The Week Ahead: Deadline looms large
Here are eight stories to keep a close eye on as season heads into August
The next week in baseball is so important that it could use an eighth day. And since the eighth month of the year begins this week, it's a good time to break down the pivotal period that begins Monday into eight parts.
With apologies to the Beatles, even though eight days this week wouldn't even be enough to show how much we care about the impact it could have on the pennant race, the postseason and beyond, we'll give it a shot.
As we head into Wednesday's 4 p.m. ET non-waiver Trade Deadline and Thursday's first day of the pivotal month of August, here are the eight biggest stories to watch around the Grand Old Game in a loaded week ahead:
1. July 31: That's this Wednesday, and while some big pieces have moved around -- right-hander Matt Garza to Texas and outfielder Alfonso Soriano to the Yankees being among the biggest so far -- there are still plenty of names being bandied about, although with many clubs still in contention, it's hard to tell who's buying, who's selling, and who might do a little bit of both.
Here are just a few of the players who could be on the movie in what always proves to be an eventful and extra-long few days: Michael Young, Joe Nathan, Justin Morneau, Jake Peavy, Ervin Santana, Bud Norris, Cliff Lee, Alex Rios, Alexei Ramirez, Matt Lindstrom, Hunter Pence, Luke Gregerson, Jeff Samardzija and Yovani Gallardo.
There could be a lot more as the standings continue to develop. And then we'll see if those standings change with the new rosters.
2. The raging Rays: Sure, they lost on Sunday -- barely. But Tampa Bay has been hotter than any team in the Majors and its starting pitching has been a big reason for it. Chris Archer is the latest young ace on the rise. He threw a shutout in Yankee Stadium on Saturday.
"As far as pitching goes and as far as everything else goes, seems like everything is falling into place for the team," Archer said. "We're just vibing. There's a chemistry that you can't put words on. And I'm not even going to try to."
This week, the Rays get a quick Monday matchup against the Red Sox before two home games against the D-backs and a weekend three-game set against the Giants in St. Petersburg.
3. The National League Central: The Cardinals are in front and have the best record in baseball. The Pirates are right there, only 1 1/2 games back. And now the two teams will go head-to-head in one monster of a series: five games in four days, including a Tuesday doubleheader.
And don't forget about the Reds. They're only five back in third place, and after three games against the Padres in San Diego this week, they'll get a good chance to make up ground over the weekend when they host St. Louis for three games.
4. Derek Jeter: The Captain was back on the field Sunday, and it didn't take long for him to do good things for his team. Jeter homered off Matt Moore on the first pitch he saw since coming back from his latest disabled list stint, sparking the Yankees to a big win over the Rays.
Now New York will try to make a postseason run as an underdog, but the return of Jeter, the addition of Soriano, who had four hits, including a homer and a walk-off single on Sunday, and the eventual return of Curtis Granderson could make things even more interesting in the American League East.
"With Jeter coming back and Soriano finishing the game like that, it feels like a new team that was born today," outfielder Ichiro Suzuki said. "Maybe this will be many more to come."
5. The Dodgers: The slow start is a distant memory. The Dodgers are tearing through their schedule, as relentless as the mercurial Yasiel Puig has been, as the rookie outfielder's first career walk-off homer in Sunday's 1-0, 11-inning triumph over the Reds was the latest in a seemingly daily highlight reel.
Los Angeles has surged to the front of the NL West, and while it holds only a 2 1/2-game lead over second-place Arizona, momentum has been in its corner for weeks.
We'll see if the Dodgers shore up their bullpen with a Deadline deal, and we'll see if Arizona decides to respond or stand pat. Regardless, the Dodgers have become required viewing.
6. On the bubble: The Cleveland Indians are still very much in the race in the AL Central. The Royals aren't that far out of it. The Orioles are hanging in there in the AL East, proving last year's magical playoff run wasn't a fluke. The Mariners have been playing better of late. Even the Rockies aren't out of it.
This week could be pivotal for all of these teams and the Trade Deadline might play into it for all of them, whether they're buying or selling.
7. The slow starters: The Angels lost to the A's on Sunday and are now 48-55 and 13 games out of first place. They're also without Albert Pujols, who went on the disabled list with a tear in his plantar fascia and could be out for the year. As we get into August, the Angels need wins badly, and it doesn't get easier in the early part of this week with a three-game road trip to Texas before a four-game weekend set at home against Toronto.
Meanwhile, in the NL East, the preseason favorite Washington Nationals are struggling, too. Washington finished up Sunday with an impressive 14-1 win over the Mets to get them to within two games of .500 at 52-54, but they still trail the Braves by 8 1/2 games in the division, and the Nationals now must go on the road for five games in a short week, with two at Detroit and three at Milwaukee.
8. The rumblings: The recent suspension of Milwaukee outfielder Ryan Braun for the remainder of the season has some observers of the game speculating that more suspensions for other players linked to the shuttered Biogenesis clinic with which Braun was connected could be coming down soon, maybe even this week. Stay tuned.