What's next: Royals-Astros in 1st-place collision
Marlins' Hernandez set for long-awaited return from Tommy John surgery
Last year's surprise vs. this year's surprise sets up for great theater, but as the Major League calendar turns to July in the week ahead, should anything really seem out of the ordinary?
What's Next is another seven baseball-packed days full of intrigue and inspiration in the American and National Leagues, and there's almost too much to mention.
Let's start with the series of the week. The darlings of 2014, the defending AL champion Kansas City Royals, are doing a pretty good job of retaining their "plucky little team that could" status. They've won four games in a row to build a comfy 5 1/2-game lead over the second-place Minnesota Twins in the AL Central while the certified "Wow" story of 2015 so far, the Houston Astros, won Sunday to keep their AL West lead over the Angels at four games.
This week, the Astros host Kansas City for a three-game series at Minute Maid Park that could be a preview of an October matchup. A series featuring these teams would be one of the more unexpected yet satisfying playoff battles in recent memory considering all the young talent on offense, defense and the pitcher's mound.
But it's not just the Royals and Astros that have All-Star-caliber players all over the diamond. The other 28 teams in the Majors have players worthy of the Midsummer Classic, which comes to Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati on Tuesday, July 14, and this week is the last one to get your voice heard when it comes to selecting the clubs that will represent the leagues.
Fans can cast their votes for starters at MLB.com and all 30 club sites -- on their computers, tablets and smartphones -- using the 2015 Esurance MLB All-Star Game Ballot until Thursday at 11:59 p.m. ET. For the first time, voting is exclusively online, where fans may submit up to 35 ballots.
Next year, there might be tons of ballots to tally for Miami Marlins ace Jose Fernandez, but this year the 2013 NL Rookie of the Year and All-Star right-hander hasn't yet toed the slab because he's been working his way back from Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery. That should change Thursday afternoon at Marlins Park against the Giants, when Fernandez once again starts a Major League game. This figures to be a great moment for one of the game's real young stars and a guy who has worked hard to make it back to the mound.
While we're on the subject of All-Star right-handers, it would be foolish not to once again hype Nationals ace Max Scherzer, who is on a historic type of tear that he'll try to keep going this week. Scherzer's last three starts were a one-hitter, a no-hitter that was almost a perfect game, and an outing in which he took another perfect game into the sixth inning. He had a string of 54 batters faced without a hit and brought about thoughts of Johnny Vander Meer, who is the only Major League pitcher to throw back-to-back no-hitters, a feat accomplished in 1938. Scherzer's next opponent and possible victim should be the Braves, also on Thursday.
Meanwhile, while discussing the best things to watch in baseball, it wouldn't be fair to leave out the team with the best record.
The St. Louis Cardinals were 50-24 entering Sunday night, the first time the club had reached the 50-win mark before July and the first team to 50 this early since the 2005 White Sox, who ended up winning the World Series. They are showing no signs of slowing down anytime soon, even without ace Adam Wainwright, who tore his Achilles tendon in April, and without slugger Matt Adams, who's also likely out for the season.
"I keep hearing from other guys I talk to on other teams, and they say, 'Gosh, you guys just keep winning,' " Cardinals reliever Carlos Villanueva said. "You look at it on paper, it's expected and it's the way that we mix together. The message that [manager] Mike [Matheny] gives is you have to pick the guy up next to you. Everybody does his part."
This week, St. Louis will do its part by staying home at Busch Stadium to fittingly take on the White Sox for a quick two-game set before hosting the Padres for four.
Elsewhere, the most hotly contested division, the AL East, continues to confound. Four clubs -- the first-place Orioles and Rays, third-place Yankees and fourth-place Blue Jays -- are all within one game of each other, and the last-place Red Sox aren't out of it by any means. They're still only eight games back.