Globe iconLogin iconRecap iconSearch iconTickets icon

news

MLB News

Week Ahead: Wild Card races heating up

NL and AL spots coming into focus -- or not -- with crucial matchups on the line
MLB.com

The party that was the inaugural Players Weekend is over, and frankly, we're sad to see it go. On Monday, players across the Major Leagues will go back to using their given surnames on the back of their jerseys, back to wearing standard cleats and back to swinging traditional bats.

That's OK, because the spirit of creativity and fun that Players Weekend delivered will linger, and it will influence the rest of the big league season.

The party that was the inaugural Players Weekend is over, and frankly, we're sad to see it go. On Monday, players across the Major Leagues will go back to using their given surnames on the back of their jerseys, back to wearing standard cleats and back to swinging traditional bats.

That's OK, because the spirit of creativity and fun that Players Weekend delivered will linger, and it will influence the rest of the big league season.

And there is a lot of good baseball left to be played as we ease into September by the weekend. What stands out when looking at the week ahead is just how many good teams are set to match up against one another, and how different the playoff picture could get by Labor Day, which officially marks the start of the season's stretch run.

That's no more true than in the American League, where it seems like everyone still has a shot at the second Wild Card spot heading into the week. Seven teams remain within shouting distance of the Yankees, who hold the top wild card spot, and this week, several of those teams in contention will face off in pivotal series.

Expect the remaining playoff races to heat up in earnest.

Just look at all the juicy matchups. You have Rays vs. Royals, Mariners vs. Orioles, then Blue Jays vs. Orioles, Angels vs. Rangers and Royals vs. Twins. All those teams will continue to beat up on one another until the AL Wild Card picture becomes clear. And make no mistake -- all have a shot to play in October.

All these teams are chasing the Yankees, who got first baseman Greg Bird back this weekend and face the Indians to start the week in what looks like a playoff preview. The defending AL champions travel to the Bronx for a three-game set starting Monday, when ace Corey Kluber will make his fourth career start at Yankee Stadium.

Video: SEA@NYY: Bird collects first single since April 26

The Yankees and Indians split a four-game series earlier this month in Cleveland, but, of course, these two teams have a long history.

It wasn't much more than a year ago when the clubs pulled off one the biggest trades in recent memory, with the Yankees sending fireman reliever Andrew Miller to Cleveland for four players who, at the time, were prospects. One, Clint Frazier, already has debuted with New York and has made an impact in his rookie season. Miller, of course, went on to become the star of the 2016 postseason for Cleveland, who came within one inning of winning a World Series title. Miller (right knee patella tendinitis) and Frazier (strained left oblique) are expected to miss this series because of their injuries, though.

This is a big series for New York. A few losses and the Yankees could risk being overtaken by the bevy of AL Wild Card contenders hot on their tails.

And in the National League Wild Card race, this is exactly what the Marlins seem to be doing -- closing in on a Wild Card spot. Miami is back in the thick of it, thanks in part to their humongous slugger Giancarlo Stanton, who continues to have a second half for the ages.

Video: Must C Clutch: Stanton's 50th puts Marlins ahead

Want a reason to watch this week? Look no further than Stanton, who hit his 50th home run Sunday. Sammy Sosa on Aug. 26, 2001, reached 50 home runs, and Stanton is the earliest to reach that milestone since. He's the sixth player to reach 50 home runs before the end of August.

Stanton has been so hot at the plate since closing his stance in June that the question isn't will he homer? but rather how many will he hit this week? The Marlins travel to Washington for a three-game series against the Nationals, then host the Phillies for four games starting Thursday. Stanton already has hit 11 home runs against Philadelphia and Washington this season.

For more of a shock factor, look at Phillies rookie Rhys Hoskins. The left fielder is hotter than hot, and this weekend he clobbered his 11th homer in 18 career big league games, a Major League record since at least 1913. No big leaguer since then has clobbered 11 homers in any fewer than 23 games.

Video: CHC@PHI: Hoskins crushes his 11th homer in 18 games

The Phillies weren't even expecting to promote Hoskins before Labor Day.

Just shows you that, in baseball, you never know what's going to happen. The week before Labor Day should set the start for an unpredictable stretch run.

Joe Trezza is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @joetrezz.