UNSUPPORTED BROWSER
The Strike Zone

Aces coming and going, major matchups highlight critical week

Clayton Kershaw The Dodgers will need to play make up ground in the NL wild card without the services of reigning Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw. (Keith Birmingham/ZUMApress.com)

With just over two full weeks remaining in the regular season, all three AL division flags remain in play, and while the NL races aren't that close, the wild-card picture has gotten increasingly crowded thanks to late surges and slumps. Here are the key stories and series over the next five days.

• Clayton Kershaw's hip

The Dodger rotation has already taken major hits with the season-ending injuries of Chad Billingsley and Ted Lilly. Now they face an even bigger loss, as their ace was scratched from a start for the second Sunday in a row due to a right hip problem. Kershaw, who already underwent a cortisone injection prior to his last start, is headed to New York for an examination, and it's quite possible he will require surgery that would not only end his season but knock him out until the middle of next May. While fill-in Stephen Fife gave the Dodgers nine strikeouts in five innings on Sunday against the Cardinals, there's simply no replacing the defending NL Cy Young winner, who leads the league in innings (206 2/3) and strikeouts (206) while ranking second in ERA (2.70).

At 76-71, the Dodgers have already seen their shot at the NL West flag fizzle; they're now 7 1/2 games behind the Giants, and with Sunday's extra-inning loss to the Cardinals, they're one game back for the second wild card spot. With a remaining rotation of Josh Beckett, Joe Blanton, Chris Capuano, Aaron Harang and Fife, they don't figure to survive without Kershaw, particularly with Matt Kemp mired in a 6-for-53 slump since injuring his left shoulder running into the outfield wall in Colorado on August 28.

• The returns of Andy Pettitte and Chris Carpenter

The 40-year-old Pettitte was amid a stellar comeback from a one-season retirement — a 3.22 ERA and 9.1 strikeouts per nine in nine starts — when he suffered a fractured left fibula on a sharp comebacker on June 27. On Tuesday, he'll return to the mound against the Blue Jays in the Bronx. The move isn't a moment too soon for the Yankees, who at 83-63 lead the AL East by a single game but have endured CC Sabathia's recent struggles. The team has seen their ace — whose fastball effectiveness and velocity have dipped considerably of late — surrender leads in his last five starts, losing four of them.

As for Carpenter, the 37-year-old Cardinals co-ace hasn't pitched since Game 7 of last year's World Series, and after being diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome, he underwent what appeared to be season-ending surgery on July 19. Such a condition — which requires the removal of a rib to alleviate compressed blood vessels — can require a full year of recovery, but remarkably enough, Carpenter has worked his way back into pitching shape quickly, and will start on Friday against the Cubs. After splitting a four-game series with the Dodgers, the Cardinals sit one game up in the race for the second NL wild card spot, but they're just 6-9 in September while allowing 4.93 runs per game. With Jake Westbrook out with an oblique injury, Jaime Garcia struggling since his return from the disabled list and Lance Lynn making just one start since August 24 due to innings concerns, Carpenter could be the difference between St. Louis' chance to defend their title and an early October vacation.

• Detroit Tigers (77-68) at Chicago White Sox (79-66)

The AL Central's two contenders square off on Monday in a makeup of last Thursday's rainout, but what was supposed to be a matchup featuring Justin Verlander against Chris Sale instead pits Doug Fister against Jose Quintana. The White Sox swept the Twins over the weekend to snap out of a 5-11 slide dating back to August 27; they lead the division by two games. The Tigers, who are also 4 1/2 back in the wild-card hunt, have just finished a rollercoaster road trip featuring four losses in a row— including a three-game sweep by the Angels — followed by two wins against the White Sox, two wins against the Indians, and then a tough loss on Sunday in which Jose Valverde blew a save and Alex Avila was flattened by Prince Fielder in a collision. Avila suffered a sprained jaw but no concussion; he'll miss today's game. This is the last time the two teams will face each other in the regular season; Detroit leads the season series 12-5.

• Texas Rangers (87-59) at Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (80-67)

Despite a 9-6 record this month and a 28-16 record since the beginning of August, the Rangers are feeling the squeeze; before beating the Mariners on Sunday, their AL West lead had dwindled to two games over Oakland for the first time since April 13. The Angels, who lead the season series 7-6, are on a 14-5 run dating back to August 28, but they're still 7 1/2 games out in the division race, and 2 1/2 back in the wild-card race. The series kicks off on Tuesday, with Ryan Dempster facing Jered Weaver. After struggling initially with the Rangers, Dempster has settled into a groove, allowing two runs or fewer in each of his last five starts, a span during which he has delivered a 1.91 ERA while allowing just one homer and striking out 36 in 33 innings, albeit mainly against inferior competition (two starts apiece against the Indians and Royals, plus one against the Orioles). Weaver, who was scratched from his September 7 start due to biceps tendinitis, tossed seven innings of two-hit shutout ball in his return against the A's on September 13. The other pairings in the three-day set: Derek Holland versus C.J. Wilson and Yu Darvish versus Zack Greinke.

• Milwaukee Brewers (74-72) at Pittsburgh Pirates (73-72)

On August 19, the Brewers sat 12 games under .500 at 54-66, and 12 1/2 behind the 67-54 Pirates; their season looked done. Since then, Milwaukee has been the hottest team in the majors at 20-6. The Brewers now lead the Bucs in the  NL Central and are in fourth place in the wild card race, 2 1/2 games out of the second spot. For as strong as the Brewers have been lately, their 28-43 road record is by far the worst among any NL contender, but on the other hand, they've gone 8-4 against the Pirates thus far, and have won five of their last six battles since late August. As for Pittsburgh, it has lost eight out of its last nine and have gone a major league worst 6-18 during the Brewers' hot streak; the Pirates are now three games out of a wild card spot, and a potential finish at or above .500 — which would be their first since 1992 — is in jeopardy. The series begins on Tuesday, with Yovani Gallardo squaring off against A.J. Burnett.

• Philadelphia Phillies (73-74) at New York Mets (66-80)

Like the Brewers, the Phillies have made a late run at a wild card spot after being more or less left for dead; they've gone 27-17 since the beginning of August. Even so, they just dropped three out of four to the Astros to slip back under .500, and they're now sixth in the wild-card race, four games out of the second spot. They're just 5-10 against the Mets this season, but New York has lost eight out of nine and is just 20-40 since the All-Star break. The series begins on Monday with a pairing of Cliff Lee and R.A. Dickey, with Cole Hamels and Tyler Cloyd following for the Phils, and Jon Niese and Matt Harvey going for the Mets.

• Boston Red Sox (66-81) at Tampa Bay Rays (78-68)

Like the Phillies, the Rays are in need of a doormat on whom they can wipe their feet, as they've lost five out of their last six against the Orioles and Yankees to fall five games back in the AL East and four games back in the wild-card. The Red Sox may be that doormat. Though they've taken seven out of 12 against Tampa Bay this season, they're on a 4-14 slide, and were officially eliminated from the playoff hunt on Sunday; one more loss would guarantee their first sub-.500 finish since 1997. Monday's opener pits Aaron Cook versus Alex Cobb, with Felix Doubront and Jeremy Hellickson going on Tuesday, and Daisuke Matsuzaka and David Price — a mismatch if there ever was one — on Wednesday.

More The Strike Zone

SI.com

Drag this icon to your bookmark bar.
Then delete your old SI.com bookmark.

SI.com

Click the share icon to bookmark us.