LEADING OFF: Cubs, Pirates gaining ground; Panda returns
A look at what's happening all around the majors Friday:
ROLLING INTO WRIGLEY
The Cubs have won six straight and are just a game behind slumping Milwaukee in the NL Central as they begin a home series against St. Louis. Chicago right-hander Jake Arrieta (9-7, 4.17) has trimmed half a run off his ERA over his past four starts and can reach double digits in victories for the fourth straight season. All-Star Carlos Martinez (6-8, 3.36) counters for the Cardinals seeking his first victory since June 16, a span of five starts. The Brewers have been alone atop the division since June 6.
HERE COME THE BUCS
Starling Marte is back from his 80-game steroids suspension and Pittsburgh is making a charge in the NL Central. After completing a four-game sweep of division-leading Milwaukee, the Pirates begin a nine-game road trip out West when they visit Colorado. Pittsburgh right-hander Trevor Williams (3-4) faces fellow rookie Jeff Hoffman (6-1) in the opener. The Pirates have won 11 of 13 and moved within three games of first place. They are .500 (48-48) for the first time since April 16, two days before Marte's suspension began. ''When we play our best baseball, we can compete with anybody,'' resurgent slugger Andrew McCutchen said.
Pablo Sandoval is expected to sign a minor league contract to return to the Giants, two days after the Red Sox released the husky third baseman. Sandoval was a two-time All-Star and a World Series MVP during his seven years with San Francisco, and of course, the Kung Fu Panda was a fan favorite at AT&T Park. ''He's always been one of those personalities that kind of fits in with the Giants and the Bay Area,'' right fielder Hunter Pence said.
Among the 2017 All-Stars on the mound are Texas right-hander Yu Darvish, Boston newcomer Chris Sale, Minnesota's Ervin Santana, Washington Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer and Dodgers lefty Alex Wood, who tries to improve to 12-0 when he faces Atlanta. Darvish starts at Tampa Bay - he is 4-0 with a 1.09 ERA and 40 strikeouts in five career games against the Rays.
NEXT TO FALL
Rangers third baseman Adrian Beltre is 15 hits shy of 3,000 heading into a three-game series at Tampa Bay. He is tied with Sam Rice for 31st place on the career list.
After finishing a four-game sweep of the Rangers, outfielder Adam Jones and the Orioles welcome Houston to Camden Yards. Mike Fiers (6-4, 3.75 ERA) pitches for the AL-leading Astros against Ubaldo Jimenez (4-5, 7.01). Baltimore's big hitters combined for 10 home runs in the series against Texas and outscored the Rangers 34-11. The Orioles' four-game winning streak is their longest since a six-game run in early May, and it puts them within three games of .500 (46-49) for the first time since July 4.
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