This week brings the end of MLB’s third month, as well as the mathematical halfway point of the season. By time we close the book on June and turn the calendar to July, every team will have played at least 81 games (as long as the weather cooperates).
An elite class has emerged in the AL. At this point, it would take a major reversal of fortune for any of the Yankees, Red Sox, Astros, Indians or Mariners to miss the postseason. Among teams not in playoff position at the start of this week, the Angels are closest to a postseason berth, and they’re six games behind the Mariners for the second wild card.
The NL is at the opposite pole. None of the three division leaders—the Braves, Brewers and Diamondbacks—has a lead of more than 2.5 games. The teams currently in wild card position, the Cubs and Phillies, are 1.5 games and 0.5 games, respectively, ahead of their closest competitors, the Nationals and Dodgers. Add to that mix the Cardinals, who are 1.5 games back of the second wild card, and Giants, who trail the last postseason spot by three games, and you get a logjam likely to produce drama in multiple races come September.
With that, let’s set the table for the final week of baseball’s true first half.
Hitters to Watch This Week
Nolan Arenado, 3B, Rockies
Arenado has homered in five of his last six games, going 11-for-29 with a pair of doubles and 13 RBI to go along with his five shots. He’s now hitting .318/.403/.595 with 18 homers and 55 RBI on the season, and will soon make the NL All-Star Team for the fourth straight season. The Rockies spend the entire week on the road, visiting the Giants and Dodgers. Arenado is hitting .276/.375/.493 with six homers away from home this season.
Odubel Herrera, OF, Phillies
I wrote about Herrera’s homer binge in this week’s Nine Innings, but he deserves mention here as well. The Phillies centerfielder is one of the hottest hitters in baseball, going 19-for-45 with six homers, two doubles and 12 RBI in his last 10 games. He’s now hitting .305/.358/.505 on the season, and is almost certainly ticketed for the second All-Star Game of his four-year career. He has a reputation for being a streaky hitter, but save for an 11-game stretch earlier this month and a few stray games at the very beginning of the season, his batting average has been above .300 all year.
Jose Ramirez, 3B, Indians and Francisco Lindor, SS, Indians
They’re doing it again. Ramirez and Lindor are two of the hottest hitters in the league at the same time for at least the third time this season. Over the last two weeks, Ramirez is 14-for-44 with a .456 OBP, four homers, nine RBI and five steals. Lindor, meanwhile, is 16-for-50 with a .417 OBP, five homers, nine RBI and two steals in that time. Their combined performance this season continues to amaze: .296/.391/.584 with 42 homers, 44 doubles, 22 steals, 118 runs and 96 RBI.
Nelson Cruz, DH, Mariners
Cruz is right there with Arenado, Herrera, Ramirez and Lindor among the best hitters in baseball over the last two weeks. Cruz is riding an eight-game hitting streak, during which he has gone 14-for-31 with four homers, two doubles and 10 RBI. He has raised is slash line to .274/.358/.573 from .248/.338/.514 in that time, making himself a candidate for his fifth All-Star Game in the last six seasons.
Shin-soo Choo, OF, Rangers
We at SI.com batted around the topic of most underappreciated player in an earlier Nine Innings column this season. That no one mentioned Choo just emphasizes how underappreciated he has been for his entire career. The soon-to-be 36-year-old is hitting .280/.393/.481 with 14 homers, 17 doubles, 52 walks and 36 RBI in 349 plate appearances on the season. He brings an eight-game hitting streak into this week, and has been scorching for the entire month, slashing .338/.469/.623 in 20 games.
Choo has played in three postseasons in his career, and in two of those he got just one game. With the Rangers going nowhere this season, it would be nice to see Choo get shipped to a contender before the trade deadline. The two years and $41 million remaining on his contract after this year, however, could complicate that.
Pitchers to Watch This Week
Trevor Bauer, RP, Indians
Bauer has made himself into one of the best pitchers in the majors this season, which has been on full display over the last six weeks. Bauer has made eight starts in that time, striking out at least 10 batters in six of them. He’ll take a 2.44 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 31.7% strikeout rate, and 140 strikeouts into his start on Friday in Oakland.
Chris Sale, SP, Red Sox
Sale has already reached Jon-Hamm-at-the-end-of-Mad-Men status. Is this the year he finally wins that elusive Cy Young Award? He has a 2.56 ERA, 2.48 FIP, 0.93 WHIP and 153 strikeouts in 109 innings. Bauer, among others, is pushing him, but Sale should be considered one of the favorites as we enter the final week of June. He’ll make just one start this week, but it’s a big one, taking the ball in the second game of a three-game series against the Yankees in New York.
Jack Flaherty, SP, Cardinals
Flaherty has made three straight strong turns through the rotation, though he has just one win to show for it. He has pitched 18 1/3 innings in those starts, allowing two runs on six hits while striking out 26 batters and walking six. The rookie now has a 2.50 ERA, 3.42 FIP, 1.01 WHIP and 68 strikeouts in 57 2/3 innings this season. He’s scheduled for one start this week, facing the Indians on Wednesday.
