The Week Ahead: Tigers aim to keep rolling
Everyone around baseball is prepared for a momentous and memorable Monday.
Suspensions of players embroiled in the Biogenesis performance-enhancing drug investigation are expected to come down, and the punishments are expected to be sweeping and severe. The immediate futures of several contending clubs will be altered. Reputations will be further sullied. The game will take another one on the chin.
But Monday will end, Tuesday will begin and baseball will go on, as it always does. Once the penalties have been dished out and the rosters have been retooled, the drama of a great baseball season will continue as the pennant races start to simmer.
The competition isn't hotter anywhere right now than it is in the American League Central. After Sunday, the first-place Tigers, who were expected by most experts to repeat their division title and possibly make a repeat trip to the World Series with perhaps a better result than in 2012, are officially hitting their stride.
They've won eight in a row after a 12-inning walk-off win over the White Sox on Sunday, and they steam into the new week with a chance to go 20 games over .500 and begin making a run at the best record in the AL. Fittingly enough, they'll be heading to Cleveland for a pivotal four-game set against the second-place Indians, who have won 10 of their last 11. Meanwhile, in third place lurks Kansas City, which has also been hot of late.
The Tigers-Indians showdown will be followed by Detroit's three-game weekend series against the Yankees in the Bronx. At some point in the next few days, the Tigers should get back Miguel Cabrera, too.
"It's all about the team," said Tigers starter Max Scherzer, who is 16-1 this season and is slated to pitch this Thursday against the Indians. "We're in first place. We have to keep it there. The Indians and Royals are playing really good baseball right now, and anything can happen, so we have to finish the season strong."
The Braves seem to be paying heed to that same mantra. Somehow they've remained relatively quiet while building the largest division lead in baseball, and they enter Monday with a current MLB-best 10-game winning streak and a 67-45 record, the second-best record in the National League by a half-game.
The loss of Tim Hudson hurts, but they've got Brandon Beachy back from Tommy John surgery to take his place, and Beachy's first week back showed glimpses of the power pitcher the Braves always thought he'd be.
This week, Atlanta will get six games at home against sub-.500 teams in the Marlins and Phillies -- more opportunities to extend its lead and inflate its season record.
In the NL West, the first-place Dodgers must be looking at every week as an opportunity to keep a remarkable run going, all the way to October. And this week, they get two major tests: first a four-game series against the Cardinals in St. Louis, then three at home against the Rays.
That's two chances to show what they're made of against teams with high playoff hopes and two chances to get even more momentum. And, quite possibly, two starts for Clayton Kershaw, who's starting to build a strong case for the NL Most Valuable Player Award, not just the NL Cy Young Award. Kershaw enters the week with a Major League-leading ERA of 1.87, 17 consecutive outings of six innings or more, and two walks in his last 47 innings.
"He's just relentless as far as every hitter, every pitch, every inning," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. "He just continues on. It's one of the greatest things about Clayton. He just never gives in."
On the other side of the country, the Red Sox and Rays will continue their protracted battle for supremacy in the AL East. Boston shut out Arizona on Sunday and enters the week with a 68-45 record, best in the AL. The Red Sox head off to play the Astros on Monday for the first three games of a 10-game road trip that will take them to Houston, Kansas City and Toronto.
The Rays, who are 66-45 and a game behind Boston, will get some rest this week, with only five games, but those games won't be easy. The first two, Tuesday and Wednesday, will be against the D-backs in Arizona, and the weekend will take them to Los Angeles for three against the scalding Dodgers.
Meanwhile, the team with the best record in baseball will be at it again. The Pittsburgh Pirates, one of the inspiring stories of 2013, continue their march toward the team's first winning season since 1992 by playing three at home against the Marlins to begin the week and finishing off with a three-game set against the Rockies in Colorado.
The Pirates won again Sunday and are 67-44, only 15 victories from that magic number of 82 that has eluded them for 20 years. They are looking for far more than that, however, and they know they'll probably have to get a lot more than that to pull away from the Cardinals.
St. Louis routed the Reds on Sunday by the score of 15-2 and is 1 1/2 games behind Pittsburgh. The Cardinals now get a week at home -- four against the high-flying Dodgers, three against the Cubs -- to prepare for next week's crucial three-game set against Pittsburgh. That one will be at Busch Stadium, too.
For St. Louis, coming back to its home park after playing 11 games in 10 days in three cities -- and losing eight of the first 10 -- is beyond welcome.
"We're not looking past today," manager Mike Matheny said, "but we're anxious to get home."