The St. Louis Cardinals and Atlanta Braves have developed a nice little rivalry in the National League over the last couple seasons. At least it’s become a rivalry if you’re a sports fan in Atlanta.
We can start in 2011, when the Braves blew a big September lead in the wild-card race, the first step to the miracle run the Cardinals put on to eventually win the World Series. Although, as a Boston fan who lived through a similar collapse, I still maintain Atlanta deserves tremendous credit for handling its collapse with more class and far-sightedness than the Red Sox handled theirs.
Then let’s go to 2012, when the two teams faced off in the first-ever National League wild-card game. If Atlanta was embarrassed by ‘11, they had reason to be absolutely infuriated in ’12. The Braves were rallying in the eighth inning and had it cut short by an idiotic interpretation of the infield fly rule, bailing out St. Louis shortstop Pete Kozma, who had misplayed a ball well into the outfield into a bloop hit. Atlanta went home, and St. Louis got to within one game of another World Series.
Now the Cards and Braves are both in first place and possibly heading to another October showdown. It would be the next logical step—we’ve gone from regular season race in ’11, to single-game showdown in ’12. Isn’t a drawn-out battle in a best-of-five Division Series or best-of-seven League Championship Series next?
Actually, what’s next is that the teams start a three-game series tonight, and you can catch the action on MLB Network at 7:30 PM ET. Here at TheSportsNotebook, our focus will be the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, as they get set to run in Indianapolis on Sunday afternoon.
The New York Yankees are facing the crunch point of their season. They just lost two of three this weekend in Fenway Park, including an 11th-inning walkoff defeat on Sunday night. Now they fly into Texas for another competitive series against the Rangers. ESPN televises the series opener tonight at 7 PM ET.
While the Yanks are often overhyped to the extreme, we really are at a point in the schedule where they’re the most intriguing team in baseball. Can they hold on in a sequence of games against good teams and keep themselves in the playoff race in time for Jeter and A-Rod to save the day? They’ve got to steal some series wins and another chance starts tonight.
The other option in daily sports, in what’s a very quiet TV night, even by July standards, is to watch the championship game of the NBA Summer League. The teams of the Golden State Warriors and Phoenix Suns meet for the title at 9 PM ET on NBA-TV. Is it fair to say this is the biggest game these franchises have played since the Suns took Game 7 of the 1976 Western Conference Finals? Is it fair to say that perhaps 1 percent of diehard basketball fans could even tell you one player on either team?
NFL Network normally has had some pretty good programming, although today their best choice is in the mid-afternoon. A replay of last year’s Super Bowl is running at 4 PM ET. Watch the power go out, watch San Francisco make key mistakes, and watch the atrocious no-call on fourth down in the end zone all over again, as the Baltimore Ravens make Ray’s Last Ride one to remember.
Here at TheSportsNotebook we’re going to take a look at theAL East race, and then at 4 PM ET I’ll be appearing on Prime Sports Network with Greg DePalma for our usual Monday podcast. Greg will start with 15-20 minutes from golf expert Jeff Shain, as they recount how Phil Mickelson won the British Open, and then I’ll be on to talk baseball for an hour or so.
The last day of May provides sports fans with the first real taste of summer—there’s no NBA or NHL playoff action, so it’s all about baseball on the daily sports docket for Friday.
With the Red Sox-Yankees set for a three-game series in the Bronx, you know where the TV networks are going to be focused. MLB Network sends Bob Costas and Jim Kaat to cover Friday night’s series opener at 7 PM ET.
Unlike last year, when all the networks plugged this rivalry into their schedule even when Boston was awful, at least this year’s series is relevant. Boston has moved past slumping New York into first place by two games in the AL East. Even more important from the standpoint of tonight, a juicy pitching matchup is on tap—it’s Jon Lester and C. C. Sabathia getting the weekend underway.
Boston-NYY isn’t the only notable game on Friday , nor the only one with good pitching. The NL Central has a key series in a Cincinnati-Pittsburgh matchup, with the Reds are sending Johnny Cueto to the mound. A rematch of last year’s NLCS goes down in St. Louis, with the Giants throwing Matt Cain against the Cardinals’ phenom rookie, Shelby Miller.
Baseball isn’t limited to the Major Leagues either. The NCAA Tournament starts today at regional sites around the country, and from 11 AM through midnight, ESPNU will have mostly uninterrupted coverage of college baseball action. This is a double-elimination tournament that between today and Monday will pare 64 teams down to 16.
