What's Next: Benchmark brings intriguing matchups

Mariners, Orioles set to slug it out this week, while Mets-Nats begin NL East clash

May 16th, 2016

Baseball, we've all been told, is a game of constant adjustment.

You didn't get a hit the first time up against the changeup? Well, keep looking for the slow stuff. Once the pitcher realizes you're onto the junk, gear back up for the heater.

The same goes for expectations, especially after the small sample sizes of April grow to this point in mid-May. We're just now getting around to realizing that the teams that have vaulted into current contention might simply be that good and in it for the October haul.

Cast your Esurance All-Star ballot for #ASGWorthy players

Until the rest of the pack makes the necessary adjustments.

The week ahead will get us to the point where we are officially one quarter of the way through the 162-game regular-season grind.

What's next is a midweek benchmark that will provide plenty more intrigue to digest in the form of scintillating series among contending clubs that might have seemed like surprises heading into Opening Day but are suddenly seeming like very legitimate threats to carry the momentum all the way to the postseason.

Take the Mariners and Orioles. Few pundits liked their chances in the American League West and East, but here they both are, with the Mariners right on the heels of first-place Texas in the West and the Orioles tied with the Red Sox for the top spot in the East. And here they both are, ready to face off against each other in a three-game series at Camden Yards starting on Tuesday night.

It's the teams' first meeting since their big offseason trade that sent slugger Mark Trumbo from Seattle to Baltimore. He's tied for the team lead in homers with Manny Machado at 11, just shy of the Mariners' rejuvenated Robinson Cano, who leads the AL with 12.

The Mariners renovated their roster in the offseason and have been getting continuity on offense and defense while pitching well enough to hang in games. They are also road warriors, having gone 13-6 away from Safeco Field thus far.

The Orioles were expected to hit the ball but not necessarily expected to prevent other teams from doing so. And the sluggers have been doing their thing, leading the Majors in home runs, but staff ace Chris Tillman has been sensational and the team's overall 3.63 ERA ranks fourth in the AL.

"The big thing is that we can sit back down and relax because our pitchers have done such a good job of keeping us there," Orioles catcher Matt Wieters said.

"We have more confidence that when we go out there, we're going to get another zero, and then with our bats, if we can just keep [the opposition] without scoring, then eventually we're going to find some barrels."

The other 28 teams will be hoping to do the same, and the week is full of must-see matchups.

On Monday, the Tampa Bay Rays visit the Toronto Blue Jays in an exciting AL East showdown. The Blue Jays are coming off an emotional loss in Texas that featured a benches-clearing incident and outfielder Jose Bautista taking a fist to the face from Rangers second baseman Rougned Odor. There should be some fallout from the league regarding this fracas, and the Blue Jays figure to be affected.

But there's plenty of National League sizzle, too.

The Mets pulled ahead of the Nationals in the NL East late in 2015 on their march to the World Series, and both teams enter the week right there battling for the division. The clubs are set for a three-game series in Citi Field that begins Tuesday with New York fireballer Noah Syndergaard, who hit two home runs in his last start, taking the mound against Washington righty Max Scherzer. All he did in his last outing was tie a Major League record by striking out 20 batters.

"That's the team that beat us," Scherzer said of the Mets. "Much respect to what they did last year, and they get all the credit and deserve all the credit. It's just that we want to come in and beat you, simple as that."

This time around, the Nationals will have Daniel Murphy on their side. The former Mets second baseman now plays -- and stars -- for Washington, and he'll be making his first trip back to Citi Field since signing with the Nats over the winter. Murphy brings a .400 batting average and 1.062 OPS into the series.

"I'm excited he's doing well," Mets manager Terry Collins told reporters Sunday in Colorado. "I think the world of Dan and what he did here, but we got to figure how to get him out now."

While the Mets and Nationals slug it out, the surprising Marlins and Phillies will be meeting up in Philadelphia. And over the weekend, series of interest include an AL Central fray between the defending World Series champion Royals and current division-leading Chicago White Sox plus a Texas two-step between the Rangers and Astros in Houston and the team with the best current record in baseball, the Cubs, against the San Francisco Giants by the Bay.

There should be a few happy returns in the week ahead as well.

Right-hander Henderson Alvarez could return from shoulder surgery to make his first start for the Oakland A's over the weekend.

The Mariners should get bullpen help in the form of setup man Joaquin Benoit (right shoulder inflammation). The team expects him to come off the disabled list sometime during its weeklong road trip.

The Red Sox will continue their rehab schedule with starter Joe Kelly (right shoulder impingement), and the Rangers will do the same with Yu Darvish (Tommy John elbow surgery).

Both teams can't have those electric arms back in their rotations soon enough.

"I feel pretty good," Darvish said after his most recent rehab outing. "The elbow stamina is there. I would like to work on the off-speed stuff. The most important thing is pitch count. Build up the pitch count and go more innings. That will give me more confidence."