Jose Berrios, SP, Twins
Berrios has been filthy over his last four starts, pitching to a 1.27 ERA and 0.95 WHIP with 35 strikeouts against six walks in 28 1/3 innings. Save for a four-start blip between late April and mid-May, Berrios has looked the part of a true ace this season, and he’s a good bet to earn the first of what will likely be many All-Star nods in his career. He’s one of just three pitchers in the majors with two complete games this season, joining James Paxton and Carlos Carrasco atop the leaderboard. Berrios will next take the mound on Friday when the Twins open up a three-game series against the Cubs in Chicago.
Luis Severino, SP, Yankees
Unfortunately for baseball fans, but fortunately for the Red Sox, Severino will not start during the big three-game AL East set this weekend. His only start of the week is scheduled for Tuesday against the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park. Severino failed to notch a quality start in his last trip to the mound, allowing three runs on eight hits in 5 2.3 innings against the Mariners. The last time Severino took the mound and didn’t make a quality start before that, the NBA and NHL were just wrapping up their regular seasons, and the NFL was still a few weeks from staging its draft. He owns a 2.24 ERA, 2.33 FIP, 0.97 WHIP with 123 strikeouts in 104 2/3 innings and, like Bauer, will push Chris Sale for the AL Cy Young Award.
Matchups to Watch This Week
Red Sox at Yankees, Friday through Sunday
It may seem obvious, but this time it’s for good reason. Along with the Astros, the Yankees and Red Sox comprise MLB’s great triumvirate, clearly a step or two ahead of the rest of the league as we approach the mathematical halfway point of the season. The two AL East behemoths haven’t seen one another for nearly two months, and have split their six games thus far this season. Assuming they both stay on schedule, the Red Sox will throw Eduardo Rodriguez on Friday, Chris Sale on Saturday and David Price on Sunday. The Yankees will counter with CC Sabathia, Sonny Gray and Domingo German.
Braves at Cardinals, Friday through Sunday
The Braves start this week in first place in the NL East, 2.5 games ahead of the Phillies and three games clear of the Nationals. The Cardinals, meanwhile, are in third place in the NL Central and right in the thick of the senior circuit’s crowded wild card situation. Most of the Cardinals’ success this season has derived from their starting pitching, but that has faltered a bit of late. Michael Wacha is on the DL, Carlos Martinez has struggled since returning, and Luke Weaver can’t put it together despite a decent outing in a win over the Brewers on Sunday. That pitching will be tested against a Braves offense that has been consistently great all season. The pitching matchups for this one, subject to change given it’s a weekend series, are Julio Teheran against Miles Mikolas on Friday, Brandon McCarthy against Weaver on Saturday, and Mike Foltynewicz against John Gant on Sunday.
Nationals at Phillies, Thursday through Sunday
Speaking of the Nationals and Phillies, the two will get together for a big four-game series in Philadelphia this weekend. The two are headed in opposite directions in the very recent term. After looking set to take control of the division, the Nationals have lost seven of their last 10 and 10 of their last 15, falling three games behind the Braves in the NL East. The Phillies, on the other hand, have gone 6-2 in their last eight games and 9-4 in their last 13, spurred by the aforementioned exploits of Odubel Herrera. These divisional foes have split their six meetings this season, with the Phillies most recently taking two of three in Washington over the weekend. The Phillies will send Aaron Nola, Nick Pivetta, Vince Velasquez and Jake Arrieta to the mound, while the Nationals go with Tanner Roark, Erick Fedde, Jeremy Hellickson and Gio Gonzalez.
J.A. Happ vs. Justin Verlander, Monday
Monday’s series opener between the Blue Jays and Astros pits two pitchers in their age-35 seasons who have rarely, if ever, looked better in their respective careers. While Happ has been great this season and deserves all the adulation thrown his way, it’s Verlander who is having a truly special campaign. He leads the majors in ERA (1.60), WHIP (0.78) and ERA+ (234, which means his ERA is 134% better than league average), all while striking out 130 batters and walking 21 in 107 innings.
Corey Kluber vs. Carlos Martinez, Tuesday
This is the second game of a three-game series between the Indians and Cardinals in St. Louis this week. Kluber dominated the White Sox in his last start, tossing seven shutout innings while allowing one hit and one walk, striking out seven in an easy 11-3 win for the Indians. He’s again in the mix for the AL Cy Young, amassing a 2.10 ERA, 3.06 FIP, 0.81 WHIP and 113 strikeouts in 111 2/3 innings. Martinez has struggled since returning from the DL, failing to pitch into the sixth inning in any of his four starts and allowing 15 earned runs in 15 2/3 frames. The Indians have finally put some breathing room between themselves and the rest of the AL Central, but every series against a good team is huge for the Cardinals, who figure to be contenders all summer.
Jose Quintana vs. Clayton Kershaw, Thursday
After all the injuries and all the uncharacteristically poor play this season, the Dodgers head into the final week of June at 41–35, 2.5 games behind the Diamondbacks for first place in the NL West. Despite all the handwringing in Chicago over the Cubs uneven play, highlighted by a four-game sweep at the hands of the Reds in Cincinnati, the two-time defending NL Central champs are 42–33, two games shy of the Brewers in the division.
Kershaw returned from his second DL stint of the season over the weekend, allowing two runs on five hits while striking out four in three innings. Quintana still hasn’t quite found the measure of consistency expected of him, and he’s coming off an outing against the Reds during which he allowed four runs on nine hits and two walks in five innings. This is a big start for both pitchers and both teams in the finale of a four-game series at Dodger Stadium.