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Weekend watch: Trading places

This is a big weekend for James McDonald and the Pirates. (AP)

Pittsburgh Pirates (65-53) at St. Louis Cardinals (64-54)

August has not been kind to the Pirates. When the month began, they enjoyed a three-game cushion in the Wild Card race, and were just three games behind the Reds in the NL Central. Since then, they've gone 6-9 while the Cardinals have gone 9-6; the two teams are now just one game apart in the standings, and this series carries the possibility that the Redbirds could knock the Bucs into third place for the first time since June 26. The Pirates haven't won a single series since August 1; they split against the Diamondbacks, and lost to the Reds, Padres and Dodgers, with Thursday's win over the latter preventing them from being swept at home in a four-game series. Despite its recent struggles, it's worth noting that Pittsburgh just sent out a press release regarding playoff tickets. Twenty years since the Bucs' last playoff appearance, this just got real.

Friday night's start is a huge one for James McDonald, who appears to be pitching for his spot in the rotation. After posting a 2.37 ERA with 12 quality starts in 17 first-half turns, McDonald has been rocked for an 8.71 ERA in his last six starts, none of them quality starts. His luck has taken a turn for the worse in terms of batting average on balls in play (.245 in the first half, .347 in the second), while his home run rate has quadrupled (0.57 in the first half, 2.32 in the second). The late July acquisition of Wandy Rodriguez gave the team six able-bodied starters, and manager Clint Hurdle has expanded his rotation to use all of them over the past two weeks in order to help the team survive a stretch of 20 consecutive playing dates. Either McDonald or Kevin Correa could head to the bullpen when that push ends on August 22.

As for the Cardinals, their rotation bears watching as well. Rookie Lance Lynn, who pairs against Pittsburgh's Erik Bedard on Saturday, has delivered just one quality start out of his last four, allowing 11 walks and 16 runs in 22 innings over that span. The 24-year-old righty has now totaled 138 innings, after throwing just 109 2/3 last year; his career high is 164 in 2010. Meanwhile, Sunday's start marks the return of Jaime Garcia from the disabled list; he hasn't pitched in the majors since June 5 due to labrum and rotator cuff tears, and was roughed up for a 4.48 ERA prior to going on the DL, with two quality starts out of his last six. His return has bumped rookie Joe Kelly to the bullpen after 12 starts (eight quality) and a 3.41 ERA; he'll provide depth down the stretch if either Lynn or Garcia can't deliver.

Tampa Bay Rays (64-54) at Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (62-57)

At the start of August, the Angels owned the third-best record in the AL as well as a half-game lead in the Wild Card race, while the Rays were running fifth, 2 1/2 games out. Since then, the Angels have gone 5-10, while the Rays have gone 10-4, with the return of Evan Longoria from a 14-week absence keying a seven-game winning streak that pushed Tampa Bay into the Wild Card lead. Even so, Longoria has shown his share of rust since returning (.242/.270/.364), and has yet to return to third base. Other players have picked up the slack, however, with B.J. Upton knocking four home runs in the past six games, Ben Zobrist collecting four multi-hit games (all with at least one extra-base hit) in the same span, and Desmond Jennings hitting .347/.407/.571 in August, compared to .235/.301/.358 prior. Also rolling of late are youngsters Alex Cobb and Matt Moore, who start Saturday and Sunday. After pushing his ERA to 5.05 while failing to last four innings in back-to-back starts on July 16 and 21, Cobb has allowed just six runs in his last four turns, each seven innings long, with a 21/3 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Meanwhile, Moore has posted a 1.43 ERA in six starts since the break, allowing two runs or fewer in all of them; he hasn't allowed a homer since June 27, a span of 53 2/3 innings.

I discussed the Angels' pitching woes earlier this week; the team's dismal record this month comes in spite of the fact that the offense has cranked out 5.27 runs per game, with seven regulars producing an OPS above .800, led by Kendrys Morales (.346/.383/.673 with four homers), Erick Aybar (.368/.400/.605) and Albert Pujols (a lopsided .237/.281/.610, with six homers but a .174 BABIP). Meanwhile, Mark Trumbo (.211/.262/.316) is the only regular producing an OPS under .700 this month; his 22/2 strikeout-to-walk ratio suggests pitchers have found some holes in his swing they can exploit. Despite their pitching woes, the one Angels starter who's been rolling is Jered Weaver. Though charged with just his second loss of the year in his last outing — dropping his record to 15-2, which matters more to Cy Young voters than anyhwere else — he has allowed more than three runs just once in his last 13 starts, and lowered his ERA to a league-leading 2.22.

Also

Los Angeles Dodgers (65-54) at Atlanta Braves (69-49). Friday marks Tommy Hanson's return from a 16-day stint on the disabled list due to a lower back strain. Prior to going on the DL, he had yielded 16 walks and 16 runs in 19 1/3 innings over four second-half starts. Moving in the opposite direction since the All-Star break is Sunday's Dodger starter, Chad Billingsley, who has a 1.56 ERA and four quality starts out of five second half outings, not to mention a 23/6 strikeout-to-walk ratio, assuaging some concerns since his own return from the DL due to elbow inflammation.

Baltimore Orioles (64-54) at Detroit Tigers (63-55). The Orioles come in leading the Tigers by one game in the Wild Card standings, and recently invigorated by the play of recently recalled rookie Manny Machado. The 20-year-old, who is playing third base instead of his natural position of shortstop, has hit .308/.333/.808 and collected hits in six of seven games since being recalled. Six of his eight hits have been for extra bases, including three homers. So successful has his stint been that the team is considering calling up pitching phenom Dylan Bundy, who made his Double-A debut on Tuesday.

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