TheSportsNotebook’s focus today will be on hockey. Coming up later we’ll have NHL analysis previewing both conference finals, as Los Angeles-Chicago and Boston-Pittsburgh start up tomorrow. Over the weekend, there will be more MLB coverage coming, and on Sunday it’ll be updated NBA commentary. By then we’ll know if the Miami-San Antonio matchup in the Finals is set, or if we get set for a Monday night Game 7.
Sometimes the attraction of the daily sports schedule lies in its quantity—a Saturday afternoon of college football or basketball being a good example. And sometimes it’s about the quality of one big game. For example, a Game 7 where a heavy favorite has been pushed the limit by a team that might be an underdog, but has a storied history.
And if the two franchises are bitter rivals on top of it? So much the better. Such as the case on Wednesday night, as the Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings play the decisive game of their NHL Western Conference semi-final.
If you’re not into the hockey scene, MLB Network has baseball from the East Coast tonight. It’s either Red Sox-Phillies or Mets-Yankees in the 7 PM ET slot. And if you want to go beyond the game, the NFL Network has an interesting one-hour feature called “A Football Life”, about the late Reggie White and Jerome Brown. Both men were part of some outstanding Philadelphia Eagles’ defensive lines in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Brown was a feared player going all the way back to his days playing college ball at Miami. As for White, he was arguably the best defensive lineman ever to play the game, and would later go on to Green Bay and win a Super Bowl.
TheSportsNotebook will have NBA commentary coming up later today. We’ll look at the Indiana-Miami series, now that the Pacers have evened it up heading back to South Beach from Game 5. And we’ll celebrate San Antonio and look at how the Spurs swept Memphis home in the West.
The Pittsburgh Pirates haven’t won a series in September. The Milwaukee Brewers haven’t lost one since the August 17-19 weekend, and the two teams moving in opposite directions have finally crisscrossed in the standings. The Pirates dropped two of three in Wrigley Field over the weekend, while the Brewers rebounded from a Friday night loss to capture a home series with the New York Mets. Milwaukee has moved a half-game ahead of Pittsburgh in the NL wild-card race, with both teams having to catch Los Angeles and St. Louis.
With 2 ½ weeks to go in the MLB playoff race it’s fair to say the Brewers-Pirates three-game series in Pittsburgh starting Tuesday is virtually an elimination series. Milwaukee’s scoring more runs than any National League team for the month of September and Pittsburgh pitching is giving up more. Clint Hurdle turns to A.J. Burnett in the opener and then to Wandy Rodriguez in the matinee finale on Thursday to see if he can turn the tide, in what will be the biggest series in baseball between now and the weekend, and the biggest matchup between these two sports markets since the Packers-Steelers Super Bowl following the 2010 season.
Pittsburgh might be discouraged with their September pitching, but perhaps no team has more reason to be surprised by September results than the Los Angeles Dodgers do with their offense. In spite of adding Hanley Ramirez, Shane Victorino and Adrian Gonzalez, the Dodgers have the worst offense in the NL this month. They managed to split four with St. Louis and are still only a game out of the wild-card, but now they make a road trip to Washington to start the week. The Dodgers won’t have to face Gio Gonzalez, the new Nats ace now that Stephen Strasburg is shut down, but now they have to worry about Clayton Kershaw’s health after he was scratched from his start against St. Louis. LA is only a game and a half up on Milwaukee right now and with the way the Brewers are playing, it seems like a matter of time before the Dodgers finally give way.
Los Angeles’ other team, the Angels, is still hanging in. The Halos rebounded from a disastrous series against Oakland last week to pick up a couple weekend wins over Kansas City and hanging within 2.5 games of Baltimore for the final wild-card spot, and Los Angeles has moved past Tampa Bay and Detroit, albeit not by much. Now they take on AL West-leading Texas and have the rotation set for Jered Weaver, C.J. Wilson and Zack Greinke to go. If LAA wins, it tightens up the wild-card race and may also further tighten the AL West race. While the Angels aren’t a factor there, Oakland continues to keep on Texas’ heels. The A’s won a big weekend series over the Orioles at home remain just three games back for a division title that likely also carries the #1 seed in the AL playoffs with it.
Oakland takes on Detroit in Comerica Park starting Tuesday night. The Tigers faced must-win time on the road last week and responded, going 4-2 in Chicago and Cleveland and are still two games out in the AL Central. Before getting to the Oakland series though, the Tigers play a makeup game with the White Sox on Monday afternoon, a makeup of last Thursday’s rainout. Detroit sends Doug Fister, who beat Chicago last Wednesday to the mound this afternoon and will have Justin Verlander lined up for Wednesday night back home. For their part, the White Sox swept three in the Twin Cities with a shutout from Chris Sale on Friday and Francisco Liriano taking a no-hitter into the eighth inning on Saturday. Chicago plays three against Kansas City starting Tuesday, with Sale set to pitch the finale.
