Orioles-Yanks Improbable Highlight Of Holiday MLB Schedule

I’m going to guess that when baseball fans in Baltimore made their Labor Day weekend plans the notion they were going to have a big series in the Bronx probably didn’t want to cross everyone’s minds. But that’s exactly what’s ahead starting tonight as the Orioles meet the Yankees in a three-game set that marks the biggest games the teams have played since Jeffrey Maier became a household name in the 1996 American League Championship Series.

“When you are going to fall apart?” That’s the question baseball fans have been asking the Orioles all year and at least one part of the answer came back loud and clear—“Not in August.” Buck Showalter’s team did not lose a single series this past month and punctuated the month by taking three of four from the previously hot AL Central-leading Chicago White Sox. The Birds are improbably just three games back of the Yankees.

If Baltimore is in the middle of a tough race just to make the playoffs and they are hot on New York’s heels, that also means the Yankees must be sneaking close to the border of missing the postseason entirely. Since taking three of four from Texas and then winning a home series against dysfunctional Boston, the Yanks have dropped six of nine. The only series win came over hapless Cleveland and the stretch includes this week’s series loss to fading Toronto. Furthermore, C.C. Sabathia will not be on the mound during any of the weekend’s games, so the key Oriole weakness of lacking a big-time ace won’t be exposed, at least for these coming three days.

Let’s also note that New York’s lead over Tampa Bay is only 4.5 games and the Rays await on the schedule right after the Orioles. Then next weekend, New York heads south for four games in Baltimore. Crunch time came unexpectedly early for the Pinstripes. And it made an unexpected—though long-awaited—arrival in Charm City.

The AL Central has its own big showdown series, as the White Sox visit Detroit. In spite of Chicago’s rough early week in Baltimore, they’re maintaining a three-game lead because the Tigers had a week that just makes you scratch your head. They were swept in Kansas City and not only trail the ChiSox by three, but they trail the wild-card race by the same margin. With this coming weekend’s games at home, this is pretty close to must-win time for Jim Leyland’s crew. Anyone who appreciates baseball will appreciate Sunday night—the prime-time finale on ESPN features Chris Sale against Justin Verlander.

Over in the National League there’s only series where contenders square off and I don’t know that St. Louis-Washington really rises to the level of “showdown series”, given the Nats stabilized this week by splitting two with Miami and keeping a 5.5 game lead over Atlanta in the NL East. But St. Louis suddenly hit a bump in the road. On Monday night they were riding high, having come off a big weekend series win in Cincinnati and then taking the opener of a true showdown series in Pittsburgh. The veteran Cards looked ready to blow the upstart Pirates out of the water. Then the Pittsburgh pitching responded with consecutive shutouts. Then St. Louis scored just once in last night’s series opener against the Nationals. The lead over Pittsburgh in the wild-card race is down to a half-game, the lead over Los Angeles is at a game and a half and I’m sure people in St. Loo are ready to have Lance Berkman back from the disabled list on Saturday.

Other series involving contenders…

Tampa Bay-Toronto: Tampa has hit a bump on the road on the way to catching New York, losing consecutive series to the A’s and Rangers and then dropping the opener of this series yesterday by a 2-0 count where their bats did another one of those complete disappearing acts. The Jays had a good start to the week against the Yankees, but Tampa does have Jeremy Hellickson set for tonight and David Price on Sunday. The guess here is that the Rays just took a brief breather before resuming their push at the top of the AL East.

Texas-Cleveland: The Rangers beat Tampa two of three and are 10-4 in the latter part of August, while leading the American League in runs scored over the entire month. This series starts a 10-game road trip and with the Indians and Royals being where it begins, Texas needs to keep it rolling and ensure Oakland doesn’t creep any close.

Oakland-Boston: Speaking of Oakland, they just took advantage of hapless Cleveland by sweeping the Tribe four straight and closing to within four games of Texas in the AL West and moving to the top of the wild-card standings, with a three-game cushion between them and Detroit, currently the first team out. The six-game win streak overall suggest the A’s aren’t brooding over the PED-related suspension of Bartolo Colon. The Red Sox are eight games under .500, fading faster with each passing day and have neither Jon Lester or Clay Bucholz scheduled for this weekend.

LA Angels-Seattle: Los Angeles has to be disappointed they don’t play Boston anymore, with a three-game sweep concluding a 6-0 run over the Red Sox the past couple weeks. The Angels are hanging with 3.5 games of a wild-card spot and hope to get a second straight decent outing from Dan Haren tonight, and have Jered Weaver on tap for Sunday against a Mariner team still with an unlikely shot at a winning season.

Pittsburgh-Milwaukee: At various points this August, TheSportsNotebook implored Wandy Rodriguez and James McDonald to step for the Pirates’ rotation or their season would slip away. After Monday’s loss to St. Louis, it was those two pitchers who tossed the shutouts referenced above and kept the ship afloat. They better not overlook this weekend—don’t look now, but in spite of yesterday’s wild 12-11 loss in Wrigley, the Brewers have won eight of ten and are making their own run at .500. I’m looking forward to seeing the McDonald-Yovani Gallardo showdown to end this series Sunday afternoon in person.

Arizona-LA Dodgers: The first few days since their blockbuster deal with Boston have been less than stellar for the Dodgers. They lost a series to Colorado, something to takes considerable work to do these days. Josh Beckett was mediocre in his start at Coors (5.2 IP/3 ER against a lousy team) and now closer Kenley Jansen is gone for the year with a heart ailment. The Dodgers have slipped 4.5 games back of San Francisco, and had Arizona not imploded already this could have been a big series. As it is, it’s just seeing if Los Angeles can keep itself afloat in the NL West.

Cincinnati-Houston: It’s the Reds who are responsible for the final implosion of Arizona, as Cincy just swept three games in Phoenix to start the week. The lead in the NL Central has ballooned to 8.5 games and they’ll activate Joey Votto on Saturday. With the division all but assured and Washington ready to shut down Stephen Strasburg after 2-3 more starts, it’s all set up for the Reds to have homefield advantage throughout the playoffs.

San Francisco-ChiCubs: Buster Posey is not expected to play this afternoon’s series opener, though I haven’t seen any reports that this is anything serious. The Giants took advantage of their time with Houston by winning three straight, extending their lead and continuing to buy time for Tim Lincecum, who gets another chance to get his house in order when he starts Saturday afternoon.