Around the Horn: Previewing the Biggest Weekend in Baseball Thus Far

With the playoffs fast approaching, half of the teams in Major League Baseball are either looking at a playoff spot or still have fantasies of winning one. All that means is that we as fans have a smorgasbord of delicious games to watch between wanna-be playoff teams. Let’s take a look at the 3 best series of the weekend:

St. Louis Cardinals (76-68, 2nd in the Wild Card Race) v. Los Angeles Dodgers (74-70, 3rd in the Wild Card Race, 2 games back)

Game 1: Cardinals win, 2-1

Game 2: Joe Kelly (5-6, 3.51 ERA, 109 ERA+, 67/33 K/BB) v. Chris Capuano (11-10, 3.59 ERA, 106 ERA+, 155/49 K/BB)

Game 3: Jaime Garcia (4-7, 4.41 ERA, 87 ERA+, 77/26 K/BB) v. Joe Blanton (9-13, 4.98 ERA, 80 ERA+, 148/32 K/BB)

Game 4: Adam Wainwright (13-13, 4.01 ERA, 95 ERA+, 170/47 K/BB) v. Clayton Kershaw (12-9, 2.70 ERA, 141 ERA+, 206/43 K/BB)

The dirty little secret about the Cardinals this season is that they are imminently beatable if you can get into their bullpen, which ranks 23rd in baseball with a 4.10 ERA. The rest of the pitching staff has been solid, and the Cards offense is what really motors this team to victory. They rank 2nd in the NL in runs scored, 1st in hits, 1st in batting average, and 1st in on-base percentage. Matt Holliday, Allen Craig, and Carlos Beltran all have 20+ homers, and the team starts 5 regulars who have a .295 batting average or better. The Cardinal’s recent slump has coincided with the loss of shortstop Rafael Furcal, whose defensive presence and speed on the base paths provided a nice balance in a slugger-heavy lineup.

The Dodgers, unlike St. Louis, have been carried by their pitching this season. Staff ace Clayton Kershaw will make an appearance in the series finale on Sunday and his 12-9 record doesn’t adequately state how well he’s pitched this year. He has the lowest WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched) and highest strikeout total in the National League and his 2.70 ERA ranks 2nd best. Capuano has also been solid this season, although Blanton (who starts Saturday) has been lit up since coming over fro the Phillies giving LA a couple of solid shots at a win. The Dodgers will need to get the anemic offense going, because they are just 6-12 since making the waiver wire deal to acquire Adrian Gonzalez, who’s started slowly in LA to say the least. He’s hitting just .233 with 1 homer in 18 games as a Dodger. With Matt Kemp nursing his sore shoulder and AJ Ellis coming back down to earth after a great 1st half, LA can use all the offense they can get right now.

Matchup to Watch: Dee Gordon’s speed vs. Yadier Molina’s arm

In the 7th inning last night we got our first glimpse of the matchup which features one of the fastest players in baseball in Dee Gordon, 30 of 39 in steals, against the rocket-launcher of an arm of Yadier Molina. We wanted to see what Gordon could do, and he didn’t disappoint, getting an excellent jump of Cardinal pitcher Edward Mujica. Molina was just a little better on this day, making a picture-perfect, line drive snap throw right at the front corner of 2nd base. Gordon literally had no way to avoid the perfect throw and was gunned down at high noon by Sheriff Molina. With the Dodgers yearning for any scrap of a run they can get, look for manager Don Mattingly to give Gordon the green light to try to nab 2nd base again, and look for Molina to be there waiting.

Tampa Bay Rays (77-66, 3rd place in the AL East, 4 games back) at New York Yankees (81-62, tied 1st in the AL East)

Game 1: David Price (17-5, 2.54 ERA, 147 ERA+, 175/54 K/BB) v. CC Sabathia (13-5, 3.56 ERA, 118 ERA+, 166/38 K/BB)

Game 2: James Shields (14-8, 3.71 ERA, 101 ERA+, 189/52 K/BB) v. Ivan Nova (11-7, 4.92 ERA, 85 ERA+, 141/39 K/BB)

Game 3: Matt Moore (10-10, 3.68 ERA, 102 ERA+, 165/73 K/BB) v. Hiroki Kuroda (13-10, 3.17 ERA, 132 ERA+, 144/42 K/BB)

One of the marquee series of the weekend involving teams battling for playoff spots is taking place in the Bronx between the Rays and Yankees. Tampa Bay’s pitching staff has been on fire throughout the 2nd half and leads baseball in ERA and strikeouts. They have the better pitcher on the mound (statistically) in two of the three match-ups this weekend, and after being swept in Baltimore, the Rays should have a good sense of desperation. Tampa Bay has struggled to manufacture runs this year however, ranking 12th in the AL in runs scored, but hitters like BJ Upton and Evan Longoria are starting to heat up. If they can get Carlos Pena (4 of his 17 homers on the season have come against the Yankees) going, the Rays might be able to muster enough offense to take the series.