Other series involving contenders are…
Boston-Tampa Bay: It was a disastrous road swing for the Rays as they lost five of six to Baltimore and New York and are now five out in the AL East and four back in the wild-card. The good news? Four home games with Boston start a nine-game diet of Red Sox & Blue Jays that are just the ticket for a team that needs to win a lot of games in a hurry.
Toronto-NY Yanks: All eyes are on Andy Pettite as he returns to the mound for the opener on Tuesday night in the Bronx. Last week was a survival one for the Yanks, who played six close games against Boston & Tampa and managed to win four. But one of the losses came when C.C. Sabathia was roughed up and further underscored how much the Yanks need a big-time pitcher to step up right now.
Baltimore-Seattle: Prior to last weekend in Oakland, the Birds hadn’t lost a series since August 20-22 in Texas. But even just taking one game in Oakland clinched Baltimore’s first winning season since 1997. Now they continue a nine-game road swing with Felix Hernandez awaiting them on Wednesday night.
Houston-St. Louis: Was anything more unexpected this past weekend than Houston taking three of four from Philadelphia? Now the 48-99 Astros take the spoiler game to St. Louis, whose split in Los Angeles salvaged a tough West Coast trip and kept them in the wild-card lead.
Atlanta-Miami: The Braves swept the Nationals this weekend, keeping themselves at least breathing in the NL East race, at 5.5 games back and in complete command on securing at least one wild-card spot. Atlanta also activated Ben Sheets from the disabled list, though he won’t pitch in this series. Kris Medlen will though, as the red-hot starter goes in Wednesday’s finale.
Cincinnati-ChiCubs: Cincy couldn’t take advantage of Miami this weekend, losing two of three, though they remain 4.5 games up on NL West-leading San Francisco for homefield advantage in what would be a Division Series matchup if the season ended today. And even one win for the Reds nudged them closer to Washington for the top seed and right to play the wild-card game winner in the divisional playoff round. The Reds send Cy Young candidate Johnny Cueto to the hill on Wednesday.
Philadelphia & Arizona both lost weekend series, to Houston and San Francisco respectively. The Phils and Diamondbacks are 4 and 4.5 games out, a number that by itself is doable, but the Pirates, Brewers, Dodgers and Cardinals all to catch—in addition to beating out each other, and given the fact that both Philly and Arizona are sub-.500, they both should be moved off the playoff radar screen unless they sweep to start the week. The Phils are in Citi Field to play the Mets, while the Diamondbacks host the Padres.
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.
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.
The Tampa Bay Rays and Texas Rangers have met in the playoffs each of the last two years, with the Rangers winning both times en route to consecutive American League pennants. The October foes square off again to start the week, and while Texas is secure, 5.5 games up in the AL West, Tampa Bay is battling tooth and nail for a wild-card spot as well as keeping their eyes on the New York Yankees ahead of them in the AL East. The Rangers-Rays series in Arlington keynotes the opening half of the week in the race for the MLB playoffs.
Texas has won three consecutive series since being wiped out in the Bronx a couple weeks ago, when they lost three of four in a showcase series against the Yanks. But the Rangers are scoring more runs than anyone in the league this month, and those series wins have produced a 7-3 record. After these next three home games with Tampa, including ESPN coverage for tonight’s opener the Rangers go on a 10-game road swing that ends in Tampa. The overall stretch of 13 games that starts tonight could be the last real chance for a Rangers’ slide significant enough to jeopardize their division title.
Tampa Bay cooled on Friday and Saturday, losing to Oakland and then taking a rare Sunday off because of the Republican convention in their hometown. With the hurricane on the way, plus all the political windbags (don’t interpret that as a partisan shot—merely a shot at all politicians), the Rays are escaping town at the right time. David Price pitches tonight’s series opener on ESPN and James Shields is lined up tomorrow.
The last time the Chicago White Sox and Baltimore Orioles played a series this big was probably 1983, whenthe Orioles won a hard-fought ALCS en route to a World Series title. Certainly no one would have circled this series as one of the biggest in baseball back when the season began. But the White Sox just completed a 6-0 homestand, starting it with the Yanks and then sweeping the under-the-radar hot team in the Seattle Mariners. The Orioles won the first two of their series with Toronto before a Sunday rainout, including a big win from Zach Britton on Friday whom they need to have pitch well in September.
