Weekend preview: Nationals, Cubs face off; Red Sox battle Yankees
The first weekend in May brings several compelling matchups on the MLB schedule, including a matchup of the two teams with the best records in baseball, two notable division rivalries and the first meeting of the teams involved in the off-season’s most controversial trade. Meanwhile, three of the majors’ winning-est pitchers look to keep their records perfect.
First Place in the Second City
On Thursday night, for the first time in major league history, four first-place teams played on the same night in the same city, as the AL East-leading Red Sox and NL East-leading Nationals were both in Chicago on to take on the AL Central-leading White Sox and NL Central-leading Cubs, respectively. Boston, whose division lead is most tenuous, jumped on White Sox starter Erik Johnson on their way to a 7–3 win that kept the Sox a half game ahead of the also-victorious Orioles in the division. On the North Side, meanwhile, the Cubs cruised to a 5–2 victory over Washington behind a strong start from Kyle Hendricks.
Having taken two of three on the South Side, the Red Sox have departed the windy city, but the Nationals remain to finish out a four-game set between the two teams with the best records in baseball. Friday afternoon at Wrigley Field offers the best pitching matchup of the series as Washington will look to even things up behind Max Scherzer, who is coming off his best start of the season; the Cubs counter with John Lackey. On Sunday, Jake Arrieta looks to continue his dominance in a game that will find the Cubs playing for the tie, the win or the sweep in the series.
Of note, Jason Heyward, who missed three games due to a wrist injury this week, will be back in the lineup on Friday after entering Thursday night’s game as a replacement for Dexter Fowler, who was ejected for arguing balls and strikes. Heyward will look to break an 0-for-19 slump against Scherzer, against whom he is 3 for 6 lifetime. The Nationals, meanwhile, activated centerfielder Ben Revere from the disabled list Friday morning. Acquired for Drew Storen in January, Revere suffered an oblique strain in the first game of the season. The Nationals’ centerfielders, led by Michael Taylor, have hit .179/.227/.276 in his absence.
The Red Sox move on to New York on Friday for a three-game set against the Yankees, their first visit to the Bronx this season. Boston swept the Yankees in a three-game set at Fenway Park last weekend and has now won nine of its last 11. New York, meanwhile, has sunk to last place by going 1–7 over its last eight games and 5–15 (.250) over its last twenty.
Worst vs. first matchups in this rivalry aren’t as uncommon as you might think, but rarely do they find the Yankees in the role of the last-place team. The Red Sox didn’t move into first place until completing their sweep of the Yankees last weekend. As a result, the last time a first-place Red Sox team faced a last-place Yankees team after April 15 was on April 28, 2007. The last time it happened after April 30 was in September 1990. That was the last season in which the Yankees finished in last place, in a division won by the Red Sox.
The Yankees’ scheduled starters for this series—Michael Pineda, Nathan Eovaldi and Luis Severino—enter the weekend having gone 2–9 with a combined ERA of 6.01 on the season. New York's offense, meanwhile, has scored more than three runs in just seven of its first 26 games this season, with three of those occasions coming in the first week of the season. One of the other four, however, came last weekend against David Price, who will start on Saturday.
The Battle for Second Place
Another compelling intra-division rematch this weekend finds the Pirates in St. Louis to take on the Cardinals for the first time since the opening series of the season. The Bucs swept that three-game set in Pittsburgh, but they limp into Busch Stadium carrying a four-game losing streak that has allowed the Cardinals to creep to within a half game of them in battle for second place in their division behind Cubs, who handed Pittsburgh three of those four losses. St. Louis had an easier warm-up for this series, taking three of four from the Phillies, though first baseman Matt Adams suffered a knee contusion in Thursday’s game and is questionable for weekend action.
The Pirates will get a boost, meanwhile, with the return of infielder Jung-ho Kang, who will be activated off the DL for Friday’s game. The third-place finisher in the Rookie of the Year voting last year, the 29-year-old Korean veteran hasn’t appeared in a major league game since Sept. 17 of last year, when then-Cub Chris Coghlan broke Kang’s left tibia and tore his medial collateral ligament and meniscus on a take-out slide at second base. Kang didn’t hit much in his 13-game rehab assignment with Triple A Indianapolis, so he may be eased back into the lineup. Late free-agent addition David Freese has hit .291/.376/.388 (106 OPS+) in his absence.
Also on tap: Partners in one of the off-season’s most surprising and, in the opinion of many, lopsided trades, the Braves and Diamondbacks face each other for the first time this season this weekend. Aaron Blair, the pitching prospect sent to Atlanta in the swap, will start for the Braves on Friday night against Zack Greinke. Shelby Miller—the primary piece received by the Diamondbacks for Blair, No. 1 draft pick Dansby Swanson and outfielder Ender Inciarte—will start for Arizona on Saturday, taking the mound with a 8.49 ERA and still looking for his first win with his new team. Inciarte, meanwhile, will be activated from the disabled list during the series. He has been out with a hamstring injury since April 8 ... Jordan Zimmermann will look to improve to a perfect 6–0 in his start against the Rangers on Friday night ... Chris Sale will look to become the first seven-game winner in the majors this season when he takes on the hapless Twins on Saturday night ... Clayton Kershaw will make his first career start in Toronto on Saturday.