Orioles and White Sox
Something has to give. The Orioles and White Sox open a four-game series at Camden Yards on Monday night. The O's equaled their 2011 win total with victory No. 69 over the weekend and now are set to claim 70 wins for the first time since 2006. The Orioles do have a 25-20 record against the White Sox since 2007 and are going to need to reaffirm that they can beat good teams if they want to complete their Cinderella story by advancing to the postseason. They have 20 games remaining against teams with winning records.
This, however, isn't going to be a cinch, by any means. The White Sox, surprise contenders who were overlooked before the season, continue to maintain their hold on the American League Central lead and head to Baltimore with a six-game winning streak, four games better than any other team in the AL. They have gotten a lift from the addition of Francisco Liriano in a July trade with Minnesota. Chicago has won four of the five games started by Liriano, who has a career 12-4 record in August.
Having restocked their roster thanks to the weekend blockbuster with Boston, the Dodgers now travel to Colorado for a three-game series, looking to make up ground in both the National League West and NL Wild Card races. They arrive at Coors Field with a 14-6 road record since the All-Star break, better than any other NL team except those dreaded Giants (14-5), who are holding a two-game edge on the Dodgers in the NL West standings. The first question to be answered is whether a change of scenery will help Josh Beckett return to his top form. The right-hander has a 5.23 ERA, up 2.34 from a year ago, the third-biggest increase among starting pitchers (Ricky Romero of Toronto at 5.63 is up 2.71 and Tim Lincecum of the Giants is up 2.56 to 5.20). Coors Field might actually be a welcome site for Beckett, who is 3-0 in his career in Colorado, although he hasn't faced the Rockies since the 2007 World Series at Fenway Park.
The Rockies may be in last place in the NL West, but they have won 13 of their last 20 games, including two of three at Dodger Stadium earlier this month. The Giants also are headed out on the road, but that's no solace for the Dodgers. The Giants' week consists of six games against the teams with the two worst records in the NL -- Houston and the Chicago Cubs. Those two teams are a combined 11-36 this month. Bad? Well, 12 of the 14 other NL teams have each won at least 11 games in August. The two exceptions, the Mets and Pirates, have nine wins apiece.
The Rays are the hottest team in the AL in the last 30 days, having gone 19-8, and they are 12-3 on the road during that stretch, having taken charge of the AL Wild Card race and put pressure the Yankees in the AL East. Now comes a major test: a three-game visit to Texas. Yes, the Rays have an AL-best 35-27 record on the road. Yes, they have David Price set to get things started, looking to build on his 8-0 record and 1.56 ERA in his last 12 starts. But he's got something to prove while facing the Rangers, against whom he is 1-6 with a 5.03 ERA in 10 career appearances, including the postseason.
The Rangers are rolling again, having opened up a 5 1/2-game lead in the AL West over Oakland, and slugging outfielder Josh Hamilton has put midseason rumors of his demise to rest. Despite hitting .188 with seven home runs and 26 RBIs from June 1 through July 29, Hamilton has erupted in the four weeks since, hitting .315 with seven home runs and 28 RBIs. The impact on the Rangers? They're tied with the Rays and Nationals for most August wins with 16.
The Pirates are about to begin a critical three-game showdown with St. Louis this week at PNC Park, where the Bucs had the Majors' best home record until an August slide that has included 11 losses in their last 17 home games. Not unlike last season, the Pirates have hit a sudden second-half slide that hasn't been slowed by a late-July trade for Wandy Rodriguez to bolster the rotation. In second place in the NL Central and three games out when the month started, the Pirates have gone 9-15 in the month and slipped to third place in the division, eight games behind Cincinnati and two behind second-place St. Louis. Of greater concern is that the Pirates are two games back of the Cardinals in the battle for the second NL Wild Card spot and trail the Dodgers by a half-game.
The schedule over the season's final month does favor the Pirates. Pittsburgh will play 23 of its final 35 games against sub-.500 teams, including 13 against the Astros and Cubs. But a message needs to be sent during these three games with the Cardinals, and it starts with a starting rotation that dominated during the first four months of the season but has gone 8-11 with a 4.95 ERA in August. A.J. Burnett gets the call in the series opener, and while he is 15-4 overall, the right-hander is 1-2 with a 6.75 ERA in his last three starts. Unfortunately for Pittsburgh, Rodriguez hasn't offered much help since being traded; the left-hander is 0-4 with a 5.17 ERA in five starts with the Pirates. He did earn a win in relief during Pittsburgh's 19-inning win over the Cardinals on Aug. 19.
As if trying to keep up with the two-time defending AL champion Texas Rangers isn't enough of a challenge, the Angels, whose offseason spending spree landed them on the front pages of Southern California sports sections, played second fiddle over the weekend to the Dodgers. The Halos continue to disappoint, having posted a 6.26 team ERA during a 9-15 August. The club signed the game's top free-agent target during the offseason, Albert Pujols, to the third-largest contract in Major League history, then shook up the baseball world with the late-April arrival of rookie sensation Mike Trout.
Now, the Angels aren't just trying to catch the Rangers, but the A's as well. They were three games back of the Rangers at the end of July and woke up on Monday 9 1/2 games out of first place, four games back of the second-place A's, and four behind Baltimore in the battle for the AL's second Wild Card spot. And the Angels have a challenge down the stretch. Nineteen of their final 34 games are against postseason hopefuls, including seven games with Oakland and six with Texas, and of the other 15 games, nine are against the Mariners, who recently reeled off eight wins in a row. Bottom line? The three-game series at home against Boston that opens on Tuesday is a critical one.
The Braves keep hanging around the NL East race, looking for a chance to make a move, but right when Washington started to stumble, Atlanta wobbled even more. Washington goes into a two-game series with Miami on Tuesday having lost five of its last eight, but two of the three wins were against the Braves, who did claim back-to-back victories against San Francisco during the weekend. Still, those were only the second and third wins for the Braves over their last nine games, during which they have lost a half-game in the standings. And now, the Braves head to San Diego for a three-game visit beginning on Monday night against a surging Padres team that is riding a seven-game winning streak.
The Braves have won the season series from San Diego in 19 of the last 21 years, and they took three of four earlier this month in Atlanta. And the Braves do have their rotation set for this series. Paul Malholm, a Trade Deadline addition from the Cubs, will start the opener, looking to build off a strong showing in his first four starts with Atlanta in which he has held opponents to a .198 batting average. Kris Medlen, a midseason reinforcement to the rotation, goes into Tuesday's start riding a streak of 20 1/3 consecutive scoreless innings, including a shutout of the Padres in Atlanta, and seven stellar innings against Washington on Thursday. What's more, Medlen has seen the Braves win in each of his last 16 starts, a franchise record. Tommy Hanson, who will start Wednesday's series finale, is 3-0 with a 1.42 ERA in his three career starts at PETCO Park.
Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com.