Baltimore also got veteran pitching help, dealing away a piece of their bullpen depth in Matt Lidstrom to Arizona for Joe Saunders, who was part of playoff teams for the Los Angeles Angels a few years ago and a solid middle-of-the-rotation starter. He’ll make his Oriole debut in the Wednesday finale here against Jake Peavy. The White Sox send Chris Sale to the mound on Tuesday, as the lefthander continues his own fabulous year.
The big series in the National League is the St. Louis-Pittsburgh battle on the confluence of the Three Rivers. It was only eight days ago that the Pirates won a 19-inning epic in St. Loo to take the rubber game of a series. But maybe it’s appropriate that a former Cardinal manager, Whitey Herzog once said that baseball is about how you react after the big series (I don’t know if Whitey was the first to say it, but I was about 10 when this happened so he’s the first person I heard it from). What’s happened since is that the Pirates have lost five of six to the Padres and Brewers. And the Cards came up with an enormous weekend in Cincinnati, where they took two of three from the division-leading Reds. Friday night’s opener, when St. Louis rallied from 5-2 down against Mat Latos to win set the tone for the weekend it’s why the Cardinals are still holding the lead in the race for the second wild-card spot.
As to the Pirates, I said prior to the weekend series that Wandy Rodriguez had been brought in to pitch games like Friday’s opener against Milwaukee, where the team needed him to stop a slide. He got knocked off the mound by a sub-.500 team. If he can beat St. Louis in the Wednesday finale, shown to the nation on ESPN, it would make amends for that. Pittsburgh is two back in the race, trailing both the Dodgers and Cardinals.
Other series involving contenders…
Cincinnati-Arizona: Because St. Louis is a rival the weekend series was a disappointment, but the Reds are still six up in the Central and they didn’t have 16-game-winner Johnny Cueto facing St. Louis, which tells you how important they thought the series was. Cueto will get the ball on Tuesday night here, bracketed by Bronson Arroyo on Monday and Latos on Wednesday. They face a Diamondbacks team that, rather than coming on strong like I’ve been waiting for, has folded up the cards. A stunning series sweep at the hands of San Diego has pushed them off the playoff radar and while Lidstrom was a nice pickup for the bullpen, the trading of Saunders indicates Kirk Gibson and company are quietly walking away from the table.
Washington-Miami: The Nats have finally cooled down, being swept by Philadelphia over the weekend and this two-game series wraps up a brief road trip. Stephen Strasburg goes on Tuesday night.
Atlanta-San Diego: San Diego has been the Seattle of the National League, getting on a couple different hot streaks and throwing a monkey wrench into the playoff race. The leveling of Arizona gives them seven straight wins. Atlanta’s coming off a nice series in San Francisco, including Tim Hudson’s gem last night for the ESPN audience, but Ben Sheets’ shoulder has finally acted up and sent him to the disabled list. He wasn’t scheduled to pitch until Friday so it won’t affect this series, but the pressure on the Braves just got a little tighter.
San Francisco-Houston: The Giants start a six-game road trip, but would you rather play the Astros and Cubs on the road or anyone else in baseball at home? At least Tim Lincecum, who had another bad outing last night, doesn’t have to be endured by Frisco fans until the weekend. The Giants are still plus-two on the Dodgers in the NL West, with both teams behind St. Louis for the wild-card cushion.
LA Dodgers-Colorado: Los Angeles is the talk of baseball right now after the weekend extravaganza of their trade with Boston. Before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s remember Chad Billingsley has gone on the disabled list, so even if Josh Beckett returns to form, it’s still a wash at the #2 spot in the rotation. Will Beckett return to form? We’ll get our first hint tonight when he makes his debut in Coors Field against Jeff Francis—ironically the same man he faced in Game 1 of the 2007 World Series.
Oakland-Cleveland: I suppose we should give the Indians credit for scraping out one win over New York this weekend, but they’ve still lost nine of ten and for an Oakland team that’s coming off the clutch wins in Tampa and is tied with Baltimore for the last wild-card, these four games are an ideal chance to make some headway. And perhaps cut into Texas’ lead in the AL West.
Toronto-NY Yanks: The Yankees have to be nervous. To only score eight runs in three games off Cleveland pitching is not a good sign, although seeing C.C. Sabathia deliver an ace-like outing in Friday’s win is a good sign. But they’ve slipped behind Texas in the race for the top seed in the American League and both the Rays and Orioles have cut the division lead down under five games. At least the schedule works out for New York. Toronto rolled over in Camden Yards on the weekend and put Jose Bautista back on the disabled list. And Sabathia is set to go in the Wednesday matinee finale.
