MLB Weekend Schedule: Yanks-Orioles Drama Builds

We’ve talked about the Baltimore Orioles more often than most media outlets here at TheSportsNotebook during the season. Not only is that a byproduct of my having lived in Charm City from 2008-11, but the fact that somebody needed to talk about the Orioles and at least examine why they were winning instead of casually assuming the winning would stop. Now the rest of the media is on the bandwagon, and they’ll get a lot of TV coverage for a four-game weekend series with the New York Yankees that started last night in dramatic fashion.

The elephant in the room for the Yankees right now is their starting pitching on any night that C.C. Sabathia or Hiroki Kuroda aren’t the listed pitcher and David Phelps was rocked off the mound quickly in Camden Yards. Then the moment everyone was waiting for happened—the Yankees rallied with five runs in the eighth inning to tie the game 6-6 against Pedro Strop, the incredibly talented relief pitchiner who looked exactly like a young kid tossed into a pennant race against Cano, Jeter, Ichiro & Co.

But a funny thing happened on the way to what seemed New York’s inevitable back-breaking win. The Birds crushed three home runs in the bottom of the inning, won anyway 10-6 and pulled back into first place. Now the AL East race is tied, the stage is set for the next three days and Tampa Bay is lurking two games back with a big series of their own at home against Texas.

New York has not won a series since late August, and that was against Cleveland. Phil Hughes, who’s got the talent, but also the consistency problem, gets the ball tonight to try and keep his team in first place. Freddy Garcia, the veteran at the other extreme of the spectrum goes on Sunday afternoon. Baltimore counters with steady Wei-Yin Chen, veteran Joe Saunders who’s fresh off taking a perfect game deep into a game at Toronto and then Zach Britton in the finale, who’s a more extreme version of Hughes, both good and bad.

There’s no mystery behind why the Yanks are slip-sliding in the standings and it’s because the starting pitching is hardly a matchup advantage, even against an Oriole staff that’s been questioned all year. Furthermore, Derek Jeter is the only hitter who seems to be locked in right now, while Baltimore is watching  Nick Markakis swing a hot bat and Mark Reynolds on a massive tear that’s seen him hit 12 home runs in a month, including eight straight games and including a pair last night.

One team that has no pitching issues whatsoever is Tampa Bay, who is the most recent team to win a series against New York. The Rays are two back of the co-leaders and if they can win their home series with Texas, the Rays naturally stand to be within at least one game of whoemver loses the O’s-Yanks battle in the race for the wild-card. Desmond Jennings, B.J. Upton and Ben Zobrist are all hot and David Price is set to go Saturday, as he seeks some redemption for when the Rangers pounded him a week and a half ago down in Arlington.

The other showdown series this weekend is on the other coast and in the other league, where the Dodgers-Giants go at it in San Francisco. All the pressure is on Los Angeles here. They missed a chance to close the 4.5 game margin this week when they dropped two of three to San Diego while San Fran was doing the same to Arizona. The Dodgers are getting some good hitting from a new player, but it’s not any of the big names they got at the deadline or in the deal with Boston—it’s Luis Cruz, the shortstop who came up and has a .409 on-base percentage and .517 slugging percentage in the last month. Frisco is treading water a bit right now, but Buster Posey and Brandon Belt are both locked in at the plate and if they even pick up one win at home they’d still be in command of the division on Monday morning.

Other notable weekend action…

The Los Angeles Angels got what they needed this week. Not only did they sweep Oakland and move to within 2.5 games of their division rival for the last wild-card spot, but the Halos did it with great pitching from Zack Greinke and Dan Haren, and the lineup is producing up and down the order. Now they get a visit from Detroit, with each team just outside the playoff picture. The Tigers had a disappointing early week, losing a pair of one-run games to Cleveland and slipping a game back of Chicago in the AL Central. We’re at the point in the season where it’s not to much to think the Angels-Tigers games in Anaheim are elimination battles, at least far as the wild-card goes.

Detroit would still be in it to catch the White Sox, who won two of three from Minnesota and play Cleveland on the weekend—but the ChiSox loss to Minnesota came by an 18-9 score and that’s hardly comforting work from your pitching staff. Oakland goes to Seattle, hardly an easy series and the A’s two best hitters, Josh Reddick and Yoenis Cespedes are both slumping.

Over in the National League, St. Louis plays host to Milwaukee. The Brewers are quietly playing good baseball and after sweeping Pittsburgh last weekend, would surely love even more to stick it to the division rivals who ousted them from last year’s NLCS. The Cards send Kyle Lohse to the hill tonight, but Adam Wainwright is not on the weekend docket, so a series win for the road underdog is within realistic reach. The Pirates get the Cubs at home and trail the race for the last wild-card by a game and a half.

Atlanta enjoyed a big week. Getting three of four from Colorado doesn’t seem like a big deal on the surface, but it was set up to a disaster—the Braves only scored one run in each of the last two games, but Mike Minor and Tim Hudson stepped up on the mound and delivered 1-0 wins. While Atlanta is a distant 7.5 games back of Washington, they’ve opened up some breathing room for a wild-card berth, leading by five games and a soft schedule in September.

Washington, Cincinnati and Texas are the three teams that are rolling. We’ll debate the merits of shutting down Stephen Strasburg for October, but the Nats’ lead in the NL East is sufficient that it won’t matter before then. Cincy may have lost a series to Philadelphia this weekend, but are plus-eight in the Central and more focused on getting Joey Votto back in the swing of things for October. Texas isn’t quite as home free yet, with the lead over Oakland at 5.5 games, but the Rangers have won six straight series, including a pair of four-game sets mixed in there and they’re still holding a 4-5 game lead after this weekend in Tampa, they’ll have survived their toughest schedule run left.