With the trade deadline come and gone, pennant races throughout both leagues will heat up. In both the NL and AL East, the race has gotten much closer over the last week. The Phillies have pulled to within 2.5 games of the Braves. The Rays are a scant 1 game behind the Yankees after winning their weekend series. Trailing the AL East leaders, the Red Sox are making a run, having won 5 out of their last 6 games. This week could see some movement in the standings, as the contenders all have some tough games ahead of them (some against each other). With the races becoming so close, this week could propel a team into first place, or could crush the hopes of fans along the eastern seaboard.
Both contenders in the NL East have tough weeks ahead of them. The Phillies start the week (on Tuesday) with a 3 game series against the Marlins in Florida, while the Braves take on the Mets in Atlanta. The Braves and Mets have played 8 times this season, with the Mets owning a 5-3 advantage. If the Mets can win the series, it will give the Phillies an opportunity to pick up a game of two on the NL East leaders. While the opportunity certainly exists, the Mets had a horrible July (going 9-17), while the Braves own an MLB best 34-13 record at home.
The Phillies need to win their series with the Marlins, who are coming off a 16-10 July in order to keep pace with the Braves. With Ryan Howard hobbled by a sprained ankle, the Phillies might be without their most consistent offensive threat for some portion of the series. Howard believes he could be back in the lineup for the series opener on Tuesday, but you have to wonder if the Phillies will rest their slugger for a game or two using him for pinch hit duty if necessary. If Howard is rested, Ross Gload or Cody Ransom would likely start at first. The Phillies will have Roy Halladay, Kyle Kendrick and Roy Oswalt going against the Fish. Thankfully, the Phillies will avoid Josh Johnson, and will contend with Sean West, Anibal Sanchez and Chris Volstad. West and Volstad are middling pitchers, neither should scare the boys from South Philly. Since both are going against superior pitchers, the Phillies are in a good place to win those games. Will they win those games? That is another story. Both are winnable, but they have to go out and get the job done. Sanchez, on the other hand, is a tough pitcher having a very good season (including a complete game shutout of the Giants in his last outing), and will pitch against Kendrick. That game looks like the most likely loss for the Phillies; however, Kendrick has pitched well in his last two starts, throwing 13.1 innings, striking out 8 and giving up only 2 earned runs. The Phillies are in an excellent position to win this series, even sweep it, but they have not performed well on the road. Their road record currently stands at 23-30, they were just 3-11 on the road in July, and lost 2 of 3 to a Nationals team that is 17 games under .500 and was without their best pitcher in Stephen Strasburg.
At the end of the week, the Braves will host the surging San Francisco Giants, while the Phillies will return home to the friendly confines of Citizens Bank Park to host the Mets. The Braves will face the top of the Giants rotation, with Tim Lincecum, Barry Zito and Matt Cain pitching the first three games. The series finale will see Jonathan Sanchez take on Derek Lowe. The Giants won the last series between these two teams (2-1) and posted a .714 winning percentage in July (20-8). Coming off a weekend sweep of the Dodgers, there is hope for Phillies’ fans. San Francisco winning is a bit of a double-edged sword, as they are the current leaders in the Wild Card race and could put more distance between themselves and the Phillies. Despite this fact, I know that I will be rooting for the boys in orange and black (it seems natural for a Philly sports fan, no?).
While the Braves take on the Giants, the Phillies will renew their rivalry with the Mets. The Mets currently own a 4-2 edge in the season series, but as stated above have been less than stellar over the past month. The Phillies will face Hisanori Takahashi, Jonathon Niese, and Johan Santana during the three games series, and will counter with Joe Blanton, Cole Hamels and Halladay. Takahashi was tough on the Phillies in his only start against them this season, pitching 6 innings of shutout ball, striking out 6. Though, if Blanton can pitch even moderately well, the Phillies should have a chance to win all three games. Hamels is a better pitcher than Niese, and has been on fire lately. The Phillies may not face Niese though, as there are rumors that his turn in the rotation will be skipped after he was blasted by the Diamondbacks in his last start. Sunday’s match up between Santana and Halladay should be a great one, as two of the best pitchers over the last decade will be squaring off. The last time Santana faced the Phillies he had one of the worst outings of his career, giving up 10 runs in 3.2 innings; and the Cardinals pounded him in his last start, scoring 7 runs in 5.2 innings.