Detroit-Kansas City: Detroit’s hanging in with red-hot Chicago, as the Tigers took two of three from the Angels and stayed within 2.5 games of the lead in the AL Central and a half-game back of Oakland/Baltimore for the second wild-card. The won the Angels’ series in spite of Justin Verlander, who pitches tonight’s opener, not being on the mound. Detroit’s pitching overall is third in the American League this month. Conversely, Kansas City has split its last ten and moved up to third place in the AL Central. At 56-70, the Royals can still finish with a halfway respectable record if they’re motivated to do so.
Boston-LA Angels: If both teams had lived up to expectations, the anticipation of tonight’s Jered Weaver-Clay Bucholz opener would be electric. As it is, we have to see what to expect from the Red Sox in the wake of their detonation of the roster. As far as LAA, all you can really say is that at least Zack Greinke finally pitched a good game, beating the Tigers 2-1 on Friday. But for this talented and desperate team not to win a must-win series when Verlander wasn’t on the slate is a huge disappointment. LAA is four back in the wild-card race and has to vault over Detroit, Baltimore and Oakland. The Angels need a sweep and an emotionally reeling Boston team is an ideal target.
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.
The wild-card race is running full steam in both leagues as we hit the third weekend of August, and both the American & National League have two big head-to-head series going down over the next three days, as TheSportsNotebook dives into what’s ahead for the weekend in baseball..
Pittsburgh-St. Louis: The Pirates are coming off an 11-game homestand that saw them go 4-7, including a disastrous four-game set against the Dodgers that just wrapped up. Pittsburgh’s lead over St. Louis in the race for the second wild-card is down to a single game and the Pirates’ pitching is reeling. The team’s 5.28 ERA for August is 15th in the National League and a big part of the problem will be showcased tonight. James McDonald, the most reliable pitcher on the staff in the first part of the season, has given up 26 runs in his last 26 innings and though he gets the start in the Friday opener, the rumors of his banishment to the bullpen are picking up. These are trying times for Clint Hurdle right now.
LA Dodgers-Atlanta: Both teams are on a roll right now, as the Dodgers have won 5 of 7 on their current road trip and saw rival San Francisco take a blow when Melky Cabrera was suspended for PED use. The Braves have won seven consecutive series and while they haven’t made a dent in the NL East lead of the hot Washington Nationals, Atlanta is now four games up for the playoffs and continuing to get surprisingly good pitching. It could get better when Tommy Hanson makes his return from the disabled list tonight.
Baltimore-Detroit: It’s a contrast in styles, as the Tigers are swinging the bats well, while the Orioles are getting good pitching. Baltimore is 4-0-1 in their series during the month of August, including wins over Tampa, New York and a just-completed two-of-three over Boston. Detroit got a needed series win over Minnesota, cooling down a hot lineup in games started by Max Scherzer and Doug Fister, and now the Tigers are set up with Justin Verlander going in tonight’s opener against the Orioles. The Sunday finale promises to be a good one, with Baltimore’s underrated Wei-Yin Chen getting the ball against Fister.
Tampa Bay-LA Angels: The two best starting rotations in the American League go head-to-head, although with Dan Haren and Zack Greinke struggling, the Angels’ pitchers aren’t acting like they belong. Haren certainly didn’t last night in a 7-0 loss to start this four-game set, although if nothing else the Halos won’t have to see David Price the rest of the weekend. The Sunday finale has Greinke going against Matt Moore, who has a 1.43 ERA in his last six starts. Tampa Bay, in spite of the embarrassment of being victimized by Felix Hernandez’s perfect game on Wednesday and losing the series in Safeco, is still holding down a wild-card spot, while the Angels are two games out after a needed series win in Cleveland.
Other series involving contenders…
Boston-NY Yanks:New York’s pitching held up fine without C.C. Sabathia in taking three games out of four from Texas to start the week, with David Phelps, Hiroki Kuroda and Freddy Garcia all looking sharp. The offense leads the AL in runs scored during August. Unless Red Sox starters’ Josh Beckett (Saturday) and Jon Lester (Sunday) are interested in redeeming themselves on national TV this weekend, the Yanks are going to enjoy these next three days. Incidentally, though I’m a Red Sox fan and will gladly watch them on TV, how is it that none of the four marquee series featured above were seen as more noteworthy than these games for national attention? Note to Fox & ESPN—It’s not 2003-05 anymore.
Texas-Toronto: The Rangers are still swinging the bats well, in spite of the problems in New York, ranking 2nd to the Yanks in scoring runs this month. But the pitching is a bigger concern with each passing day for Texas. If Yu Darvish and Ryan Dempster are going to be impact pitchers down the stretch and in the playoffs, their Friday and Saturday starts would be good places to begin.
