago Cubs for the past two months. A late addition to the party is the St. Louis Cardinals, who have a major series with the rival Cubs at Busch Stadium this weekend. In the West, the young Arizona Diamondbacks have a slim lead, but will San Diego make a push or instead worry about fending off the Colorado Rockies, Los Angeles Dodgers and Philadelphia Phillies for the wild card? Whatever happens, it should be a very interesting final two weeks of a very eventful season.

2. The one-time feel-good story of the season has turned into yet another disappointing revelation of performance-enhancing misconduct. An investigation by the New York Daily News revealed that Rick Ankiel, the Cardinals’ former pitcher and resurgent current outfielder, received human growth hormone in 2004 from a disgraced Florida pharmacy specializing in delivering illegal prescriptions. Ankiel claims his doctor prescribed HGH to him to aid his recovery from elbow surgery and that he stopped using it before Major League Baseball officially banned the substance in 2005. Ankiel, Toronto’s Troy Glaus and Baltimore’s Jay Gibbons — who have also been ID’d in the probe — will have to chat with the commissioner’s office about the allegations.

3. Despite steering his team to a last-place finish in the AL Central (even behind the Kansas City Royals) and staging a nearly weekly tirade aimed at his players, Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen signed a contract extension Tuesday that will keep him with the team through the 2012 season. Guillen led his team to the 2005 World Series title, the same year he won the AL Manager of the Year, but just two years later, his focus is now on keeping the White Sox from having the worst record in the majors (they entered Wednesday 62-84, one game up on Tampa Bay).

— Will Reisman

KEY SERIES

Cardinals at Cubs (Today-Sunday): For all of their problems this season, everything boils down to this weekend for the Albert Pujols and the Cardinals. Trailing Chicago and Milwaukee by four games in the NL Central, St. Louis hosts the Cubs in a four-game series, including a doubleheader Saturday.

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