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Pennant race matchups highlight must-attend games for July

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The Pirates have taken three of five from the Cardinals this year, but the two teams haven't met since late April.

July is a key month in the baseball season as it brings the campaign's mid-way point, the All-Star game and, most significantly, the non-waiver trading deadline on the 31st. It is thus the month that we transition from wondering how the pennant races are going to shape up to watching them play out. That means that teams still trying to figure out where they stand as contenders have just 30 days to sort it out. With that in mind, here are the five series to attend for the month, each featuring a team whose status as a contender could be very different come August.

July 5-8: Tigers at Indians

The Indians enter July tied for first place in the American League Central with the Tigers. However, they still have just the sixth-best record in the league and are a game behind Detroit in the loss column. Cleveland, meanwhile, is now a combined 15-7 against the three teams behind it in the division, but just 2-6 against the Tigers this season.

This four-game Friday-Monday set is in Cleveland, where the Tribe has a .615 winning percentage this season. It's also an opportunity for the Indians to make a statement about their legitimacy as a playoff contender, as well as an opportunity for the underperforming Tigers, who hope to activate Anibal Sanchez to start the Saturday game, to beat back the Cleveland charge. The other pitching probable are Rick Porcello and Justin Masterson on Friday, Doug Fister and Corey Kluber on Sunday, and Max Scherzer and Scott Kazmir on Monday.

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July 8-10: Dodgers at Diamondbacks

The Dodgers may still be in last place in the National League West, but they enter July just four games out of first place after having won eight of their last nine. Their first 13 games in July come against intradivision foes, the most important of which are these three against the division-leading Diamondbacks. The last time these two teams met, they erupted in a full-on brawl, and the two pitchers whose stray offerings triggered that melee will be back on the bump in this series, Los Angeles' Zack Greinke in Monday's opener and Arizona's Ian Kennedy in Tuesday's contest.

The Dodgers, who have a mere .371 winning percentage on the road, should have Carl Crawford back by the time this series comes around, though it remains to be seen how L.A. skipper Don Mattingly intends to squeeze Crawford, Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier and rookie sensation Yasiel Puig into his lineup. Not expected to participate in this series, however, are staff aces Clayton Kershaw and Patrick Corbin.

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July 12-14: Blue Jays at Orioles

The Blue Jays pulled themselves over .500 with an 11-game winning streak in late June but still enter July in last place in the AL East. They only have six games against intradivison opponents this month and the first and most challenging will be these three against the Orioles in Baltimore on the month's second weekend.

The Jays swept the O's in Toronto at the end of their winning streak, and have since activated Jose Reyes from the disabled list, but they remain 6 ½ games behind Baltimore for the second wild card spot coming into the month. Toronto should have R.A. Dickey and Josh Johnson on the hill for the bookend games.

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July 19-21: Yankees at Red Sox

For much of the season, the projected returns of several of the Yankees' injured stars have been listed as "after the All-Star break." Well, this is the first series after the break, and it's a big one, coming against the AL East-leading Red Sox. The big question is how many of New York's injured players will be back in the lineup by the time this series rolls around. Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez are finally making meaningful progress in their rehab, and catcher Francisco Cervelli, who was red-hot early in the season before suffering a broken hand, and shortstop Eduardo Nuñez are even more likely to be back by then.

That Cervelli and Nuñez could improve the Yankees' outlook says a lot about how far the mighty Bombers have fallen. New York enters the month with just five wins in its past 18 games (a .278 winning percentage) and is now in fourth place, 6 1/2 games out. That looks a lot like a banged-up team staffed by budget-bin and desperation fill-ins finding its level.

However, with 11 of their first 14 games in July coming against the Twins and Royals, and 10 of 14 coming at home, the Yankees could keep their heads above water until after the All-Star break. Once the season resumes, it will be sink or swim for New York, which follows this three-game set in Boston with four against the Rangers in Arlington.

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July 29-31: Cardinals at Pirates

As the month begins, these are the two best teams in baseball, with the Pirates boasting a two-game lead in the NL Central. This is the third-straight July that the Pirates have stood alone in first place, but in each of the last two seasons, Pittsburgh began a long fade at the end of the month that resulted in two more below-.500 finishes.

That makes this set of four games in three days (with a single-admission doubleheader on Tuesday that might be the best day of baseball this month, All-Star Game included) a pivotal one for the Pirates both in terms of the standings and team morale.

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