ChiSox-Kansas City: The White Sox have won five of seven, including beating up on Toronto north of the border and are getting good pitching. Chicago’s got its 1-2-3 of Chris Sale, Jake Peavy and Jose Quintana lined up as they try and get a little payback for the Royals taking two of three on the South Side a week and a half ago.
Cleveland-Oakland: Oakland returns home after losing consecutive series on the road to Chicago and Kansas City and to no one’s surprise, the A’s are struggling offensively, at 12th in the AL during August. But the Indians let the Angels get well against them with a couple wins and now can do the same thing for the A’s.
NY Mets-Washington: The Nationals haven’t lost a series since the All-Star break, are doing everything well and their 73-45 record is the best in the majors. They’re up four on Atlanta for the NL East and two on Cincinnati for the top seed in the National League, that will equate to homefield throughout the postseason. The Mets are a shadow of the team that hung around in contention for a lot of the first half and R.A. Dickey’s not in the weekend rotation.
ChiCubs-Cincinnati: Cincy just finished off a series win over those struggling Mets and is blowing open the NL Central race, with a six-game lead on Pittsburgh and seven-game cushion on St. Louis. The pitching rotation lines up well for the Reds this weekend, as Bronson Arroyo goes Friday, Johnny Cueto on Saturday and Mat Latos on Sunday. The interesting game will be a doubleheader nightcap on Saturday, where Dusty Baker hasn’t yet slotted a starter. The Reds might be relying on their offense to slug their way through in that one. In that regard, Joey Votto’s return from the DL is still at least a week and a half off and with the standings as they are, there’s no reason to rush him.
San Francisco-San Diego: This is a danger spot for the Giants as they deal with the fallout—psychological, practical and PR-wise—from Cabrera’s suspension and they begin a six-game road swing against the Padres and Dodgers. When in a danger spot who better to turn to than Matt Cain? That’s who San Fran sends to the mound tonight in a game that has significance beyond what might have been imagined a week ago.
The Detroit Tigers and Texas Rangers are each on a stretch of playing decent baseball, as last year’s ALCS teams look to again make it to October and go deep. The Tigers split four with the Yankees earlier in the week. I suppose that can be considered modestly disappointing, as they won the first two at home and hit C.C. Sabathia hard in the third game before losing 12-8. But a split with one of the league’s best teams is never a bad thing and it fits into an overall stretch of consistency for Jim Leyland’s team. Texas, after losing the first two games of their series with the Angels early last week, responded by winning the next two and salvaging a split and then taking two of three from Kansas City and Boston.
Detroit is one game out in the AL Central race, trailing the Chicago White Sox and they’re tied with the Baltimore Orioles for the second wild-card spot. Both the Tigers and Orioles are only a half-game behind Oakland for the lead wild-card spot, although all three teams have Tampa Bay and Los Angeles closely in the rearview mirror. Texas’ strong run has kept their lead in the AL West at a comfortable 5.5 games over Oakland, and the Rangers are a half-game ahead of New York for the top seed in the American League playoffs. This one of two hotly contested matchups on the AL landscape this week, and we’ll see Justin Verlander pitch Saturday and the struggling Yu Darvish tries to turn it around on Sunday for the Rangers.
Other series involving contenders in the American League…
Oakland-ChiSox: The A’s came up with a couple big-time wins over the Angels earlier this week, including hitting Zack Greinke hard in a 9-8 win in Wednesday’s rubber match. The White Sox missed an opportunity, dropping two straight to Kansas City after taking the series opener. This weekend’s games feature important pitching storylines. Brandon McCarthy makes his return from the disabled list in Friday night’s opener and Francisco Liriano goes for the White Sox on Saturday. As noted above, both teams hold narrow lead for playoff spots, Chicago for the AL Central title. Sunday’s game will get some national attention at 2 PM ET on TBS.
Kansas City-Baltimore: Are the Royals set to play spoiler? After the aforementioned wins over Chicago, KC won the opener of this four-game set in Camden Yards last night. Baltimore’s a hot team though, having won consecutive series over New York and Tampa Bay on the road, then sweeping Seattle earlier this week. Orioles manager Buck Showalter still has to patch together starting pitching though. Zach Britton did not pitch well on Tuesday and was sent back down to the minors. Chris Tillman, on the other hand, has continued to be effective and he gets the ball Saturday night. Baltimore also brought up highly touted third-base prospect Manny Machado, who went 2-for-4 in his major league debut last night.
Tampa Bay-Minnesota: Since the All-Star break, Tampa pitching has been the best in the American League. No surprise there. In that same timespan, the Minnesota offense has been the second-best in the American League. Big surprise there. The Rays are playing well though, having won 10 of their last 15, including this week’s sweep of Toronto and they have Jeremy Hellickson and David Price lined up to pitch the first two games of this series.
