Here are the most compelling matchups, stories, and personalities in Major League Baseball for the coming weekend.
The Interleague interlude continues
10. The Ongoing AL East vs. NL East Drama
I know I was hitting this theme hard last week, but I have to give fair warning that seven days later, nothing’s changed. They’re still the two best divisions in baseball, and the matchups this weekend —Yanks-Nats, Rays-Marlins, Phils-Jays, and O’s-Braves — are damn good. We’ll get more in depth later, but I thought this would be a good place for an update — since last Friday, the two divisions have played 27 games against each other. The result? 14-13 in favor of the AL East. So dramatic. I wish people kept closer track of this. There could be gambling pools, brackets, and even theme parties. I could finally wear my Mariano Rivera body suit. God, why did I spend $3,000 on that suit!
9. Theo’s Revenge (CHC-BOS)
How bad do you wish this game were in Boston, to see the world’s most (watch yourself here, Ryan, everyone you work for is from Boston) unpredictable fan base react? Alas, it’s in Chicago, where the Cubs are a red-hot 13-17, compared to their more modest 8-25 mark on the road. But the Sawx have more at stake. The Dice-K/Lester/Beckett trio needs to perform at Wrigley to continue the two-game winning streak and get back over .500. There are too many great teams in the AL East for the Sox to get away with .500 ball for much longer, and if you can’t turn it around against the InEpsteins, it probably ain’t turning at all.
8. The Hot Bat of the Week — Trevor Plouffe (MIN-MIL)
Over the past six games, Trevor Plouffe is batting .458 with 11 hits, five home runs, 10 RBIs, and nine runs scored. Yowza. It’ll be especially worth watching when he faces Zack Greinke (baseball’s best pitcher by FIP) on Sunday. (Interesting side note: Greinke will be facing baseball’s worst starting pitcher by ERA, minimum 40 innings, in Nick Blackburn. Go Twins?) We need an app or a notification system that tells us when Plouffe’s up, so we don’t have to waste time watching the rest of any Twins-Brewers game. Actually, there probably is an app for that, right? I’m a little behind. I still have a flip phone that demands complete silence and a small bowl of benzos just to send a text message.
7. Tim Lincecum’s Deferred Salvation (Saturday, SFG-SEA)
What’s happening to young Timothy? He’s had a few decent starts in 2012, but by and large, it’s been a disaster. Against Texas on Sunday, he gave up nine hits and four walks in 5⅔ innings, which might have been the low water mark of his season. This guy is too good to struggle much longer, right? According to Lincecum and his manager, Bruce Bochy, it’s a confidence issue, though the velocity charts show that his average fastball is down 2 mph from last season, and 4 mph from his average during the Cy Young campaign of 2008. But if there’s any team that will help you get your mojo back, it’s the Seattle Mariners. Granted, they’re not as offensively feeble as in recent years, but they ain’t good. And it would behoove Lincecum to take advantage of this opportunity, since the rest of his team’s starters — even Barry Zito, for god’s sake — are good to great.
If the playoff started today, the Reds would win the NL Central and the Mets would grab the second wild-card spot. This series would be higher, but the pitching matchups aren’t great; no R.A. Dickey or Johan Santana for the Mets. Still, I’m giving New York City’s second team a distinct edge here. They have a tough task with Johnny Cueto on Sunday, but Omar Quintanilla, Kirk Nieuwenhuis (two homers Thursday night), David Wright, and, shockingly, Ike Davis, are hitting the hell out of the ball. Davis is batting .471 over his last six games, raising his average to well, .188. But it’s a start, Ike, you crazy, light-hitting bastard. Next stop: Mendoza line!
5. The Sunshine and Apathy War (TBR-MIA)
In Round 1 of the Florida Derby, the Rays swept the Marlins and planted their flag in Miami. Now the teams meet in the Trop, a.k.a. “the world’s worst non-ironic baseball facility,” and the burning question is: Will anyone care? I will, at least, because these are two good teams with the potential to be very good, and both deserve better fan bases.
4. And the Angels Creep Closer (LAA-ARI, TEX-HOU)
Three games back of the Rangers and subtly advancing. But they’re going to have to do it the hard way against the D-backs, without C.J.
Williams Wilson taking the mound. And down in Texas, the Rangers will probably go full massacre on the Astros in the most lopsided Lone Star fight since the Alamo. It’s a long crawl for the Angels to the top of the AL West, but it’s already pretty surprising that they’ve hung in this long. It might be time to break out the hated rally monkey and start peeling away the banana that is the Rangers’ lead in the AL We— ah, forget it.
3. The Fight for ‘Pretty Good’ (BAL-ATL)
Make it five wins in a row for the Orioles, who continue to win a crazy number of close games. They’re now an absurd 24-9 in games that either go to extra innings or are decided by two runs or fewer, which account for more than 50 percent of their total games. It’s starting to seem less fluky and more character-oriented, and yes, I mean that as a jinx. The Braves just dropped three straight to the Yankees, but were playing good ball before that, including a six-game winning streak in early June. Both teams are in the wild-card zone in their respective leagues, and neither can afford many missteps if they plan to remain there until September. Beachy-Hammel on Saturday should be a gem.
2. Sneaky Fun (CWS-LAD)
See, it’s not all East Coast bias. This is a great little interleague treat between the AL Central leader and the current best team in baseball. In fact, it would be no. 1 on most weeks. Tonight, Chicago’s Chris Sale (best ERA in the American League at 2.05) goes against the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw (5-3, 2.65 ERA) in what I feel safe calling the second-best pitching matchup of the entire weekend. Sunday’s duel between new starter Jose Quintana and Chris Capuano is definitely in the top five, too. Keep an eye on Adam Dunn throughout — the White Sox power bat has four home runs in the past week. Also, remind me never to use the phrase “power bat” again. Something about it makes me want to take a long shower.
1. HOLY GOD, YANKEES-NATIONALS!!!!!
I’d like to make a promise in this space — I won’t let a week go by without mentioning the stupid, insane, unfair MLB blackout policy. It’s particularly awful here in North Carolina, where the Orioles and Nats are blacked out. Before, that just meant I couldn’t watch Yankees-Orioles. Annoying, but the Orioles were always terrible. But now now they’re taking away Yanks-Nationals? The most exciting series of the year? This cannot stand, MLB. This cannot stand.
Luckily, I can go to a bar with futuristic satellite technology to see these games. Huge relief, because it should be phenomenal. It’s almost a showdown between the best team in each league, but the Dodgers gum up the works in that regard. But it’s definitely a clash of the two hottest teams in baseball; since the AL East vs. NL East drama started last Friday, the Yankees are 6-0 (victims: Mets, Braves) and the Nationals are 6-0 (Red Sox, Blue Jays). This is a destiny battle, and the outcome might determine which division finally prevails.
The Nationals have a distinct edge tonight when the brilliant Gio Gonzalez takes on the improving-yet-still-uncertain Phil Hughes, and the Yanks probably own a slight edge Sunday when Ivan Nova (11 straight road decisions won, tying a Yankee record) faces a resurgent Edwin Jackson. But Saturday’s game is the gem of the weekend — Andy Pettitte, the savvy vet who seems not to have skipped a beat after skipping a year, meets Jordan Zimmermann, the unheralded but excellent Nationals third starter with a 2.91 ERA.
My excitement is already too high. If these games actually live up to their potential, MLB won’t be the only one blacking out.