Oakland A's (67-57) at Tampa Bay Rays (70-55)
This pairing features two of the four teams who currently hold claim to an AL Wild Card spot, with the Rays in the lead and the A's in a three-way tie with the Tigers and Orioles for the second spot. The series kicked off Thursday night with a 5-0 win for Tampa Bay, as Alex Cobb tossed the first major league shutout of his career, a four-hitter accompanied by eight strikeouts. What's particularly odd about this series is that the two teams won't play on Sunday, because Tropicana Field will play host to a Republican National Convention-related function.
The Rays have now won 16 out of 21 games in August, including 14 out of 17 since Evan Longoria returned from a hamstring injury. They have been dominating on both sides of the ball since he returned, cranking out 5.59 runs per game while allowing 2.29. While Longoria has hit just .255/.306 /382 in 62 plate appearances, he did crack two homers last weekend, and has hits in six of his last seven games. Until this past week he had been limited exclusively to DH duty, but he played third base on Tuesday and Thursday, and is itching for more action. The real story of this run, however, is the pitching staff, which has a collective 1.91 ERA in August, with no pitcher above Jeremy Hellickson's 3.52 mark; he pitches on Saturday. Staff ace David Price (0.60 ER in 30 innings) won't pitch in this series, but Matt Moore (1.46 ERA in 24 2/3 innings) goes Friday.
The A's are just 11-10 this month on the heels of a 19-5 July, but they had won six out of seven before Thursday night's loss. Even with that streak, they've had an up-and-down week, trading for Stephen Drew, getting Brett Anderson back from Tommy John surgery, and then losing Bartolo Colon to a 50-game suspension. Drew collected his first two hits for Oakland on Thursday night, snapping what had been an 0-for-22 slump dating back to Aug. 14.
Anyone who was certain that the Cardinals would be sent reeling following last Sunday's 19-inning loss to the Pirates has been proven wrong, as they're actually undefeated (3-0) since then. Admittedly, those wins came against the Astros, who in being swept ran their record over the previous 50 games to 6-44. But regardless of the opposition, the sweep did allow the Cards to overtake the Pirates for second place in the NL Central as well as a Wild Card position -- the first time since June 26 they've had such a claim. With Carlos Beltran (.241/.294/.494) and David Freese (.205/.280/.315) largely struggling this month, the offense has been carried by Allen Craig (.359/.407/.590), Jon Jay (.395/.471/.553) and Yadier Molina (.431/.492/.552); the latter has gone 11-for-21 over the past week.
As with last weekend's series, the team's starting pitching in this series -- Lance Lynn, Jaime Garcia, and Adam Wainwright -- bears a close eye. Lynn lasted just 4 1/3 innings in his last turn, the fourth time out of five he has failed to deliver a quality start. Manager Mike Matheny pulled him early in part because of negative body language. More happily, Garcia delivered 10 strikeouts in eight strong innings against the Pirates on Sunday, his first game back from a two-month stint on the DL due to shoulder woes, while Wainwright delivered a season-high 12 strikeouts on Tuesday amid a five-hit shutout of Houston.
Meanwhile, the Reds continue to pull away from the Central pack. Even without Joey Votto, who last played on July 15, they expanded their division lead to a season-high eight games as of Wednesday; now it's back to seven with Thursday's loss to the Phillies. Improbably, the team is 26-12 since Votto went down, tied with Washington for the league's best record in that span, and the first baseman's replacement, rookie Todd Frazier, is now red-hot, batting .341/.402/.634 with six homers this month, and 293/.350/.558 with 18 homers overall. His 2.3 Wins Above Replacement Player is the highest among NL rookie hitters, and 0.3 WARP behind Arizona pitcher Wade Miley for the lead among all NL rookies.
The Braves come in amid their worst stretch in two months, having lost five out of their last six to the Dodgers, Nationals and Giants; even so, they still have a 2 1/2 game lead over the Cardinals for the top NL Wild Card spot, and a 3 1/2 game cushion over the next-closest team, the Pirates. Friday's starter, Ben Sheets, looks as though he may have hit a wall. In his previous turn, he was rocked for four home runs in six innings against the Dodgers, having allowed just two in the first six starts of his comeback. He has now allowed four or more runs in three of his past four starts. Moving in the opposite direction is Saturday's starter, Mike Minor; he hasn't allowed more than three runs in any of his last eight starts, with a rain-shortened effort on Aug. 2 the only time he failed to deliver a quality start. His ERA in that 51-inning span is a tidy 2.29, accompanied by a 37/8 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
The Giants, who won the first game of this series 5-2 on Thursday night behind eight strong innings from Barry Zito, have won nine out of 12 to open up a three-game lead in the NL West, their largest since July 18. They received a bit of a scare this week as Buster Posey missed Wednesday and Thursday's games with tightness in his right hamstring, though he expects to return Friday. Posey has been on fire since the All-Star break, hitting .408/.487/.712 with nine homers in 150 plate appearances. Despite the missed time, he's second in the league in WARP with 5.3, just 0.1 behind Andrew McCutchen -- which should earn him a spot in the MVP discussion so long as he can avoid a trip to the disabled list.
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (65-60) at Detroit Tigers (67-57) The Angels come in riding a modest three-game winning streak; they completed a sweep over the reeling Red Sox via a wild and wooly 14-13, 10-inning affair that saw them overcome an early 6-0 deficit. Even so, they're now 2 1/2 games back in the Wild Card race, and their pitching continues to be a problem. They've held opponents under five runs just four times in their past 15 games, allowing 7.13 runs per game in that span. As for the Tigers, they remain just 1 1/2 games behind the White Sox, and they're breathing a bit easier with the news that the ankle injury that forced Miguel Cabrera to depart in the middle of the second inning of Thursday's game against the Blue Jays won't be enough to keep him from the lineup. They're not entirely without injury concerns, however, as Doug Fister has been scratched from Saturday's start due to a groin injury in favor of rookie Drew Smyly, who hasn't made a big league start since July 6; he was sidelined by an intercostal strain, then lost out on a spot when the team traded for Anibal Sanchez.