Things heat up in the American League Central as the surging Cleveland Indians take on the first-place Minnesota Twins this weekend, while the red-hot New York Mets host the Washington Nationals in a battle of teams left for dead not long ago.
Here's what we're most excited to see Friday through Sunday:
The biggest series of the weekend actually started Thursday, as the Twins host the Indians for a four-game set. Whom do you like this weekend?
Eddie Matz: I like the Indians all day, every day, and against anyone -- just so long as it's a day that ends with the letter Y. And just so long as it's after May. Since June 1, the Indians, who have made an annual habit out of somnambulating through the first couple of months of the season, are 41-17. That's what I like to refer to as "The Best Record In Baseball." The scary part is, Jose Ramirez only recently has started to do Jose Ramirez things. Of course, when these teams last met in mid-July, I predicted the Tribe would trample the Twins, only to watch Minnesota go out and take two of three. So clearly, I know nothing.
Sam Miller: OK, so put it like this: Cleveland traded Trevor Bauer for Yasiel Puig and Franmil Reyes, weakening its pitching staff significantly but also upgrading its offense significantly. But the Twins have 10 hitters who have gotten regular playing time and outhit both Puig and Reyes this year, by OPS+. The Yankees have so many good hitters (at least 150 plate appearances, at least 110 OPS+), and no other team in baseball has more than seven, and Cleveland has only three. The Twins' offense isn't to be taken lightly. Given the home-field advantage, they'll take three in this series.
David Schoenfield: My initial thoughts are (a) the Indians cleaned up on the Royals-and-Tigers portion of their schedule (they're 12-1 against the Tigers) and (b) they will miss Bauer more than they'll benefit from Puig and Reyes. But then I realize that Ramirez is swinging a big stick again and that while the Indians enter the series 18-24 against teams above .500, the Twins are only 24-26 against teams above .500. The Twins have destroyed bad pitching -- 137 home runs in 60 games against sub-.500 teams compared with 87 in 54 games against the good teams -- so I think we're looking at a split given Cleveland's good rotation and terrific (and underrated) bullpen.
Another big series this weekend -- and no one thought this would be the case six weeks ago -- is Nationals-Mets at Citi Field. Can the Amazin' Mets keep this run going long enough to make the playoffs?
Matz: Baseball Prospectus, which gives the Mets a 29% chance of making the playoffs, isn't buying. Ditto for Baseball Reference (16%). And even though FanGraphs has New York at a relatively lofty 40%, that's still the business end of a coin flip. There is this, though: That 40% is the second-highest number among the National League's non-division leaders. In other words, at this moment, FanGraphs thinks the Mets are in!!! Do I agree? Not yet. But get back to me on Monday.
Miller: As Eddie demonstrates with those playoff odds, there's no better answer than "they can, but who knows if they will," same as on Opening Day. That's the story of the National League this year: There were up to 14 plausible playoff contenders (everybody but the Marlins), and throughout the first 4½ months, the various iterations of "who's hot and who's not" (and the extremely condensed wild-card and NL Central standings) have been enough for about 10 of those teams to unexpectedly surge, unexpectedly fold and repeat. The Mets are right about where we thought they'd be at the start of the season. So are the Phillies, Nationals, Cubs, Brewers, Cardinals and Reds: All pretty good teams, all in each other's way. We haven't even started settling things yet.
Schoenfield: The funny thing about the Mets is that they are where we thought they would be -- but not because of why the front office thought they'd be where they are. (I have a feeling my seventh-grade English teacher will not like the construction of that sentence.) Think about it: Robinson Cano, now on the injured list, and Edwin Diaz have been terrible. Jed Lowrie hasn't played, but one reason general manager Brodie Van Wagenen traded for Cano and signed Lowrie was because the front office clearly didn't believe in Jeff McNeil or Pete Alonso (the Lowrie signing theoretically meant Todd Frazier or Cano might play some first base while McNeil was pushed into a utility role). The Mets did make a good pickup in J.D. Davis, but he's playing only because of the injuries to Lowrie and Brandon Nimmo. So they're succeeding in part because of two players the front office wasn't really willing to commit to. Remember that when they hoist the World Series trophy.
What else are you guys most looking forward to seeing this weekend?
Matz: I can't wait to see Christian Yelich, Mike Trout and Cody Bellinger -- whose current home run totals are 39, 38 and 37, respectively -- all reach the big 4-0 this weekend. I wanted to say Nelson Cruz would get there too. Yeah, I know he has only 32 bombs right now, but the way he'd been mashing (13 jacks in his past 16 games), it seemed he might reach 40 by Saturday. But with Nelson leaving Thursday's game with a wrist strain, we'll put those plans on hold for now.
