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The Strike Zone

Weekend Watch: Proving ground

The Yankees are back at Fenway Park this weekend for the first time since sweeping a two-game series in late April. (AP)

The schedule for the final weekend before the All-Star break lacks the sheer volume of head-to-head matchups between contenders and natural rivals that recent weeks have featured. Nonetheless, a few team and individual pairings have our eye, particularly as one or both of parties appear to have something to prove at this juncture.

Yankees (49-32) at Red Sox (42-40). The hype surrounding this matchup often reaches unbearable levels, but this year it's been subdued, in part because the Sox have struggled to climb into the Al East race, and in part because of a rare scheduling quirk that has paired the two squads for just two games so far. The Yanks and Sox last met in Boston on April 21 and 22; the third game of the series, which was rained out, will be made up as part of a Saturday doubleheader. The Yankees come in with the majors' top winning percentage (.605) and largest division lead (5 1/2 games), but even so, they're hardly firing on all cylinders. After bursting out of the gate, Derek Jeter is hitting a mediocre .269/.319/.347 since the beginning of May. Russell Martin is hitting an anemic .178/.297/.347 and has recently been battling back woes. Raul Ibanez is batting .237/.297/.456 while playing the field all too often in place of the injured Brett Gardner. Alex Rodriguez (.434 slugging percentage) and Nick Swisher (.324 on-base percentage) haven't measured up to their usual standards. CC Sabathia, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera are all on the disabled list, the latter for the remainder of the season. Fill-in Freddy Garcia will start Saturday's nightcap, just his sixth start of the season and second since stepping back into the rotation.

At best, the Sox might offer the AL's tiniest violin as a show of sympathy for their rivals. They've been without Jacoby Ellsbury and Carl Crawford virtually all season — though both are now on rehab assignments — and they're now without Dustin Pedrioa as well, as he went on the DL with a thumb injury on Thursday. David Ortiz is in a rage, Adrian Gonzalez (.275/.323/.404) is in a rut and Kevin Youkilis is in a different uniform. The rotation is in disarray, with Daniel Bard farmed out (and even more lost than before), Clay Buchholz, Josh Beckett, and Daisuke Matsuzaka all on the DL and their five most-used starters all carry ERAs above 4.00. Yet despite their mediocre overall record and a just-completed 2-5 road swing, the Sox have the division's second-best run differential (+50), not to mention a 38-30 record since April 21, tied for the league's third-best in that span. Though they're 7 1/2 games back in the division, they're just two out of a Wild Card spot. Beckett will be activated to take Friday night's start after missing 15 days due to shoulder soreness; with a 4.06 ERA and a 69 percent quality start rate, he's been the team's most effective starter. Fill-in Franklin Morales, who starts Saturday's opener, may be the most intriguing; a former blue-chip prospect with the Rockies, he has come out of the bullpen to deliver three strong starts, allowing four earned runs in 18 innings while striking out 24 and walking just four. Given the quality of the competition he has faced (Cubs, Braves, Mariners), this will be by far his toughest test yet.

Giants (45-38) at Pirates (46-36). Both of these teams are running neck-and-neck for division leads. The Giants briefly snatched the NL West lead from the Dodgers last week — the first time all season they've held the top spot — only to give it back while being swept by the Nationals over the past three days; they're now 1 1/2 games out. The Pirates have won eight out of nine, with a four-game sweep of Houston catapulting them into the NL Central lead, the latest they've held first place since 1997. The Bucs have gone an NL-best 21-11 since the beginning of June, due largely to an offense that has risen from the dead; where they averaged an appalling 2.94 runs per game through the end of May, they're at 5.53 since. Leading the way has been the lone Pirate hitter whose overall stats pass muster, Andrew McCutchen (.390/.441/.691 since June 1), while Garrett Jones (.330/.357/.626), Pedro Alvarez (.280/.380/.559), Casey McGehee (.309/.377/.543) and Neil Walker (.306/.386/.452) have all been mashing lately as well. The outburst has pushed the team's run differential 20 runs into the black, and they're now just 2.7 wins above their Pythagorean record. As for the Giants, they're seven games above .500 but have outscored opponents by just four runs; they're 3.0 wins above their Pythagorean record. Both teams are winning the close ones with a nearly unsustainable frequency; the Giants are 28-18 (.618) in one- and two-run games, while the Pirates are 27-18 (.600), marks that rank fourth and fifth in the majors. Since 2000, just 21 teams — roughly two per year — have finished the season with records of .600 or above in such games, suggesting the probability of regression ahead. Ask the Marlins about that.

Rays (43-40) at Indians (43-39). At the moment, these two teams are just outside the playoff picture; the Indians are one game back in the Wild Card hunt and two back in the AL Central, while the Rays are 1 1/2 back in the Wild Card and seven in the AL East. Tampa Bay continues to struggle on both sides of the ball in the absence of Evan Longoria, going 28-32 — the league's second-worst record — since April 30. The offense, which has also been without Matt Joyce for most of the past three weeks, now includes no fewer than six regulars with OBPs below .300: Desmond Jennings (.298), B.J. Upton (.297), Will Rhymes (.296), Jose Molina (.262) and Luke Scott (.253). The latter, who missed three weeks due to back spasms, is mired in an 0-for-39 slump that dates back to June 1. The Indians are no juggernaut either, having been outscored by 25 runs despite their winning record; they're an AL-high 4.5 games above their Pythagorean record. Their offense has enjoyed a slight uptick in recent weeks, and will be helped even more by the recent return of Travis Hafner, who missed six weeks due to surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee; he homered on Thursday, his second game back. Hafner's .383 on-base pecentage and .487 slugging percentage both rank second on the team behind Shin-Soo Choo, and not surprisingly, the Indians have struggled to replace his production, getting just a .248/.301/.414 contribution from other players filling in at DH.

Best pitching matchups of the weekend

Friday: Hiroki Kuroda, Yankees vs. Josh Beckett, Red Sox. As noted above, Beckett returns from the DL, while Kuroda is in the midst of a seven-start stretch in which he's pitched to a 1.65 ERA, with 46 strikeouts and just two homers allowed in 49 innings. If you haven't read David Waldstein's New York Times article about the grueling and abusive training regimen Kuroda was subjected to as a young player in Japan, go do so. It's amazing he can even stomach baseball after what he went through.

Saturday: Ryan Vogelsong, Giants vs. James McDonald, Pirates. Both pitchers in this matchup have cases to be made as the Senior Circuit's most notable All-Star snubs among pitchers. Vogelsong leads the NL in ERA (2.26) after R.A. Dickey was roughed up on Thursday night, while McDonald is fourth at 2.45.

Saturday: Jason Hammel, Orioles vs. Jered Weaver, Angels. Weaver, who started for the AL last year, is the AL ERA leader at 2.13, and he's on this year's roster, but the three weeks he missed due to a back strain eliminated him from contention to start. Hammel has been the best starter on the upstart Orioles, but he was bypassed for a spot on the All-Star roster, and lost out to Yu Darvish in the Final Vote.

Sunday: Tim Lincecum, Giants vs. A.J. Burnett, Pirates. If you asked 100 people at the outset of the season which one of these pitchers would be 3-9 with a 6.08 ERA at this juncture, and which would be 9-2 with a 3.74 ERA, at least 98 of them would have said Burnett for the former and Lincecum for the latter. The situation is just the opposite, proving that the universe never runs out of mysteries.

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