The Week Ahead: Trio of clubs shifting scope of races
Padres, Royals and Blue Jays are red hot; prospects Myers, Wheeler set for debuts
In the context of a marathon season, it's easy to read too much into any short stretch of games. What may seem to be an omen instead could instead be just a blip.
For Major League Baseball's hottest teams, this week won't provide any definite answers, but it does offer an opportunity to add legitimacy to recent events. With plenty of division matchups on the docket, there is more ground to be gained -- or lost.
Three teams have put together a league-best 8-2 record over their past 10 contests, and it might not be the ones you would expect. The Blue Jays have won five consecutive games after sweeping four from the Rangers in Texas, the Royals have taken 10 of their past 12 and the Padres extended their winning streak to six with a weekend sweep of the first-place D-backs.
While all three teams helped their postseason aspirations, the Padres are in the best position, as participants in baseball's closest division battle. They now trail the D-backs by only two games but sit in fourth place, behind the Rockies (a half-game out) and Giants (1 1/2 games).
"Our goal was to be right in the middle of a pennant race," San Diego manager Bud Black said after Sunday's victory. "Our guys are responding and playing very good baseball."
The Friars have spent most of the past two months making up for a 5-15 start. This week brings them three games at San Francisco, then four at Petco Park against the last-place Dodgers. If the Padres are going to continue streaking, they might need to overcome some health problems. Left fielder Carlos Quentin missed the past two games with a sore left shoulder and spark-plug shortstop Everth Cabrera is dealing with a hamstring injury he suffered on Sunday.
While the Royals remain five games behind the first-place Tigers, they soon could find themselves in the AL Central's No. 2 spot for the first time since early May. They open a three-game set at Cleveland on Monday, taking aim at the Tribe's half-game edge.
And then there are the Blue Jays -- a preseason favorite turned lost cause, now showing signs of life. Last-place Toronto still has a big hill to climb, but a 5 1/2-game Wild Card deficit isn't insurmountable, and the club has pulled within four games of .500 for the first time since April 22. Adam Lind has been one of baseball's hottest hitters, Jose Reyes is on the comeback trail, and perhaps most importantly, the pitching staff has a 2.29 ERA in its past 12 games.
"They've done a heck of a job," manager John Gibbons said of his pitchers after Saturday's win. "Early in the season, we struggled with the consistency of our starting rotation. We struggled in other areas, too, but they're all starting to come together now. You can see it all starting to come together."
After three games against the Rockies, the Blue Jays open a crucial stretch of 10 straight against division opponents by hosting the Orioles for three.
This week features plenty of other division matchups that also carry serious implications -- no surprise, considering that 17 clubs remain within five games of first place.
The A's, who have been baseball's best team over the past month, will host the stumbling Rangers, who have lost six straight. The Rays will get shots at two of the teams ahead of them -- the Red Sox and Yankees -- hoping the debut of top prospect Wil Myers gives them a spark. The Reds and Pirates, both fighting to keep pace with the Cardinals in the NL Central, meet for four games starting on Monday in Cincinnati.
Then there are the teams still hoping to put together a week that finally will turn things around.
The Dodgers haven't won more than two games in a row since the first week of the season as they get set for a rare to Yankee Stadium, a two-game set starting on Tuesday. The Angels open a series on Monday against the Mariners, with whom they're battling for third in the AL West. The Nationals, whose sputtering offense has kept them hovering around the .500 mark, will try to find solutions -- and runs -- on Monday in Philadelphia.
"It's pretty frustrating," first baseman Adam LaRoche said after a shutout defeat on Sunday in Cleveland. "It's kind of the same old story, another day. I wish we had a solid answer, because we would have done it two months ago."
Beyond intrigue of division races, there is plenty more to look forward to in the upcoming week.
The Rangers will make their first regular-season visit -- emphasis on regular season -- to St. Louis over next weekend. Of course, the last time the teams met at Busch Stadium, the Cardinals staged one of postseason history's most dramatic rallies to win Game 6 of the 2011 World Series before going on to take Game 7.
Speaking of firsts, a couple of notable debuts lie ahead. There's Myers, MLB.com's No. 4 prospect, a right fielder who hit .354 with 10 home runs and 32 RBIs over his last 23 games at Triple-A Durham. He figures to play his first big league game Tuesday afternoon at Fenway Park.
That night, No. 7 prospect Zack Wheeler is slated to start for the Mets against the Braves. Expectations are sky high for the 23-year-old right-hander, a Georgia native who will take the ball in the nightcap at Turner Field.
"You're not going to take the pressure away from this guy," manager Terry Collins said. "You can pitch him in a boneyard, you're not going to take the pressure off this guy. Everybody in this room is going to be there. People are going to be there. It doesn't matter if it's at noon or if it's at 1 or if it's at 7. It's a big league game, his first Major League start. There's going to be a lot of heat on him."