LEADING OFF: Cardinals and Blue Jays can clinch; Harper back
A look at what's happening around the major leagues today:
The Cardinals can clinch their third straight NL Central crown with another victory at second-place Pittsburgh. St. Louis took the opener of their pivotal series 3-0 Monday night. Michael Wacha (17-6, 3.15 ERA) pitches for the banged-up Cardinals against Charlie Morton (9-8, 4.54). St. Louis lost yet another key player to injury Monday when rookie Stephen Piscotty exited with a bruise on his head after a violent collision with Peter Bourjos in the outfield.
IS TONIGHT THE NIGHT?
Already assured a playoff spot, the Blue Jays can wrap up their first AL East title in 22 years with a win at Baltimore and a Yankees loss to Boston. Toronto right-hander Marcus Stroman seeks his fourth win in four starts since returning from a spring training knee injury. The Blue Jays got encouraging news Monday on star shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, who took batting practice for the first time since cracking a shoulder blade. He is expected back in time for the postseason.
Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw gets the next chance to pitch the Dodgers to their third consecutive NL West title after fellow ace Zack Greinke fell short Monday night. Kershaw faces Madison Bumgarner for the fourth time this year as the 2014 World Series MVP looks to save San Francisco's season and become the team's first 19-game winner in 18 years. Bumgarner is 2-0 with a 1.31 ERA in his outings this year against Kershaw, who is 0-2 with a 3.54 ERA in those starts. Kershaw, last year's NL MVP, leads the majors with 281 strikeouts and is in the running for his fourth Cy Young Award. The Dodgers are 0-7 at AT&T Park this season, their longest skid in San Francisco since 1961-62.
NL MVP front-runner Bryce Harper is expected back in the Nationals' lineup at Atlanta. He was held out Monday following his fight in the dugout Sunday with teammate Jonathan Papelbon. Harper is vying for the NL batting and home run titles. He has a .336 average and is trying to hold off Marlins speedster Dee Gordon for the batting crown. The slugger entered Monday tied with Colorado's Nolan Arenado for the league lead with 41 homers. Harper is almost surely going to end up leading the majors in slugging percentage, and he is neck-and-neck with Cincinnati's Joey Votto for the on-base percentage lead, giving him a shot at the slash-line triple crown, too.
Two of the top pitchers moved before the July 31 trade deadline get potential postseason tuneups: Royals right-hander Johnny Cueto faces the White Sox, while Rangers lefty Cole Hamels faces the Tigers. Cueto struggled after his acquisition from Cincinnati, but has bounced back in his past few starts, getting his first win since mid-August his last time out. Meanwhile, Texas has won each of Hamels' last eight starts, and he is 5-1 with a 3.41 ERA since coming over from the Phillies.
The Astros are still trying to run down the first-place Rangers in the AL West, and Mike Fiers will try to deliver a win in Seattle. Fiers has been solid for Houston since coming over in a July trade with Milwaukee, going 2-1 with a 3.18 ERA. He's allowed seven homers in his past four starts, though, all against division opponents. Vidal Nuno (1-5, 3.69) goes for Seattle.