Seattle-LA Angels: Los Angeles’ pitching is faltering badly, with a 5.36 ERA in the season’s second half and since missing the chance to take a series from Texas early last week, they’ve dropped key series to Chicago and Oakland, amidst increasing discontent over the work of the bullpen. The offense has produced more runs than anyone since the break, but the Halos are still a game out in the packed wild-card race. This series starts a 10-game homestand where they simply have to get well. It might not start tonight, when Ervin Santana faces Felix Hernandez, but if the Mariners, then the Indians, can’t solve the LAA slide, then this team is really in trouble.
NY Yanks-Toronto: Toronto’s three straight losses to Tampa have effectively buried any longshot hopes the Jays had of making the playoffs. New York is kind of just middling along right now, but still maintains a comfortable 5.5 game cushion in the AL East. What’s not comfortable for Joe Girardi is consecutive starts by Freddy Garcia, Ian Nova and Phil Hughes, like he has on tap in the Rogers Centre this weekend. Nova, in particular, might be pitching for his job after getting hammered in Detroit on Monday night.
In the National League…
Washington-Arizona: The Nats took advantage of a soft spot in the schedule and swept Houston fourstraight, and keeping Atlanta at arm’s length in the NL East. Arizona survived a four-game series in Pittsburgh where they pulled out a couple wins. Both teams are swinging the bats well, the two most prolific offenses in the National League since the All-Star break, but Washington has done the better job of combining it with pitching. Stephen Strasburg goes Friday night as he pushes closer to the magic 160-inning mark when he’ll allegedly be shut down for the season.
Atlanta-NY Mets: Atlanta’s playing well, and took two of three in Philadelphia, as Ben Sheets’ magic continued with an opening game win over the Phils. Atlanta still leads the wild-card race and won’t have to face R.A. Dickey this weekend. The nation can watch Sheets’ revival on Sunday night when this series gets the ESPN spotlight.
Cincinnati-ChiCubs: What happened to the Reds? No one’s going to stay hot forever, but to go from playing the best ball in the majors, to coughing up three home games and then losing the series opener in Wrigley last night is a pretty extreme swing. Cincy still holds a 2.5 game lead in the NL Central and has ace Johnny Cueto in reserve for Sunday’s finale.
San Diego-Pittsburgh: The Pirates still share the lead for the wild-card spots with Atlanta and have a 2.5 game cushion, along with trailing Cincy by the same margin in the NL Central. But the alarm bells are there with the pitching, which is in the bottom half of the National League since the break. James McDonald, A.J. Burnett and Erik Bedard have to turn it around against an anemic Padre lineup this weekend.
St. Louis-Philadelphia: St. Louis is hitting well right now, and split four games at home with San Francisco this week. But the Cards are also pitching well, with the #2 ERA in the National League in the second half. Kyle Lohse puts his 12-2 record on the line tonight against Roy Halladay.
Colorado-San Francisco: The Giants join the Nationals as a pitching-heavy team that’s hot with the bats right now. Nothing would make Frisco feel better though, than a good outing from Tim Lincecum in tonight’s series opener. Colorado created problems for Los Angeles, winning twice against the Dodgers earlier this week and now looks to spread the misery around their divisional contenders.
LA Dodgers-Miami: Los Angeles starts a seven-game road trip after the aggravating losses to Colorado brought an end to a 4-5 homestand. Maybe the road is what Don Mattingly’s team needs. If nothing else, tonight’s start by Clayton Kershaw would be what any team needs. With a four-game set in Pittsburgh looming right after this, Los Angeles needs to right the ship quickly.
The Oakland A’s and Los Angeles Angels are barely hanging on in the AL West race, trailing Texas by 5.5 and 6 games respectively. But the A’s lead the wild-card race and the Angels are just a game out of the playoffs as they begin a crucial three-game series in NoCal tonight. The series’ loser might be out of the division race and a sweep either way makes a big hit in the wild-card push.
On paper everything favors Los Angeles, which is hardly a surprise. The Angels are better than everyone in paper, and the A’s are worse—at least when you consider the everyday lineup measured against the other contenders. They’re hot right now, ranking 3rd in the American League in runs scored since the All-Star break. But the Angels are even hotter, leading the AL in that same timeframe, as Albert Pujols at last looks like the Albert of old. Furthermore, the pitching matchups of this series work in LAA’s favor. They have Jered Weaver set to go tonight, and in Wednesday’s matinee finale Zack Greinke can feast on unproven 23-year-old Dan Straily. At least that’s the theory. The middle game is C.J. Wilson against Bartolo Colon.
