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deGrom watch, Phils-Nats series top weekend

MLB.com @castrovince

There are people -- people with these things called calendars -- who will try to tell you summer began with the so-called "summer solstice" on Thursday. Ah, but we know better, don't we, baseball fans? We know summer technically began the minute the boys of summer took to the fields at the start of this 2018 season (even though the weather in April was memorably miserable).

Anyway, it's good to have the calendar crowd along for the ride now. Summer's here, and the time is right for watching baseball from your seat. The races are real, the halfway point is approaching and these are five topics worth tracking as we head into the weekend:

There are people -- people with these things called calendars -- who will try to tell you summer began with the so-called "summer solstice" on Thursday. Ah, but we know better, don't we, baseball fans? We know summer technically began the minute the boys of summer took to the fields at the start of this 2018 season (even though the weather in April was memorably miserable).

Anyway, it's good to have the calendar crowd along for the ride now. Summer's here, and the time is right for watching baseball from your seat. The races are real, the halfway point is approaching and these are five topics worth tracking as we head into the weekend:

1. The Phil of the chase
Are both of the National League East's surprise squads legit? Well, the Braves sure appear to be just that, because, you know, it is June 22 and they are in first place in the division with the league's second-best run differential.

The Phillies, though, appeared to be slipping back in the pack when they dropped seven of their first eight games this month. The good thing about being ahead of schedule in your rebuild is that you're ahead of schedule in your rebuild. The bad thing is that people will point to every misstep as the beginning of the crash back to reality.

Video: MIL@PHI: Eflin tosses six strong innings vs. Brewers

But the Phils have rebounded in a big way with consecutive series wins against the Rockies, Brewers and Cardinals. And now they've got a three-game set at Nationals Park this weekend that serves as another chance to prove their staying power against a division power. They avoid facing Max Scherzer and are throwing the red-hot Zach Eflin tonight (7:05 ET) and All-Star candidate Aaron Nola on Saturday (4:05 p.m.). One subplot surrounding this series is that the Nats landed Kelvin Herrera in the trade market this week, but that's not going to be the last deal that goes down in this division.

"What we've said all along is that if we can come out of June in a good position and get ourselves on a roll going into July," Phillies general manager Matt Klentak told reporters, "that would put us in position to make additions."

The Phillies are rolling right now, and continuing that roll against the Nats would sure give the front office additional incentive to make a big push.

2. deGreat
We nearly had a Clayton Kershaw-Jacob deGrom duel on tap for Dodgers-Mets on Saturday at Citi Field, but L.A. has opted to give Kershaw, returning from a back injury, a rehab start at Triple-A Oklahoma City before he rejoins the active roster. So it's Caleb Ferguson on the hill instead for the visitors in the 7:15 p.m. ET game.

But deGrom's having a pretty "peak Kershaw"-like 2018 so far (minus the wins, of course), and that's plenty attractive on its own. He owns a 0.90 ERA with 90 strikeouts in 70 1/3 innings over his last 11 starts. He's gotten the win in just three of them because of, well, reasons, but deGrom's performance in a rough season for the Mets only increases the talk of what a valuable trade chip he would be this summer.

Video: NYM@ATL: deGrom strikes out 7 over 7 strong innings

The Mets are not likely to take advantage of that value, but, were they to actually dangle deGrom, the Dodgers would be an ideal suitor. Los Angeles' current front office has been reluctant to complete deals involving multiple top prospects, but the injury issues that have hampered Kershaw and the rotation at large (and Kershaw's potential to opt-out at year's end) make a compelling argument for diving in here.

Anyway, that's all just fun trade banter, unlikely to be realized in real life. All that really matters this weekend is that we get to see deGrom continue his bid for the NL Cy Young Award, and maybe he'll get enough support to actually come away with his second victory in as many starts.

3. You again?
The Mariners and Red Sox played a four-game series at Safeco Field last weekend in which three of the games were decided by a single run. In the first game, there was a vintage David Price-Felix Hernandez duel. In the second, there was a late-inning rally by that never-say-die Seattle squad. In the third, there was a beautiful battle between knuckleballer Steven Wright and junkballer Wade LeBlanc, resulting in a 1-0 M's win. And though the Red Sox erupted offensively in a lopsided series finale, the two clubs split the series and likely came away with an increased appreciation for their potential October opponent.

Video: BOS@SEA: LeBlanc strikes out 9 over 7 2/3 scoreless

So what do you say we do it again?

The M's and Sox will meet this time at Fenway Park in a three-game set that begins at 7:10 tonight, with a LeBlanc-Wright reunion. LeBlanc retired 22 straight in his 1-0 victory over Boston last week, and Wright has a 0.44 ERA in 20 2/3 innings over three starts this month. These guys might not have great "stuff," but watching them oppose each other is great stuff.

4. Cardinal sins
The NL Central was billed as a three-team race going into the season, with the Brewers and Cardinals both in hot pursuit of the two-time-defending-division-champion Cubs. And though the Pirates have had moments of friskiness that have amplified that outlook, the three-team-race idea has generally held true.

Video: MLB Tonight: Yadier Molina's return, swing evolution

But the Cards have been lagging in that race in recent weeks. Injuries to Paul DeJong and the since-returned Yadier Molina -- as well as bullpen, defense and extra-base-hit issues (only the Marlins have fewer) -- have caught up to this club, which has dropped four of its last six series. The rotation hasn't been as sharp in June, and the departure of the DL'd Michael Wacha, who was otherwise having an excellent season, with an oblique strain isn't helping matters there.

With all of the above serving as a backdrop to how the Cards handle the midseason trade market, series like the four-gamer continuing this weekend against the Brew Crew take on added prominence. The Cardinals were pounded in an 11-3 loss in Thursday's opener. The series continues tonight with Jack Flaherty opposing Junior Guerra at 8:10 p.m. at Miller Park.

5. Bieber fever
Shane Bieber is going to have to endure the Justin Bieber puns for as long as he pitches in the big leagues. And right now, with Carlos Carrasco on the shelf with a bruised forearm, which he sustained on a comebacker, Bieber is in the big leagues indefinitely.

Video: MIN@CLE: Bieber fans 7 in first Major League win

A fourth-round pick in 2016, Bieber wasn't what you'd call an uber-prospect. But a ridiculous 14.2 strikeout-to-walk ratio in the Minors had a way of elevating his profile, and he showed great composure in pitching around traffic to limit the damage to one run over 5 2/3 innings in his first big league win against the Twins on Sunday.

In giving Bieber an idea of how to prepare himself between starts, Indians manager Terry Francona pointed Bieber to two-time American League Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber and said, "Follow him." Bieber has drawn comparisons to Kluber for his poise and command. So let's see what the 23-year-old can do opposite Mike Fiers and the Tigers in his next opportunity, at 7:10 ET tonight at Progressive Field.

And sure, keep the Bieber jokes coming, if you feel that's your Purpose.

Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.