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The Week Ahead: Reds-Cardinals rivalry revival, Cy-worthy showdown, more

Mat LatosMat Latos starts the opener of an intriguing three-game series for the Reds this week. (AP)

As entertaining as the first week of the 2013 Major League Baseball season was, we’ve only just begun. There are 156 games left this year for every team but the A’s and Mariners, for whom there are 155 left, which puts us at about 4 percent of the way into the season, the shape of which has yet to reveal itself. Here, then, is a look at what to watch in this, the season’s second week.

Series To Watch: Cincinnati Reds @ St. Louis Cardinals

Coming into the season, there were four intra-division matchups that appeared to hold particular importance. We’ve seen two of those already with the Giants recovering from Clayton Kershaw’s Opening Day shutout to take two of three from the Dodgers in Los Angeles last week and the Rangers winning two of three against the Angels in Arlington this past weekend in a series marked by Josh Hamilton’s controversial return to Texas. Another of those series will take place this weekend when the Braves travel to Washington for a three-game set. This week, however, the focus is on the first meeting between National League Central rivals Cincinnati and St. Louis, who will play a three-game set starting with the Cardinals’ home opener on Monday afternoon.

The Reds have won two of the last three division championships and are the favorite to do so again this year. The Cardinals, meanwhile, won the division in 2009, finished second each of the last three years and have made it deeper into the playoffs as a wild-card each of the last two seasons, winning the World Series in 2011 and making it to Game 7 of the NLCS in '12, while Cincinnati lost in the NLDS in both 2010 and '12. Though the Cardinals have suffered a rash of injuries in March, losing ace Chris Carpenter and shortstop Rafael Furcal for the season and having third baseman David Freese and closer Jason Motte open the season on the disabled list, they are still expected to challenge the Reds for the division title.

In what was otherwise an encouraging opening week that saw them take two of three from a pair of contenders in the Angels and Nationals, the Reds were also dealt a significant injury when leftfielder Ryan Ludwick separated his right shoulder on a slide into third base on Opening Day, tearing his labrum and effectively wiping out the first half of his season. Cincinnati will use some combination of righty Chris Heisey and lefty Xavier Paul in leftfield in Ludwick’s stead.

Cincinnati has also received hot starts from new centerfielder and leadoff man Shin-Soo Choo (9-for-24, 3 HR: .375/.516/.792) and sophomore Todd Frazier, who is now the team's full-time third baseman (12-for-25, 3 HR: .480/.519/.920). Most importantly, the Reds have gotten the rock-solid pitching they have become accustomed to, missing getting a quality start in all six of their games to this point by one extra run scored against Mike Leake on Sunday, while Aroldis Chapman is again thriving in the closer's role having allowed just four baserunners while striking out nine in five scoreless innings.

The Cardinals, by comparison, haven’t quite found their groove yet, though after dropping two of three to the Diamondbacks to open the season, they took two of three from the defending world champion Giants in San Francisco to even their record at 3-3 and enter this series just one game behind the 4-2 Reds in the Central. Still, their leading hitters are Matt Carpenter (8-fo-25, 4 2B: .320/.414/.480), replacement shortstop Pete Kozma (8-for-24, HR: .333/.346/.500) and back-up first baseman Matt Adams (6-for-10, 2B with three hits in each of his two starts), the last of whom Cardinals’ manager Mike Matheny is using to give his aging corner outfielders a rest by pushing Allen Craig into the pastures. St. Louis should get a boost from Freese, who is returning from the back strain that kept him out of the team's first six games.

Here are the pitching matchups and game times for this series (all times Eastern):

Mon. 4/8, 4:15 p.m: Mat Latos (0-0, 4.05 ERA) vs. Jaime Garcia (1-0, 1.59 ERA)

Tue. 4/9, 8:15 p.m: Bronson Arroyo (1-0, 4.50 ERA) vs. Lance Lynn (0-0, 9.00 ERA)

Wed. 4/10, 1:45 p.m: Homer Bailey (1-0, 0.00 ERA) vs. Jake Westbrook (0-1, 0.00 ERA)

Other series to watch: Rays @ Rangers, A’s @ Angels

Pitching Matchup To Watch: Jake Peavy (1-0, 1.50 ERA) vs. Gio Gonzalez (1-0, 0.00 ERA), Tuesday, 7:05 pm

With most team’s Opening Day starters having pitched on Sunday, this week is a bit lacking when it comes to marquee pitching matchups. The best is Tuesday night’s matchup in Washington between two 2012 Cy Young contenders who are off to strong starts. Gonzalez posted a 3.08 ERA (131 ERA+) over the last three seasons, gradually increasing his strikeout rate to more than one per inning over that span and reducing his walk rate last year on his way to a 21-8 record, 207 strikeouts and a third-place finish in the NL Cy Young voting. The veteran Peavy won the 2007 NL Cy Young award but was slowed by injuries in the four seasons that followed. Last year, he finally stayed healthy and had a strong return to form, posting a 3.37 ERA (128 ERA+) in 219 innings with 194 strikeouts, a strong 3.96 strikeout-to-walk ratio and four complete games, though poor run support saddled him with a losing record and cost him the Cy Young votes he deserved.

Gonzalez, who was a supplemental-round draft pick of the White Sox in 2004 (compensation for losing Tom Gordon to the Yankees) and subsequently traded away by the team twice (first for Jim Thome, then, after being reacquired with Gavin Floyd for Freddy Garcia, for Nick Swisher) threw six scoreless innings against the Marlins in his first start his season, but is 0-4 with a 5.86 ERA in five career starts against his original organization. Peavy, who beat the Royals with six strong innings in his first start, hasn’t started against the Nationals since 2010, making his solid career numbers against them largely irrelevant.

Other matchups to watch: Matt Harvey vs. Roy Halladay, Monday; Brandon Morrow vs. Anibal Sanchez, Tuesday

Players To Watch:

Justin Upton and Michael Morse are off to very similar starts comprised almost exclusively of home runs and strikeouts. The two lead the majors with five home runs each, but they have also combined for 21 strikeouts and just six other hits in 51 at-bats while also walking just three times. Upton has five home runs, a double, a single and two walks on the season. Morse has five homers, four singles, and one walk.

Luis Cruz of the Dodgers has the largest 0-fer of the season, having gone 0-for-17 in 19 plate appearances. The two plate appearances that didn’t count as at-bats were a sac fly and, get this, an intentional walk. That intentional pass was issued by the Giants’ Bruce Bochy in the bottom of the eighth on Opening Day, when Cruz was a mere 0-for-3. Bochy walked Cruz with one out and men on second and third to set up the force at every base with his Giants losing 2-0. According to Baseball-Reference.com, the longest season-opening hitless streak by a non-pitcher who was on his team's Opening Day roster was the 0-for-34 by Indians outfielder/pinch-hitter Richie Scheinblum in 1969.

The freak show continues as Roy Halladay and Tim Lincecum return to the mound on Monday and Tuesday, respectively. Both had confounding first starts last week following miserable 2012 seasons. We may not know more about either come Wednesday, but it’s hard to look away from these two former Cy Young award winners as they struggle to salvage their careers.

On Wednesday, Chad Billingsley will make his first start since suffering a partial tear of his ulnar collateral ligament last August. Billingsley, who opted for a platelet-rich plasma injection and rehab over season-erasing Tommy John surgery this winter, will start for the Dodgers against the Padres in San Diego at 10:10 p.m. EDT.

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