The Yankees rank 2nd in baseball in runs scored this year, and have done most of their damage via the long ball. New York has scored nearly half their runs this season courtesy of the homerun, which has caused their offense to have a boom-or-bust mentality occasionally. Derek Jeter and Robinson Cano have been the team’s two most consistent hitters all year, and if they can’t get it going against a tough Rays staff, look for this offense to struggle to score runs.

Matchup to Watch: Curtis Granderson and Nick Swisher vs. the Tampa Bay shift

Joe Maddon has employed the shift on a majority of the Yankees left-handed hitters this season and I don’t expect him to stop using it now. Curtis Granderson has been exceptionally pull-happy on any groundballs he’s hit this season, so look for the Rays defense to play the overshift on the infield against the Yankee centerfielder.

Nick Swisher has also exhibited a strong pull tendency when hitting from the left side of the dish, so he can probably expect the same shift as well. Maddon is the master at using these kinds of shifts to his advantage, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see the Rays infielders deployed straight up the middle against Cano and shifted into the 3rd base-shortstop hole against Alex Rodriguez as well. That’s been Maddon’s MO against New York this season and it’s been working, the Rays are 9-6 against the Bronx Bombers.

Baltimore Orioles (81-62, tied 1st in the AL East) at Oakland A’s (82-61, 1st in the Wild Card)

Game 1: Joe Saunders (8-11, 4.22 ERA, 101 ERA+, 97/37 K/BB) v. Tommy Millone (12-10, 3.90 ERA, 102 ERA+, 128/31)

Game 2: Zach Britton (5-2, 4.72 ERA, 89 ERA+, 48/28 K/BB) v. Jarrod Parker (10-8, 3.56 ERA, 112 ERA+, 114/57 K/BB)

Game 3: Undecided v. Dan Straily (2-0, 3.42 ERA, 118 ERA+, 20/5 K/BB)

Raise your hands if you thought this would be one of the most important series in baseball during the 2nd weekend of September. Nobody? That’s what I thought. Both Oakland and Baltimore would be in the playoffs if the season started today, and depending on how the AL East title plays out, this could be the Wild Card round match-up at the start of October.

No team is hotter in baseball right now than the Baltimore Orioles, winners of 5 of their last 7 over their AL East rivals, Tampa Bay and New York. The O’s have scored the 4th most runs in baseball in the month of September, and their bullpen is still one of the tops in the league, especially after shutting down the Rays in 14 innings yesterday. Mark Reynolds has been leading the tear, hitting .286 with 9 homers in his last 12 games. The Orioles have also gotten clutch performances from nearly every spot on the diamond, getting game-changing hits from Nate McClouth, Manny Machado, Adam Jones, or somebody else nearly every night. The only problem is a shaky starting pitching staff (22nd in baseball with a 4.60 ERA), which may be without one of its best starters, Jason Hammel, for at least another week.

Oakland is also dealing with a potential injury problem of their own. Outfielder Yoenis Cespedes hurt his wrist sliding into 2nd base yesterday and may have to miss a little time. He’s tied 2nd on the team in homers (18) and RBI (68) and his presence in the middle of the lineup will be missed. Chris Carter (14 homers in 54 games) and Josh Reddick (28 homers and 75 RBI) will have to continue to step up to provide the low-scoring A’s the offense that their excellent pitching staff needs. The team has the 4th lowest ERA in baseball and has allowed the fewest homers in the American League, which contrasts nicely with Baltimore’s powerful lineup, which ranks 3rd in baseball in homers.

Stat to Watch: The A’s have allowed just 55 homeruns at home this season, the 4th fewest in the Majors. Baltimore has fairly drastic home/road splits, hitting 110 homers at Camden Yards and just 75 homers away from their friendly ballpark. The O’s also hit just .239 on the road, compared to .255 at home, which means we could see some very low scoring games. Both teams have excellent bullpens and plenty of walk-off win experience, so expect some fireworks over the course of the weekend.

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