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5 intriguing storylines for this weekend's games

MLB.com @RichardJustice

Remember when the division races were going to be pretty much wrapped up by July 4? That was way back on Opening Day, when us wise guys thought we had it all figured out.

Now here we are on the final weekend before the Fourth, and five of the six divisions are still close. The Yankees and Red Sox appear headed for the playoffs, so the regular-season race -- and this weekend's series at Yankee Stadium -- will be critical.

Remember when the division races were going to be pretty much wrapped up by July 4? That was way back on Opening Day, when us wise guys thought we had it all figured out.

Now here we are on the final weekend before the Fourth, and five of the six divisions are still close. The Yankees and Red Sox appear headed for the playoffs, so the regular-season race -- and this weekend's series at Yankee Stadium -- will be critical.

Both teams appear headed for 100 wins, which means one of them will be in the American League Wild Card Game. No team wants to go at it for six months, win 100 times and then play a winner-take-all contest against, say, a 95-win Mariners team.

That's what happened to the 98-64 Pirates in 2015, when they ran into a buzzsaw named Jake Arrieta. The Cubs' ace ended Pittsburgh's season with a five-hit, 11-strikeout shutout.

"Sometimes," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said afterward, "you draw a tough bull."

And that's why the Wild Card Game works. The AL East runner-up can still make the playoffs, but the winner gets a best-of-five Division Series rather than a single game that puts an entire season of work on the line.

(Regardless of which team finishes second, there will be anguished cries to change the format if 100 wins only gets a team a Wild Card berth. But this is exactly how it was designed to work. As Giants outfielder Hunter Pence said in 2014, "We're in this game [against the Pirates] because we weren't good enough to win our division. But it gives us a chance to keep playing, and if you're a competitive person, you love that.")

Meanwhile, all three National League races are close and seem likely to stay that way, which ramps up the pressure on every general manager to make upgrades at the July 31 Trade Deadline. But that's another story.

Here's a preview of the weekend:

1. AL East: it's complicated (not)
In the long history of Red Sox-Yankees, from Bucky Bleepin' Dent and Aaron Bleepin' Boone to Dave Bleepin' Roberts (OK, no one has ever used Bleepin' in association with his name), it has seldom, if ever, been better than this.

Video: J.D. sets Boston franchise record for HRs before July

Boston and New York play three times at Yankee Stadium this weekend during a time when the teams have the two best records in the game, the Red Sox hold a one-game lead, and they haven't been separated by more than 2 1/2 games since April. Fangraphs projects them both to finish 102-60. They've split the first six games of the season series, and have 10 remaining after this weekend, including the final weekend of the regular season, again at Yankee Stadium. Grab your popcorn, pull up a chair and enjoy the show.

2. Is this where the Nationals make their stand?
Since right around the time 19-year-old Bryce Harper played his first Major League game, Washington has represented a certain level of excellence.

In the past seven seasons, only the Dodgers have won more regular-season games, a tribute to Harper's greatness and that of the work of Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo.

Video: Must C Clutch: Harper doubles, Soto rips go-ahead hit

Friday, as they play the second of a four-game series against the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park, that Nats have been in third place in the National League East for the past week and have been shut out six times in a stretch of 16 games.

With Stephen Strasburg on the disabled list and Harper struggling, Washington is having its organizational depth tested.

Rookie Erick Fedde, and veterans Jeremy Hellickson and Gio Gonzalez are lined up for the final three games of the series. At a time when the Phillies have some problems of their own, this weekend might offer a preview of how the NL East is going to play out.

3. This Cardinals-Braves series might be more of a litmus test for St. Louis
Just when the Cardinals seemed to be in danger of falling way behind the Brewers and Cubs in the NL Central, their young rotation had a great stretch, and Yadier Molina homered twice against Milwaukee to start a four-game win streak.

Video: Molina belts 5 homers, drives in 7 over the past week

Meanwhile, the Braves began a third consecutive week atop the NL East even after losing five of seven thanks to a pitching staff that has hit a bump in the road (5.14 ERA). While the rumor mill has Atlanta shopping for third-base help, it's arms -- rotation and bullpen -- that the club could use at the moment. Unlike the Cardinals, though, the Braves may have an easier path to the postseason considering the struggles of the Nationals and Phillies.

4. The (NL) West will be won, but it won't be anytime soon
The Dodgers (17-6), Diamondbacks (18-7) and Giants (16-9) have the NL's three best records this month. The Dodgers and D-backs are doing it with offense, the Giants with pitching.

Check this out: The Dodgers have 51 home runs in June, the most in baseball. The Diamondbacks have 37, the second-most. Paul Goldschmidt of the D-backs and Joc Pederson of the Dodgers have 10 apiece to lead the Majors. Meanwhile, the Giants 2.63 ERA is baseball's lowest. (The Dodgers and Diamondbacks are tied for third at 3.53).

Video: ARI@PIT: Goldschmidt leads off the 7th with a homer

And it's never too early to begin scoreboard watching, which is why two series -- Giants and Diamondbacks and Rockies at Dodgers -- already have a September feel to them.

5. The Reds suddenly seem capable of complicating things
The Brewers had better not sleep on the Reds this weekend at Miller Park. At the moment, few teams are playing better. Cincinnati entered the series on Thursday 31-31 since Jim Riggleman took over as interim manager, and it has won nine of 10, including a four-game sweep of the Cubs and two of three in Atlanta.

Video: MLB Tonight on Riggleman's success as interim manager

The Reds have run up a 68-40 run differential in that time with Billy Hamilton playing his best baseball of the season, and Eugenio Suarez and Scooter Gennett remaining hot. Riggleman has found a pair of reliable starters in Matt Harvey and Anthony DeSclafani, and Raisel Iglesias has been lights-out in the back of the bullpen.

Richard Justice has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2011. Read his columns, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter at @RichardJustice.