The top of the National League’s East & West divisions go head-to-head to start off the week in baseball and we’re six weeks out from the finish line. Washington meets Atlanta, and in an even bigger series the Los Angeles Dodgers match up with San Francisco. TheSportsNotebook previews these, and the rest of the early week in the MLB playoff race…
San Francisco-LA Dodgers: A 5-0 win over Atlanta behind Chad Billingsley capped an excellent road trip for the Dodgers, as they went 5-2 against the Braves & Pirates. San Francisco, dealing with the suspension of Melky Cabrera, was able to right the ship with a series win at San Diego over the weekend and comes into Los Angeles just a half-game back. As of today neither the Dodgers or Giants are in the wild-card game, so the NL West is shaping up as the “win it or go home” division. The two rivals will be on ESPN tonight (10 PM ET) with a battle of lefties, Madison Bumgarner and Clayton Kershaw. For all the concern of San Francisco’s offense, the pitching is 13th in the National League in ERA for the month of August and in that regard, they need a good outing from Tim Lincecum on Tuesday.
Atlanta-Washington: With a five-game lead, Washington has a chance to break open the NL East race in this home series, and they have Stephen Strasburg on tap for Tuesday. Atlanta’s still four games up for a wild-card spot although after last year’s collapse, I don’t think anyone is going to get too comfortable—particularly with St. Louis being one of the teams in the rearview mirror.
Baltimore-Texas: What a clutch series win for Baltimore over the weekend in Detroit, after dropping the opener to Justin Verlander. The Orioles’ pitching is fourth-best in the American League this month, thanks primarily to the work of the stellar bullpen. But don’t overlook emerging starters like Miguel Gonzalez and Chris Tillman, who pitch Monday and Tuesday nights. The Rangers are still in command of the AL West, but need to see something positive from Ryan Dempster in tonight’s opener.
NY Yankees-Chicago: With their lead over Tampa trimmed to five games, the Yankees can’t get too comfortable ,and with the White Sox lead over the Tigers at two games, the thought of comfort has never crossed their minds. Chicago, with its offense just 10th in the AL in runs scored this season, will welcome Paul Konerko back from the disabled list in a series they’ll need to score some runs if they hope to compete. Tuesday’s game, featuring Ian Nova and Francisco Liriano on the hill will be a battle of pitchers with great raw stuff, but of whom you’re never sure what to expect.
Other series involving contenders…
Cincinnati-Philadelphia: Other than an inexplicable hiccup earlier in August when they were swept at Milwaukee, the Reds have played dominating baseball this month and still have a comfortable 6.5 game lead in the NL Central, with the offense ranking fourth in the league in runs scored. The Phillies haven’t fallen apart since dumping Shane Victorino, Hunter Pence and Joe Blanton in trades and are playing competitive, respectable baseball. The finale of this four-game series on Thursday features Johnny Cueto and Cole Hamels.
St. Louis-Houston: The Astros fired manager Brad Mills, and I think that’s fair. It’s one thing to say no manager was going to contend with this team. It’s another thing to say no manager could win more than 32% of his games, which is what the Astros have done this season. And in either case, I think this team has enough talent to at least play competitive, if not contending baseball. Now they see if they can play spoiler against St. Louis, who is two back in the wild-card race after losing a 19-inning epic against Pittsburgh yesterday.
Pittsburgh-San Diego: James McDonald ended his pitching slump for Pittsburgh on Friday with a clutch 2-1 win on Friday night in St. Louis, a game that could end up being a turning point for the season if the Pirates make the playoffs, given that it set up a series win. McDonald goes again on Wednesday, while A.J. Burnett pitches Tuesday. Tonight’ s opener is anyone’s guess as Pittsburgh pieces its staff back together after the 19-inning win yesterday.
Kansas City-Tampa Bay: We knew the Rays were playing well, but the four-game sweep that hung on the Los Angeles Angels this weekend was stunning. Tampa, along with Baltimore, is still only a half-game up on Oakland for the wild-card berths, but still with an outside chance at running down the Yankees in the AL East. They’ve got Jeremy Hellickson, David Price and James Shields lineup here, as they set the stage for a four-game series against the A’s that starts on Thursday.
Minnesota-Oakland: The A’s swept Cleveland this weekend as they swing the bats well in August. Oakland’s offense is sixth in the AL this month scoring runs and the pitching remains its usual stellar self. As mentioned just above, this is a stage-setting series for the big four-game battle in the Trop starting on Thursday.
LA Angels-Boston: It’s debatable if you still want to call the Angels a contender, after the wipeout at the hands of Tampa has left them 4.5 games back for a wild-card. In of itself, that’s manageable, but they’ll have to catch three teams. The biggest impact of this series will be a chance for Red Sox fans to see the only team who can rival theirs when it comes to disappointment.