Miller: When Hyun-Jin Ryu allowed seven runs in Coors Field in late June, his ERA spiked to 1.83. Since then, he has steadily lowered it in five consecutive starts -- he had an ERA of 0.55 in July -- and when he takes the hill Sunday, his ERA will stand at 1.53. That's tied with Dwight Gooden (slightly better, by decimal points) for the second-best ERA of the live ball era, a whole danged century, behind only Bob Gibson's record 1.12 ERA in 1968, the anomalous Year of the Pitcher. I'm hoping to see Ryu put some space between himself and Doc; he needs only 26⅓ more innings to pass 162 and guarantee that this season goes down in history as "official."
Schoenfield: You know, we never give much love to the Tigers in this space. Do you realize how bad the Tigers are? Entering Thursday's game against the Royals, they were on pace to finish 48-114. That's only one win better than the 2018 Orioles. On May 12, however, the Tigers were 18-20. They weren't yet horrible. Since then: 16-58, a .216 winning percentage. If they play at that level over their final 50 games, they'll win 11 more games (rounding up!). That would come to 45 wins for the year, which would give them a chance at catching the infamous 2003 Tigers, who finished 43-119, and feel like an almost impossible win-loss record to "achieve" -- and yet the Tigers have a chance. My point: I will not be watching the Royals and Tigers this weekend.
PICK 'EM TIME
With at least one extra-base hit in nine straight games, Blue Jays rookie Bo Bichette is looking like -- small sample size alert! -- the next Mike Trout. So just for fun, who will have more total bases this weekend: Bichette vs. the Yankees or Trout vs. the Red Sox?
Matz: Here's a weird stat: This season, Mike Trout has a .777 slugging percentage in games that take place on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. That's the best in the majors. Given that Trout ranks second in slugging on all days of the week, though, it's not really that weird -- except Trout slugs about 100 points higher over the weekend than on weekdays. Still, when it comes to weird, nothing's weirder than the tear Bichette is on. I say he out-total-bases Trout by a count of 11 to 9.
Miller: The Red Sox look almost like they're tanking for draft picks right now. Only the Rockies, Orioles and Tigers have allowed more runs since the All-Star break, and they've lost nine of their past 11. As close observers of the franchise have noted, when things go bad for Red Sockers they have a tendency to get really bad -- it's not a low-stress environment, Boston -- so I'll say Trout wins this one easily, and that he might just knock the Red Sox into single-digit playoff odds.
Schoenfield: Bichette has doubled in nine straight games -- just 11 games into his career. That's not just a record for a rookie -- it's a modern record (since 1900) for any player. Yadier Molina in 2016 and Derrek Lee in 2007 doubled in eight straight games. Earl Webb, who holds the single-season record with 67 for the 1931 Red Sox, reached a high of just five games in a row that year. So young Mr. Bichette is a doubles machine. Meanwhile, Trout is a .345 career hitter at Fenway but has never homered there in 20 games. A bunch of doubles and singles, but no home runs. So I'm suggesting he's due for a couple of big ones this weekend. Trout over Bichette.
The Astros' offense is rolling, averaging nine runs per game in winning six straight, while Orioles pitching just got bashed by the Yankees. Total runs for Houston this weekend: Over or under 19.5?
Matz: Bundy, Brooks and Wojciechowski? Red rover, red rover, send "over" right over.
Miller: I don't know -- 19.5 is a lot. I could see 16 or 17, but has a team ever hit 19.5 home runs in a three-game series? You mean home runs, right? You just left out the "home"? I'll take the under, and I say they hit only 11 home runs (while scoring 29 runs).
Schoenfield: Forget Bellinger vs. Yelich. The most fascinating race of the season is Twins home runs hit vs. Orioles home runs allowed. Heading into Thursday, the Orioles led 234-224. But they have only three games left against the Yankees, so the Twins have a chance. I predict the Orioles extend that lead, however, when the Astros score 23 runs in three games and swat a bunch of dingers (note whom we all picked in "Two True Outcomes").
TWO TRUE OUTCOMES
Home run hitters
Matz: Yuli Gurriel
Miller: Yordan Alvarez
Schoenfield: Carlos Correa
Matz: Charlie Morton
Miller: Walker Buehler
Schoenfield: Luis Castillo