Four Key Weekend Series In MLB Wild-Card Race

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.