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Ohtani vs. Yanks among top weekend storylines

MLB.com @castrovince

It's the last weekend of the first month. Celebrate.

Soon, we'll be out of April. We'll separate ourselves from the ubiquitous phrase "small sample." We'll become less encumbered by a particularly meddlesome Mother Nature. We still won't know what to make of the standings, but gosh darn it, we'll try to make something of them anyway.

It's the last weekend of the first month. Celebrate.

Soon, we'll be out of April. We'll separate ourselves from the ubiquitous phrase "small sample." We'll become less encumbered by a particularly meddlesome Mother Nature. We still won't know what to make of the standings, but gosh darn it, we'll try to make something of them anyway.

Yes, soon we'll be free of all the things that make April such an odd and awkward month in the Majors. But not before we watch a full weekend slate chock full of fascination.

Here are five topics to track this weekend in MLB:

1. Seeing stars
The Yankees and the Angels are playing three games against each other this weekend at Angel Stadium. Any storylines here? Hmm, let's think ...

This is a weekend in which Mike Trout, Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton will all be on the same field, so, you know, that's pretty sweet. But don't forget about Didi Gregorius, who is vying with Trout for the early Major League home run lead. And you know how we're always comparing Trout to Yankees legend Mickey Mantle? Well, for whatever reason, Trout really hits like Mantle against the Yanks -- a .325/.423/.627 slash line in 34 career games.

Video: SF@LAA: Ohtani singles to load the bases in the 6th

There's more. Shohei Ohtani, who chose a West Coast club over the Yankees in his move to the States, won't be making a start on the mound, but we're sure to see him at designated hitter for his first career appearance opposite the pinstripes. Oh, and Albert Pujols is now just six hits away from No. 3,000 -- a moment that could potentially come on the ESPN "Sunday Night Baseball" showdown between these two clubs.

Other than all that, not too much to get excited about here ...

2. Encore, encore
We mean no disrespect to the late Johnny Vander Meer when we point out that the two teams he famously no-hit in successive outings in 1938 -- the Boston Bees and the Brooklyn Dodgers -- finished 16th and 14th, respectively, in the then-16-team MLB in team batting average that season.

If A's left-hander Sean Manaea pulls off a Vander Meer here in this early stage of the 2018 season, it will be quite a different feat. When he threw his no-no against the Red Sox last Saturday, they were the leading the Majors in runs per game and pretty much every offensive category that matters. And at 8:10 p.m. ET Friday at Minute Maid Park, where Manaea will oppose fellow lefty Dallas Keuchel in the opener of a three-game set between two division foes, the A's hurler will be facing an Astros lineup that led the Majors in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging last season and is quite likely to finish at or near the top again in 2018.

Video: BOS@OAK: Manaea throws the first no-hitter of 2018

In other words, for Manaea to make history (again), he'll really have to earn it. But his 2.45 ERA in eight career starts against Houston is at least an indicator of his comfort level against this formidable lineup.

3. Burgeoning East beasts
The Braves and the Phillies finished a combined 48 games under .500 last year. The last winning season for either club was posted by Atlanta in 2013. But suddenly this season -- and this weekend at Citizens Bank Park, specifically -- there's a lot of interest attached to these two clubs.

Maybe it's too soon to call them contenders, maybe not. Their young talent will ultimately tell that tale as 2018 evolves. In the early going, however, they've both inspired some reasons for optimism.

The Phillies survived a 1-4 start and much hand-wringing about Gabe Kapler's managerial maneuvers to win 13 of their next 16, with Aaron Nola (who starts opposite Julio Teheran in Friday's 7:05 p.m. ET series opener) continuing his ascension into ace-dom, and Nick Pivetta (who starts Saturday opposite Mike Foltynewicz at 6:05 p.m.) seemingly turning a corner in his development.

Video: ATL@CIN: Acuna belts 416-ft. longball for first homer

And you know where the big intrigue rests with the Braves right now. It's top prospect Ronald Acuna Jr., who made an instant impact in his first two games, including a homer and the game-winning hit in Thursday's 7-4 win over the Reds. Beyond Acuna's first look at a division rival, this could be the weekend Atlanta calls up another position player from Triple-A -- some kid by the name of Jose Bautista, who is definitely due for a fitness contest rematch with the Phillie Phanatic.

4. D-backs in the District
The D-backs have looked like a true Senior Circuit powerhouse in the early going -- the kind of powerhouse we, quite frankly, expect the Nationals to be. Entering their matchup in Washington this weekend, they are surprisingly in first in the National League West, with the Nats surprisingly in fourth in the NL East.

Arizona has begun the season with eight consecutive series wins. How rare is that? Well, it hasn't happened since the Mariners did it in 2001 -- the year they won 116 games. Seattle wound up winning nine straight series to start that season, and that's what the D-backs will try to do this weekend.

Maybe a 15-run outburst against the Giants on Wednesday will prove to be the breakthrough for a Nationals lineup that's been besieged by injuries, but they'll have their work cut out for them Saturday, when they face one of the hottest pitchers in baseball. Patrick Corbin gets that 4:05 p.m. ET start at Nationals Park opposite Jeremy Hellickson after cementing his NL Player of the Week status with a one-hit shutout against the Giants. The development of a slow curve that only amplifies the impact of his fastball has helped Corbin rack up 46 strikeouts with a 0.66 WHIP.

Video: Patrick Corbin named NL Player of the week

5. That's Cuet0 with a zero
It's early in the season, but late enough that an ERA that starts with a zero is pretty darn impressive for a qualified starter. So it is with Johnny Cueto, who takes a 0.35 ERA into his Saturday start opposite Alex Wood (10:05 p.m. ET at AT&T Park) in the midst of the weekend rivalry set between the Giants and the Dodgers. Cueto was looking for a bounceback season after 2017's relative struggles (4.52 ERA, 94 ERA+). Well, the lowest ERA for a Giants pitcher through four starts since Ray Sadecki's 0.25 mark in 1968 (the "Year of the Pitcher") is a pretty nice bounce so far. Cueto is one of just seven Giants pitchers to hold opponents to a run or fewer in each of his first four starts in a season.

Video: SF@LAA: Cueto hurls six scoreless, lowers ERA to 0.35

With San Francisco again struggling on the offensive end (3.22 runs per game), that's the kind of premier pitching it needs to hang with Los Angeles and others in the NL West. Cueto is doing an awfully good job of absorbing the ace role with Madison Bumgarner still on the shelf.

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.