Three Big Early Week Matchups Key Race For National League Playoffs

The road proved to be what the Los Angeles Dodgers needed. After a disappointing homestand, the Dodgers went to Miami this past weekend and stabilized the ship by winning two of three and set themselves up for a huge four-game series with the Pittsburgh Pirates on the banks of the Allegheny River starting tonight. Is it too much to say this is the biggest series for these teams since they met in the 1974 NLCS? Probably not. The Pirates are holding a 2.5 game over the Dodgers for the last wild-card berth and the hosts are coming off a tough weekend, losing a home series to lowly San Diego. Pittsburgh has slipped 4.5 games of Cincinnati and needs to plant its feet in the best series of a great early week schedule for the National League.

Los Angeles is getting good pitching right now, third in the NL in ERA since the All-Star break and Tuesday and Wednesday will be their target games, when red-hot Chad Billingsley takes the mound, followed by Clayton Kershaw. Pittsburgh needs to win Thursday’s game when James McDonald gets the ball against Joe Blanton, the mediocre veteran acquired by the Dodgers who was the one starter to lose for them in Miami. That leaves tonight’s opener as a big potential swing game in the series when it’s Jeff Karstens for the Pirates against Aaron Harang for the Dodgers. Harang has pitched in this park many times as a member of the Cincinnati Reds, but perhaps never in a bigger situation than tonight.

Other key series in the National League…

Arizona-St. Louis: Both teams are coming off series losses this weekend, the Cardinals in Philadelphia and the D-Backs at home against Washington. Ever since Arizona won TheSportsNotebook’s praise a couple weeks ago as the surging team they’ve yet to win a series and at five out in the NL West and little chance at the wild-card, this season is in danger of slipping away. St. Louis had to put Lance Berkman on the disabled list again—this time until at least early September with his troubled knee—but the Cards are getting good pitching. Adam Wainwright was sharp in his last start against San Francisco and St. Louis is just 2.5 games back of Pittsburgh for a wild-card spot.

Washington-San Francisco: The Nats are 10-3 in the month of August and have managed to build a 4.5 game over Atlanta in the NL East in spite of the fact the Braves are playing good baseball themselves. These two pitching-heavy teams also lead the National League in runs scored since the All-Star break. I’m sure it’s just a temporary hot streak and not something that’s harbinger of things to come, but at least for these series we need to be prepared for a few more runs than normal. Perhaps 5-3 type games instead of 3-2. The Wednesday finale will be a matinee special on the MLB Network and feature Tim Lincecum and Stephen Strasburg. Lincecum lost to lowly Colorado on Friday night, but the 3-0 defeat was more about the offense than him. Here’s yet another chance for the two-time Cy Young Award winner to give the Frisco fan base some confidence as they cling to a one-game lead over the Dodgers.

San Diego-Atlanta: Atlanta just completed a 4-2 swing through Philadelphia and New York and now has home series with NL West teams, as the Dodgers follow the Padres into Turner Field this week. San Diego is swinging the bats well right now, with the weekend spoiler display in Pittsburgh being one part of what’s been some pretty good play of late.

NY Mets-Cincinnati: Joey Votto’s had a setback in his recovery from a knee injury and his return will be delayed up to ten days, pushing it back to late August. With Cincy taking advantage of last weekend in Wrigley to rip off three wins and build their division lead back to 4.5, there’s no reason to rush him. And Votto’s teammates have done the job in picking up the slack. The Reds rank in 5-6 spots in the NL for both runs scored and ERA since the All-Star break, so Dusty Baker’s crew has really come together in their star’s absence.

In the American League…

Texas-NY Yanks: This series is probably more sizzle than steak, with both teams still holding respectable leads in their divisions and the likelihood is both are just racing for the #1 seed in the AL playoffs. Which is obviously not inconsequential, but for it to matter you’d have to see both teams win their Division Series matchups, the LCS go to the #1 seed and in a way that makes it clear homefield swung it. So yes, it’s possible the Rangers-Yanks race might matter, but unlikely.

What is becoming more interesting though is that the New York lead in the AL East is down to five games, with both Tampa Bay and Baltimore still lurking in striking distance. I know a lot of people are skeptical the Orioles rotation can get on the kind of hot streak needed to make up that margin, but no one doubts the Tampa staff’s ability to carry a team for seven weeks. Now the Yanks have lost C.C. Sabathia for a couple weeks, and Texas played well over the weekend, winning two of three from Detroit. And that Josh Hamilton slump of July that got such media attention has given way to a ten-game hitting streak in August.

This is the only AL series in the early part of the week where both teams are contenders, and I know it will come as a shock that a Yankee series will see all three games go on national television (Monday ESPN, Tuesday MLB Network, Wednesday ESPN). You’re right, no one was interested in any of the big National League series discussed above.

Boston-Baltimore: Oriole starter Wei-Yin Chen has been one of the underrated pitchers of this season, and with due apologies to Texas’ Yu Darvish, the best Japanese import of 2012. Chen was knocked around on Thursday by Kansas City though, and with red-hot Red Sox starter Clay Bucholz looming in the Thursday finale of this three-game set, the Birds would prefer to lock up the series the opening two nights.

Tampa Bay-Seattle: The Rays are off consecutive sweeps over Toronto and Minnesota, and their team ERA is the best in the American League since the All-Star break by over a run. Each starting pitcher is clicking and we all know what they did down the stretch last September. It’s enough to make everyone in the Bronx look nervously over their shoulder.

ChiSox-Toronto: Chicago stepped up with a clutch two-of-three weekend over Oakland at home, but this is a danger spot for the White Sox, as they hold on to a two-game lead over Detroit in the AL Central. Paul Konerko is doing a brief stint on the disabled list. Kevin Youkilis is playing, but dealing with an arm injury. Francisco Liriano was rocked on Saturday by an Oakland lineup that scares no one. Fortunately for the White Sox, Toronto is slumping and its everyday lineup is now starting to join the pitching staff in the trainer’s room.

Oakland-Kansas City: The Royals are at the bottom of the AL Central, but they aren’t going quietly against contenders in August, scraping out a four-game split in Baltimore over the weekend and beating the White Sox early last week. The A’s will give Brandon McCarthy his second start since returning from the disabled list in Wednesday’s middle game. Oakland is still just a half-game back of Baltimore for the last wild-card berth.

Detroit-Minnesota: Minnesota’s hot bats were cooled by Tampa pitching over the weekend and the Twins “caught” Kansas City at the bottom of the AL Central. This is a big series for Detroit. After finishing up in the Twin Cities they come home for nine games, so this is a chance to push past Chicago in the AL Central. And with Justin Verlander not scheduled until Thursday’s homestand opener against Baltimore, the Tigers need to show their other starters can take care of a bad team.

Cleveland-LA Angels: Can the Angels stop the bleeding? They’ve now lost three straight series, including this weekend against Seattle. And while Cleveland has been collapsing, they split four games with Boston, showing they can still match up with mediocre teams not playing to their potential, and at 60-55 that’s what the Angels have become.