Weekend preview: Three things to watch

The second half of the baseball season is upon us, and while a weekend game in July still counts the same as one in April, the stakes are clearly becoming greater now. More than half the games are done. Pennant races are getting intense. The pending trade deadline will also shake things up. So, let’s start a new Friday SweetSpot blog entry where we preview the upcoming weekend and note interesting things to watch for!

1. There are more than five series in which each team is a legitimate playoff contender, but the most interesting one to me is Bobby Valentine’s Boston Red Sox heading to Tampa Bay. The Red Sox have managed to overcome a mess of issues on and off the field to win more than they’ve lost. Outfielders Jacoby Ellsbury and Carl Crawford are nearly back from injury. However, the team collapsed last September because of the pitching, and this weekend Franklin Morales, Clay Buchholz and Josh Beckett are scheduled to start. Would it surprise you if any or all of them threw seven innings of shutout ball or was pounded for seven runs in three innings? Nope, wouldn’t surprise me, either. I’m certain Joe Maddon feels better about his trio of Jeremy Hellickson, David Price and James Shields, but his Rays can’t match the Red Sox offensively. Wouldn’t it be cool if the Sox and Rays eventually met for a one-game playoff ...

2. In the National League, the Philadelphia Phillies might have already run out of time to turn things around, but it’s a compelling team to watch because of the potential trade options (Cole Hamels, Shane Victorino, Hunter Pence) and the hobbling older gentlemen trying to spark the offense (Chase Utley, Ryan Howard). Naturally, the Phillies open the second half at Coors Field, a cruel joke for a team 29th in baseball in relief ERA (only the New York Mets are worse). Don’t be shocked if Hamels gets bumped from Sunday’s outing because he’s scheduled to pitch for the Los Angeles Dodgers the next day against the very same Phillies. Or he could be signed to a new five-year contract extension by the Phils for $120 million by then.

3. ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball features the defending champion St. Louis Cardinals and the Cincinnati Reds. Hmmm, haven’t these teams had some issues getting along in the past few seasons? Weren’t a few Reds displeased to be left out of the All-Star Game by the former Cardinals manager? Yes, I believe that’s the case! Right-hander Johnny Cueto brings a fancy 2.39 ERA and chip on his shoulder into the Sunday night outing against right-hander Jake Westbrook, but let’s look past the hostility and perceived slights and remember each team is good enough to represent the NL in October and host, ahem, Game 7 in the Fall Classic.

Three stats to watch:

8.38 ERA, 2.27 WHIP: Texas Rangers right-hander Yu Darvish is 10-5 with a 3.59 ERA. However, in two outings against the lowly Seattle Mariners (Saturday’s foe), he’s allowed 10 runs (nine earned) in 9 2/3 innings, with 12 hits, 10 walks and 10 strikeouts.

6.75 ERA, 1.81 WHIP: Manager Ozzie Guillen says he’s going by committee in the ninth, rather than rely solely on right-hander Heath Bell and his brutal stats, which is fine until he changes his mind. It’s not like Ozzie has a veteran like Matt Thornton looming to go to. Keep an eye on Steve Cishek, but Bell will get another chance.

0.00 ERA, 0.48 WHIP: Baltimore Orioles right-hander Chris Tillman has made only one start, beating the Mariners (but was throwing harder after changing his pitching mechanics, now coming more over the top). If his team is going to stay in the race it'll need better starting pitching than provided in June (5.45 ERA). Jason Hammel, Wei-Yin Chen and Tillman are scheduled to face the Detroit Tigers.

Enjoy your weekend!