Given the Phillies play of late, I think they pick up a couple of games this week, placing them in excellent position to retake the division lead within the next couple of weeks. Of course, this prediction is predicated on Ryan Howard coming back to play most of the week. Without Howard in the lineup, Jayson Werth and Raul Ibanez would need to continue their torrid post-All-Star play for the Phillies to have a chance.
Turning our focus to the Al East, the Sox have a massive opportunity to cut into their deficit. They start the week playing four games against a Cleveland team that just traded its best starter (Jake Westbrook) to the Cardinals, and one of its best offensive weapons (Austin Kearns) and its closer (Kerry Wood) to the Yankees. The pitching matchups clearly favor the Sox, with John Lackey, Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and Daisuke Matsuzaka lined up for the series. While the Sox will have to contend with Fausto Carmona in the first game, the pitcher for the 2nd game of the series is undecided, former Sox player Justin Masterson will pitch the third game, and Josh Tomlin, a 25-year-old rookie with 2 starts to his name (though he has been impressive in those two starts, giving up just 2 runs over 12.1 innings) will start the finale. While these games might seem like locks, the Sox are only 2-2 against the Indians this season, despite Cleveland’s season-long mediocrity. With momentum from two straight walk-off wins, the Sox are in an excellent position to win 3 or 4 of the games against the Indians. As for their competition in the AL East, The Yankees face the Blue Jays in New York, while the Rays face white-hot Twins (9-1 in their last 10 games) at Tropicana Field. Neither series will be easy for the teams with the two best records in baseball. If either falters, the Sox need to take advantage by winning a very winnable series.
Following the series against the Indians, the Sox will travel to the Bronx to take on the Yankees for 4 games. Just 3-5 against the Bronx Bombers this season, the Sox cannot afford to lose this series if they want to have a realistic shot of catching the Yankees. The already potent Yankees lineup was augmented through two trades just before the deadline. They captured the aforementioned Kearns (8 HR, 42 RBI, .271 avg, and .768 OPS), as well as Lance Berkman from the Astros. Berkman, a shadow of his former MVP caliber self, still has some pop and fits in excellently at DH. The Big Puma has struggled at the plate this year, batting just .242 – by far the lowest of his career, but still has 13 HR and a .794 OPS. He provides an upgrade at DH over the oft-injured Nick Johnson, and can spell Mark Teixeira at first base. Because the series is 4 games, the Sox aren’t lucky enough to avoid C.C. Sabathia, who will pitch Saturday’s game against Lackey. The first game will pit Clay Buchholz against Javier Vazquez, while Sunday’s game will be a battle of former Marlins with Beckett taking on A.J. Burnett. This series presents the Sox with an opportunity to cut into the Yankees’ lead, the question is can they do it? While the Sox and Yanks battle in the Bronx, the Rays will be taking on Toronto in Tampa, not exactly an easy series. Pending the outcome of the Sox-Yankess series, the Rays could find themselves in first place at the end of the week.
I think the Sox will carry their new-found momentum through the Cleveland series, winning at least 3 of the games. The biggest test of the season for the Sox will come starting Friday. With their offense and pitching back on track, the Sox have a good chance to split the series with the Yankees. If they can win the series, they will have passed their biggest test, and shaved at least 2 games off the Yankees lead.
Right now, the Phillies have a 31.9 % chance of making the playoffs according to Baseball Prospectus, while the Sox have a 26.5% chance. Hopefully, both the Sox and Phillies take care of business this week. One of my teams needs to make the playoffs!