The Oakland A’s and Los Angeles Angels are barely hanging on in the AL West race, trailing Texas by 5.5 and 6 games respectively. But the A’s lead the wild-card race and the Angels are just a game out of the playoffs as they begin a crucial three-game series in NoCal tonight. The series’ loser might be out of the division race and a sweep either way makes a big hit in the wild-card push.
On paper everything favors Los Angeles, which is hardly a surprise. The Angels are better than everyone in paper, and the A’s are worse—at least when you consider the everyday lineup measured against the other contenders. They’re hot right now, ranking 3rd in the American League in runs scored since the All-Star break. But the Angels are even hotter, leading the AL in that same timeframe, as Albert Pujols at last looks like the Albert of old. Furthermore, the pitching matchups of this series work in LAA’s favor. They have Jered Weaver set to go tonight, and in Wednesday’s matinee finale Zack Greinke can feast on unproven 23-year-old Dan Straily. At least that’s the theory. The middle game is C.J. Wilson against Bartolo Colon.
Based strictly on the matchups, you’d think there was no reason the Angels couldn’t get a sweep, and certainly win the series. But Oakland fans would remind us that if we go by what’s on paper there was no reason to even think this would be a competitive series. True enough, and if the A’s starting pitching can get games into the seventh inning, the superior Oakland bullpen could help the magic ride keep rolling.
Other matchups involving contenders in the American League…
NY Yanks-Detroit: Both teams rank about the same in runs scored and ERA since the All-Star break, but given the vast differences in home parks, that likely means the Tiger offense has been much better, while the Yankee pitching staff is far superior. This series will be Comerica Park, so it will be tougher for New York to build their offense by the long ball and they have to deal with Justin Verlander in tonight’s ESPN telecast. But the Yanks get a crack at mediocre Rick Porcello tomorrow and then throw C.C. Sabathia on Wednesday.
Toronto-Tampa Bay: The Blue Jays are still on the fringes of the race, at five games out and this is a must-win series for them. The good news is they won’t have to face David Price or Jeremy Hellickson. Neither team is swinging the bats well, but the favorable pitching schedule for Toronto gives them at least a shot.
Texas-Boston: Texas isn’t playing its best right now, but Boston just dropped three of four at home to Minnesota to effectively blow a homestand everyone knew was vital. Now the Red Sox have to deal with a team that’s beat them up so far in 2012. Red Sox Nation has been waiting for Josh Beckett and Jon Lester to turn around, and with the Sox 4.5 games out of the wild-card, with several teams to pass, their starts on Tuesday and Wednesday and probably do-or-die.
Seattle-Baltimore: Neither team throws its ace during these three games, as Felix Hernandez and Wei-Yin Chen are coming off big Saturday wins over New York and Tampa respectively. Don’t sleep on the Mariners, who are playing some of the best baseball in the American League right now. If Baltimore’s going to continue to hang, Zach Britton has to get into rhythm. He’s got an 8.35 ERA in 18 innings since his recent return from a season-long DL stint. A lot of that can be excused to finding his form again, but if there were ever a spot to get back on track a Tuesday night home start against a poor lineup would be the place to do it.
Kansas City-ChiSox: With the Royals collapsing hard, the main interest is some bigger picture issues for Chicago. Namely, how will Chris Sale do in his first start back since being shut down nine days ago with a tired arm?
In the National League…
Arizona-Pittsburgh: This is a monster four-game set and with Pittsburgh having cast its lot for the stretch drive on their pitching, this series will test it. Arizona, as documented last week, is scorching hot with the bats, particularly the long ball. The Pirates are coming off a series loss in Cincinnati over the weekend and they won’t have A.J. Burnett for this one, as he salvaged the finale for them on Sunday.
San Francisco-St. Louis: Are the Cardinals coming again? They swept reeling Milwaukee over the weekend, but run into Matt Cain in the series opener. I’ve wondered how much longer Barry Zito can keep pitching well for the Giants, and a Tuesday night start against this lineup, especially red-hot Matt Holliday, will give some kind of indication.
Cincinnati-Milwaukee: The Reds are blazing and the Brewers, as noted above, are falling apart. Milwaukee hasn’t been able to pitch well, and even if they get good outings from Yovani Gallardo on Monday or promising rookie Matt Fiers on Tuesday, if the game is close late, the Brewer bullpen makes them underdogs. In the meantime, Cincy throws ace Johnny Cueto on Tuesday and a series win here keeps them in good position with Joey Votto’s return down to about ten days away.
Atlanta-Philadelphia: I have extreme doubt that Atlanta can keep pitching like they have been since the All-Star break—second in the NL in ERA, and both the success and the skepticism are due to Ben Sheets having a buck-46 ERA in the four starts since Atlanta picked him off the slag heap. Sheets goes tonight, but the trade-decimated Philadelphia lineup doesn’t seem like the best place for the magic ride to end.
Washington-Houston: The Nationals have scored more runs than any NL team since the break. With their pitching that makes them extremely tough to beat against anyone and it turns this four-game set into a virtual mismatch. Maybe Houston has a chance against Ross Detwiler on Tuesday night, but otherwise the Nats are well-poised to at least hold their three-game lead in the NL East and perhaps build on it if Atlanta stumbles in Philly.
Colorado-LA Dodgers: Clayton Kershaw won’t pitch in this series. That’s about the only negative thing you can say about the Dodgers in this matchup, as they have a chance for a three-game sweep against a team that’s rivaling Houston for the honor of worst team in baseball.