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Weekend Watch: First-place showdowns

Bryce Harper has taken off over the past few weeks to help the Nats to the biggest division lead in baseball. (US Presswire)

Beyond the intrigue and rich story lines of the Red Sox-Cubs series discussed earlier today, this weekend offers a handful of noteworthy matchups worth keeping an eye upon, including a pair which feature two first-place clubs.

Yankees (37-25) at Nationals (38-23). The marquee matchup of the weekend involves two first-place teams riding six-game winning streaks. The Yankees are on 16-4 tear since May 22, one in which they've outscored their opponents by a 2-to-1 margin (104-59); they did the NL East-leading Nats a solid favor by sweeping the second-place Mets and third-place Braves over the past week. The biggest key for the Yankees during this run has been the rotation, which, thanks in large part to Andy Pettitte (Saturday's starter versus Jordan Zimmermann), has delivered a 2.92 ERA, a sterling 4.0 strikeout-to-walk ratio and 15 quality starts.

As for the Nationals, they've returned the favor by sweeping a pair of AL East challengers, the Red Sox and Blue Jays, this week, enabling them to build their largest division lead of the season (4 1/2 games, though it was five before their day off on Thursday). Washington won't have Stephen Strasburg on the hill in this series, but the good news is that its offense has rounded into shape, pumping out 4.36 runs per game in June after averaging 3.84 in April and May. That has less to do with the long-awaited return of Mike Morse (.205/.250/.273 in 48 plate appearances) than it does with the emergence of Bryce Harper, who's hitting .330/.404/.608 in 109 plate appearances while batting second, which he's done for 21 of the last 22 games.

White Sox (34-29) at Dodgers (40-24). Coming off of last year's trainwreck, the Sox have been something of a surprise in asserting themselves as the AL Central's best team; their +37 run differential is 48 runs better than that of the third-place Tigers and 68 runs better than the second-place Indians. Even so, they've lost 7 of their last 11, including series to the Blue Jays, Astros and Cardinals. Chicago's lineup has its holes, but Paul Konerko has been a monster (.364/.441/.598), Adam Dunn (.227/.368/.573) and Alex Rios (.289/.332/.448) have rebounded after disastrous 2011 showings and Alejandro De Aza (.307/.382/.426) has been a terrific table-setter from the leadoff spot.  The resurgent Jake Peavy won't pitch in this series, but Chris Sale (2.05 ERA and 9.2 K/9) and rookie Jose Quintana will; the latter's 1.98 ERA has been a welcome breath of fresh air given the woes of the injured John Danks.

As for the Dodgers, they're gamely weathering the absence of Matt Kemp, going 17-11 overall in games without him, but they're just 8-6 since his second trip to the disabled list on May 31. Their offense is hitting a meager .232/.322/.328 with five homers in 13 June games, with Andre Ethier particularly scuffling (.163/.241/.286) at a time when his future in L.A. has been secured. If they needed another injury to be concerned about, they've got one in the form of Clayton Kershaw's plantar fasciitis, though the lefty whiffed 12 Mariners in seven innings during his last turn, and he says the pain is subsiding.

Reds (35-27) at Mets (35-29). The lone intraleague matchup on the slate pairs the NL Central leaders against the NL East's second-place club. Joey Votto is on a 22-for-44 tear since the calendar turned to June and his .362/.485/.657 line ranks second in batting average and first in both on-base and slugging percentages. Votto's torrid play, accompanied by hot streaks from Brandon Phillips, Zack Cozart and Todd Frazier, has helped the Reds score 5.83 runs per game this month. The 26-year-old Frazier (.273/.326/.579 with seven homers in 132 PA overall) has done such admirable work that he may have taken away the injured Scott Rolen's job; the 37-year-old hot cornerman is on a rehab assignment after missing the past five weeks due to a shoulder strain, but his .174/.238/.304 line has the vultures circling.

The Mets are hot off a three-game sweep in which they trounced the Rays by a combined 29-9 score, but even so, they're 8-8 in the first 16 games of a 25-game stretch against teams with records above .500. They won't have either Johan Santana or R.A. Dickey on the hill this weekend, though the trio that is going — Dillon Gee, Jon Niese and Chris Young — has combined for a credible 4.03 ERA, with Gee and Niese each delivering quality starts in 67 percent of their turns. One other positive: Ike Davis is hitting .263/.429/.421 in 49 PA this month after a dreadful start to his season.

Marlins (32-31) at Rays (35-28). This battle for Sunshine State supremacy finds the Marlins amid their anticipated correction that has dropped them to fourth place in the NL East. After a 21-8 May, they've lost nine out of 12 this month, including four out of five in games decided by one or two runs, and eight out of nine during a dismal homestand, including three to the Rays last weekend. Their offense has virtually ground to a halt, scoring 2.58 runs per game on .224/.292/.375 "hitting," and that line looks even worse considering they've squandered Jose Reyes' .333/.407/.625 June line.

The Rays were just swept by the Mets in their own home park, dropping them to third in the AL East. They were in first place as recently as Sunday, but their record in May and June combined is now 20-20 after a 15-8 April.

Orioles (37-26) at Braves (34-29). Two and a half months into the season, the Orioles remain an impressive 11 games above .500 and a half-game out of first place, and while their +10 run differential suggests they're playing over their heads, they've shown some pluck in righting themselves with an 8-3 run — including series wins over the Red Sox, Phillies and Pirates, the latter a sweep — after losing six straight.

Baltimore has reason to be concerned about the starters it's putting forward in this series, though. Brian Matusz was knocked out after two innings against Boston in his last turn, pushing his ERA to 4.82; Jason Hammel has delivered one quality start out of his last six since skipping a start due to knee problems; and Wei-Yung Chen has made two quality starts in his last five, with the less-than-imposing Washington, Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh lineups taking him to the woodshed.

The Braves come in having lost four straight to the Blue Jays and Yankees, taking the luster off their previous six-game winning streak. Like the Mets, they've played .500 ball since the end of April.
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