Based strictly on the matchups, you’d think there was no reason the Angels couldn’t get a sweep, and certainly win the series. But Oakland fans would remind us that if we go by what’s on paper there was no reason to even think this would be a competitive series. True enough, and if the A’s starting pitching can get games into the seventh inning, the superior Oakland bullpen could help the magic ride keep rolling.
Other matchups involving contenders in the American League…
NY Yanks-Detroit: Both teams rank about the same in runs scored and ERA since the All-Star break, but given the vast differences in home parks, that likely means the Tiger offense has been much better, while the Yankee pitching staff is far superior. This series will be Comerica Park, so it will be tougher for New York to build their offense by the long ball and they have to deal with Justin Verlander in tonight’s ESPN telecast. But the Yanks get a crack at mediocre Rick Porcello tomorrow and then throw C.C. Sabathia on Wednesday.
Toronto-Tampa Bay: The Blue Jays are still on the fringes of the race, at five games out and this is a must-win series for them. The good news is they won’t have to face David Price or Jeremy Hellickson. Neither team is swinging the bats well, but the favorable pitching schedule for Toronto gives them at least a shot.
Texas-Boston: Texas isn’t playing its best right now, but Boston just dropped three of four at home to Minnesota to effectively blow a homestand everyone knew was vital. Now the Red Sox have to deal with a team that’s beat them up so far in 2012. Red Sox Nation has been waiting for Josh Beckett and Jon Lester to turn around, and with the Sox 4.5 games out of the wild-card, with several teams to pass, their starts on Tuesday and Wednesday and probably do-or-die.
Seattle-Baltimore: Neither team throws its ace during these three games, as Felix Hernandez and Wei-Yin Chen are coming off big Saturday wins over New York and Tampa respectively. Don’t sleep on the Mariners, who are playing some of the best baseball in the American League right now. If Baltimore’s going to continue to hang, Zach Britton has to get into rhythm. He’s got an 8.35 ERA in 18 innings since his recent return from a season-long DL stint. A lot of that can be excused to finding his form again, but if there were ever a spot to get back on track a Tuesday night home start against a poor lineup would be the place to do it.
Kansas City-ChiSox: With the Royals collapsing hard, the main interest is some bigger picture issues for Chicago. Namely, how will Chris Sale do in his first start back since being shut down nine days ago with a tired arm?
In the National League…
Arizona-Pittsburgh: This is a monster four-game set and with Pittsburgh having cast its lot for the stretch drive on their pitching, this series will test it. Arizona, as documented last week, is scorching hot with the bats, particularly the long ball. The Pirates are coming off a series loss in Cincinnati over the weekend and they won’t have A.J. Burnett for this one, as he salvaged the finale for them on Sunday.
San Francisco-St. Louis: Are the Cardinals coming again? They swept reeling Milwaukee over the weekend, but run into Matt Cain in the series opener. I’ve wondered how much longer Barry Zito can keep pitching well for the Giants, and a Tuesday night start against this lineup, especially red-hot Matt Holliday, will give some kind of indication.
Cincinnati-Milwaukee: The Reds are blazing and the Brewers, as noted above, are falling apart. Milwaukee hasn’t been able to pitch well, and even if they get good outings from Yovani Gallardo on Monday or promising rookie Matt Fiers on Tuesday, if the game is close late, the Brewer bullpen makes them underdogs. In the meantime, Cincy throws ace Johnny Cueto on Tuesday and a series win here keeps them in good position with Joey Votto’s return down to about ten days away.
Atlanta-Philadelphia: I have extreme doubt that Atlanta can keep pitching like they have been since the All-Star break—second in the NL in ERA, and both the success and the skepticism are due to Ben Sheets having a buck-46 ERA in the four starts since Atlanta picked him off the slag heap. Sheets goes tonight, but the trade-decimated Philadelphia lineup doesn’t seem like the best place for the magic ride to end.
Washington-Houston: The Nationals have scored more runs than any NL team since the break. With their pitching that makes them extremely tough to beat against anyone and it turns this four-game set into a virtual mismatch. Maybe Houston has a chance against Ross Detwiler on Tuesday night, but otherwise the Nats are well-poised to at least hold their three-game lead in the NL East and perhaps build on it if Atlanta stumbles in Philly.
Colorado-LA Dodgers: Clayton Kershaw won’t pitch in this series. That’s about the only negative thing you can say about the Dodgers in this matchup, as they have a chance for a three-game sweep against a team that’s rivaling Houston for the honor of worst team in baseball.