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The Week Ahead: NL Central takes center stage

Waiver Deadline looms as baseball's hottest pennant races hit September

This week in baseball ends with the first day of September. That's when time begins to crunch, and that's when pennant races really start to sizzle.

So it's fitting that Monday gives us another day in the office to ponder the best pennant races.

First, let's look front and center, or, as it is these days with the most intriguing division competition in baseball, Central -- as in National League Central.

The week ahead brings us the Cardinals and Pirates deadlocked atop this sterling group of clubs, with the Cincinnati Reds still somehow under the radar even though they're only 2 1/2 games behind the leaders.

And how about this schedule for the Cards this week? St. Louis begins the slate with three at home against the Reds, gets Thursday off, then finishes August and begins the rip-roaring final month of play with a three-game set at Pittsburgh. Good times, to be sure, and possibly telling times as well.

First comes the set with the Reds, who play seven of their next 10 games against St. Louis, while the Cardinals begin a stretch of 13 straight games against the Reds and Pirates. The Central race might be mathematically confusing right now, but chances are it won't be in about two weeks.

"They know," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "We don't have to go out and spell it out for them. We don't have to hold a meeting to tell them this is important. Every game from here on [out] is. It doesn't matter who we're playing. We've seen everybody play well against us, and we've seen ourselves play well against everybody. It's time to push, that's it."

He's not going to get any arguments from the Reds or Pirates on that point.

"It's a big series, there's no doubt about it," Reds shortstop Zack Cozart said. "We've got to play better. Hopefully, we go into St. Louis and turn it around and play well and take a series, at least. ... I'm not going to say we need to prove anything to them. We know we're a good team. We've been winning all year on pitching and defense and getting timely hits."

Elsewhere, there are other points of intrigue dotting the divisions. The Red Sox enter the new week with but a one-game American League East lead on those pesky Tampa Bay Rays, who are looking stronger in the starting pitching department with the return of Alex Cobb and the potential return of Matt Moore on the horizon, as well.

Boston gets the Orioles and White Sox this week, while the Rays make up a game against the Royals before playing the Angels and A's.

Out West, AL-style, the Rangers lead the A's by 2 1/2 games and get a huge advantage schedule-wise over the next seven days. Texas has three games against sub-.500 Seattle and three more against struggling Minnesota. Meanwhile, the A's have four on the road against AL Central juggernaut Detroit and three at home against Tampa Bay.

Observers of the Tigers this week have a chance to witness some special milestones. Starter Max Scherzer is 19-1 and is the third pitcher in Major League history to win 19 of his first 20 decisions -- joining Rube Marquard (1912) and Roger Clemens (2001). He figures to get the ball Thursday night at home against Oakland for his first crack at win No. 20.

"For me, every time I go out, I seem to pitch well. More importantly, our defense makes plays behind us," Scherzer said. "We always seem to get the big hit. Everybody through the lineup plays well every time I take the mound, and that's the reason I'm 19-1 -- not because I'm pitching well, but because everyone else is stepping up and doing their job."

His teammate Miguel Cabrera is doing his job, too -- enough so that he's still in the running for a second straight Triple Crown. Cabrera is dominating the AL in batting average (.360) and is well ahead in RBIs (128). The only category he's not leading is home runs, but he gained on Baltimore's Chris Davis last week by blasting his 42nd, leaving him four behind Davis' 46.

Speaking of dominance, this week looks like another breeze for the Braves and Dodgers, who look like postseason shoo-ins at this point, as all they do is try to keep momentum going and get healthier in time for their potential first-round series in October. Los Angeles could get Matt Kemp back soon, although it might not be this week. Atlanta lost Jason Heyward but has seemingly found replacements for injured players all year.

Meanwhile, there's still another way to find replacements, although it ends on Saturday. That would be the date of the Waiver Trade Deadline period, and anyone who's been paying attention to the transaction wires over the last three weeks has seen some intriguing movement -- from Alex Rios to the Rangers on Aug. 9 to Emilio Bonifacio to the Royals on Aug. 14 to David DeJesus to the Nationals on Aug. 19 (and then to the Rays on Friday) to Kurt Suzuki to the A's.

We'll see who's next -- if anyone. The Rangers have mentioned that they might make a deal for a starting pitcher. Baltimore has been looking for a bat. And you can never seem to count out a host of other teams on the cusp of the playoffs.

And that brings us to New York, where the Yankees still haven't completely thrown in the pinstriped towel. They're eight games over .500 and seven games back in the AL East, but on Monday in Toronto, they'll get Derek Jeter back ... again.

Jeter has had three stints on the disabled list this year and has played in a total of five games this season because of various leg and ankle woes. Now he's back one more time, and we'll see how long he can stay.

"He has played three days in a row [on a rehab assignment]," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "From everything I understand, he felt pretty good. I don't know if we can afford to be apprehensive."

Doug Miller is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @DougMillerMLB.
Read More: Zack Cozart, Chris Davis, Matt Moore, Alex Cobb, Miguel Cabrera