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The Strike Zone

Weekend watch: Central showdown

Pedro Alvarez, Garrett Jones and Michael McKenry have been bashing all summer, helping the Pirates to the NL's third-best record. (AP)

The first weekend after the July 31 trading deadline is something of a cooling off period for many teams, with few matchups taking place between playoff contenders. Here are the ones that have our eye for one reason or another.

Pittsburgh Pirates (60-44) at Cincinnati Reds (64-41)

Thanks to their 17-3 second-half run — 14-3 without Joey Votto —the Reds have their largest division lead since June 17, not to mention the best record in the majors. As noted yesterday, the team's run prevention, which ranks second in the league at 3.69 runs per game, has been a bigger a reason for that status than their offense. Friday's starter, Mat Latos, is carrying a 4.17 ERA on the season, but he's been on something of a roll, yielding more than two runs just once in his past seven turns, delivering a 2.45 ERA and 8.9 strikeouts per nine during that span. The team's other two starters in the series, Mike Leake and Homer Bailey, were hit for a combined 11 runs in 5 1/3 innings their last time through the rotation, bringing to an end a pair of relatively strong stretches.

The Pirates own the league's third-best record and are in second place in the NL Central, 3 1/2 games behind Cincinnati. The Bucs are also third in the league in run prevention at 3.80 runs per game. However, in going 35-19 since the beginning of June, their offense has been the real story. Pittsburgh has bashed out 5.26 runs per game on .270/.327/.461 hitting, with 80 home runs in that time, compared to 2.94 runs per game on .218/.272/.346 hitting, with 38 home runs in their first 50 contests. Since the start of June, Andrew McCutchen has homered 14 times in 228 plate appearances while hitting an astounding .409/.469/.709 and he's been getting plenty of help from Pedro Alvarez (.262/.342/.529 and 13 home runs), Garett Jones (.299/.331/.567 and 11 home runs), Neil Walker (.323/.396/.537 and nine home runs) and even backup catcher Michael McKenry  (.321/.376/.667, seven home runs in 91 plate appearances). This is the first time the Pirates have faced the Reds since June 5-7, when that tear was just getting underway; despite holding a 5-4 advantage in this season series, Pittsburgh has been outscored 36-28.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (57-49) at Chicago White Sox (57-47)

After taking the first two games of their series with the Rangers in Arlington, the Angels dropped the last two via a pair of sloppy slugfests that saw the team surrender 26 runs, including 13 by the bullpen in 6 1/3 innings. They have fallen into third place in the AL West, five games out of first and half a game behind the A's for second, but they still hold the league's second Wild Card spot by a game and a half. In his second turn for the Halos, Zack Greinke will try to give a battered bullpen a rest; he delivered seven innings of two-run ball with eight strikeouts against the Rays on Sunday, but got zero offensive support. The key start for the Angels in the series comes on Sunday, when Dan Haren is scheduled to take his turn. Scratched from his scheduled start on Wednesday due to back stiffness after serving a stint on the disabled list earlier this month, he has been lit for a 4.59 ERA and 1.4 homers per nine; if he needs to hit the disabled list again, that will mean two pitchers from the less productive trio of Ervin Santana, Jerome Williams and Garrett Richards in the rotation. Random Albert Pujols update: .364/.419/.779 with eight homers in 19 games since the All-Star break; even so, the Angels are 8-11 since then.

As for the White Sox, they're back in control of the AL Central, 2 1/2 games ahead of the Tigers thanks to a 7-2 run. Even so, their rotation has its share of question marks lately, particularly with John Danks undergoing season-ending shoulder surgery and Chris Sale skipping a turn due to fatigue. Friday's starter, Philip Humber, has been hit for a 5.90 ERA this year despite throwing a perfect game back on April 21. He hasn't strung together two quality starts since May 13 and 18; in eight turns since then, he has as many disaster starts (more runs allowed than innings pitched) as quality starts (three). Saturday's starter, Gavin Floyd, has allowed just three earned runs in 12 2/3 innings since returning from a DL stint due to elbow tendonitis, but even so, his 2/11 strikeout-to-walk ratio in those starts suggests he's been more lucky than good.

Toronto Blue Jays (51-54) at Oakland A's (57-48)

The Wild Card-leading A's get to show off their pitching depth in this four-game series, which started on Thursday night with a 4-1 win by Oakland. The biggest draw over the remaining three games is the major league debut of Dan Straily on Friday night. The 23-year-old, a 24th-round pick out of Marshall University in 2009, wasn't on anybody's top 100 prospect list this year; he didn't even rank among the top 30 A's prospects according to The Baseball America Prospect Handbook 2012. Thanks to above-average command of a 92–94 mph fastball, and a slider and changeup that both grade out above average as well, Straily has rocketed from organizational arm to breakout prospect for a team that's currently in the playoff hunt. His 11.4 strikeouts per nine in 22 starts split between Double-A Midland and Triple-A Sacramento are tops in the entire minors. Meanwhile, Saturday starter A.J. Griffin has delivered a 2.51 ERA and 7.3 strikeouts per nine in seven starts, all of them quality starts, since being recalled to take over for the injured Brandon McCarthy back in late June. The 24-year-old righty is a 2010 13th-round pick who came into the year ranked 13th in the A's system according to Baseball America.

The Blue Jays appear to be in the process of fading from the fringes of the AL Wild Card race. They're 6-9 since Jose Bautista went down with a wrist injury, averaging 4.13 runs per game on .249/.299/.428 hitting; looking back even further, they're 8-11 since the All-Star break, and 24-30 since the beginning of June. Injuries have simply decimated Toronto's rotation, with Ricky Romero and Henderson Alvarez the only two starters to survive intact since opening day. Even so, Romero (who goes on Saturday) has been absolutely dreadful, with a 5.69 ERA founded on the fatal combination of high walk and homer rates (4.9 and 1.2 per nine, respectively). Friday's starter, Brett Cecil, is in the same league with a 5.56 ERA and 1.8 homers per nine in eight turns since returning from the minors, but he's riding a streak of three straight quality starts, with 20 strikeouts in 18 2/3 innings over that span.
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