Via a six-game winning streak and a 25-11 record since the beginning of July, the Nationals now own the majors' best record overall. After sitting on their hands at the July 31 trade deadline, they also own something of a new look since the last time we checked in, activating Jayson Werth on August 2 following a nearly three-month absence due to a broken wrist, and acquiring Kurt Suzuki in a trade with the A's on August 4.
Werth has gone 8-for-22 with five walks in nine games (one as a pinch-hitter) since returning, and Washington is 9-0 in those games, with its only loss in that span coming when he sat out the nightcap of last Friday's doubleheader. After hitting a disappointing .232/.330/.389 in 2011, the first year of his seven-year, $126 million deal, he has rebounded for a .293/.396/.431 line this year. Since his return, manager Davey Johnson has batted him either fourth or sixth in the lineup, but he would do well to move him higher given leadoff man Steve Lombardozzi's .261/.310/.339 line and No. 2 hitter Bryce Harper's .176/.276/.265 funk since the All-Star break. With Michael Morse's stroke returning (.319/.341/.517 with six homers since the break, two of them on Thursday night), the Nats don't need to lament Werth's lack of power at the moment, they just need baserunners ahead of the 3-4-5 contingent of Ryan Zimmerman, Adam LaRoche and Morse.
Friday's matchup pairs Stephen Strasburg against Trevor Cahill, a pairing that according to eagle-eyed Arizona Republic reporter Nick Piecoro first took place in 2006, when the two squared off in a California high school tournament; Cahill struck out 13 and pitched his team to a 5-1 victory. Strasburg is the one who misses more bats these days — an NL-best 11.3 per nine compared to Cahill's 6.5. The 23-year-old Nats righty has now thrown 127 1/3 innings; at six innings per start and a presumed cap of around 180 innings for the season, he would figure to have eight more starts after this, which would end his season in mid-September -- unless Washington can figure out a way to stretch him into October without going over the non-specific limit.
The Diamondbacks drew to within two games of the NL West lead with a win last Friday, but after losing four of six since then — three via a sweep in Philadelphia — they come into this series four games out of first place, and 6 1/2 back in the Wild Card race. They did manage to split a four-game series in Pittsburgh thanks to Jason Kubel's two-homer night on Thursday to snap out of a 3-for-26 August slump. With key players from last year's division-winning squad such as Justin Upton, Chris Young and the since-traded Ryan Roberts failing to deliver to the same degree this year, Kubel, who signed a two-year, $16 million deal this past winter, has emerged as one of the offseason's better bargains. Even with the August slump, he's hitting .280/.352/.556 with 25 homers (third in the league); the slugging percentage ranks sixth, while his 77 RBIs rank second.
Here we have a rematch of last year's American League Championship Series, which was won by the Rangers in six games. The Tigers have been surging, going 22-12 since the beginning of July, the league's second-best record behind the A's (23-9). Detroit is still one game behind the AL Central-leading White Sox, but is now tied with the Orioles for the second Wild Card spot. The Tigers' run owes plenty to the two big boppers in the middle of the lineup; Miguel Cabrera is hitting .338/.401/.685 with 13 homers since July 1, including three in consecutive games from August 5-7 against the Indians and Yankees, while Prince Fielder is hitting .356/.462/.576 with seven homers of his own in that span. Austin Jackson (.304/.390/.452), Brennan Boesch (.312/.342/.514) and Alex Avila (.298/.402/.426) have come up big during that period as well, with the latter two offsetting dismal showings from April through June. New second baseman Omar Infante is hitting .315/.316/.519 since being acquired from the Marlins on July 23.
As for the Rangers, after a 9-14 July they've gone 6-2 this month, but judging by their recent headlines — Roy Oswalt's refusal to pitch a third inning in relief, Josh Hamilton's slump, Yu Darvish's recent drubbings — it feels as though they're 2-6. Whether it's the heat, the fatigue or the ballpark, the wear and tear is particularly showing on the team's rotation. Friday's starter, Scott Feldman (who goes up against Max Scherzer), has been the staff savior, allowing just three runs in 22 2/3 innings over his last three starts, with a 14/1 strikeout-to-walk ratio to boot. Meanwhile, Saturday's starter, Derek Holland (who squares off against Justin Verlander), has yielded 21 runs in his last 27 innings spread over four starts, with just one of them quality starts; his ERA has risen to 5.18. Darvish, who starts on Sunday against Rick Porcello, has yielded 28 runs in 31 1/3 innings in five starts (only one quality start) since the All-Star break, with a 37/21 strikeout-to-walk ratio. As for Hamilton, after a big 3-for-5 afternoon with a homer against the Red Sox on Wendesday, he's hitting .326/.340/.565 over his last 10 games. He has six extra-base hits in that span, compared to four from July 1-29
Oakland A's (60-51) at Chicago White Sox (60-50)
This matchup pairs two teams currently holding playoff positions. Not only are the A's the AL Wild Card leaders, but they're now second in the AL West, having climbed over the Angels in the standings thanks to a 17-8 record since the break, and two wins in three games against them in Oakland this week. Friday marks the return of Brandon McCarthy from a seven-week stint on the disabled list due to shoulder soreness. In 12 starts prior to going on the DL, he had delivered a 2.54 ERA and while going at least six innings 10 times and seven innings seven times. He replaces A.J. Griffin, who hit the DL after leaving last Saturday's start in the second inning due to shoulder tightness.
The White Sox remain atop the AL Central, albeit by just one game. Their rotation may bear an even closer watch during this series than that of Oakland. We noted in this space last week that Friday's starter, Gavin Floyd, was living on borrowed time with a 2/11 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his previous two turns since returning from a DL stint due to elbow tendonitis; he was hit for five runs by the Angels on August 4. Even so, he has delivered five quality starts in his last seven, lowering his ERA from an unsightly 5.63 to a more manageable 4.43. Saturday's starter, Francisco Liriano (who pairs off against Tom Milone), left his last start after just 72 pitches due to a bruised quadriceps caused by a one-hopper. Since being acquired from the Twins, he has yielded just three runs in 11 innings, with 12 strikeouts. While his overall ERA still stands at a gaudy 5.03, he's lowered it from 8.47 in 13 starts since May 25, nine of them quality starts.
As for Sunday's starter, Chris Sale (who will match up with Jarrod Parker), he delivered eight strong innings of two-run ball against the Royals in his last turn, which came after the Sox had skipped him once due to workload concerns; he had surrendered 10 runs in 13 1/3 innings over his previous two starts. The 23-year-old lefty is now at 132 innings overall, up from 71 last year; while his 2.59 ERA ranks fourth in the league, the Sox are going to have to handle him carefully if they want to keep him in one piece later in the year.
Los Angeles Dodgers (60-52) at Miami Marlins (51-61)Hanley Ramirez Giants