The Week Ahead: Postseason races getting serious
Red-hot Rays taking on Boston for four games with first place there for the taking
It will be a week of races, of aces and quite possibly of old faces in new places.
The first full week of baseball following the All-Star break -- and the last one before the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline -- gives us the opportunity to catch up on the standings, stats and stirrings and once again take stock in where we stand in this championship season of 2013.
A first look to the trickiest division in the Major Leagues, the American League East, shows that things are as clear as infield dirt after a two-hour rain delay.
On Sunday, the Tampa Bay Rays took advantage of yet another stellar start from another emerging ace, Chris Archer, and beat the Blue Jays, 4-3. Tampa Bay has won five in a row and 17 of its last 19 to move to 58-41 as it heads to Boston for a crucial four-game series against the first-place Red Sox, who are 60-40 and 1 1/2 games ahead of the Rays.
"Baseball's such a unique game," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "The turns and twists are incredible. That's the game we had been losing earlier in the year. Now, we're winning that same game."
The Rays will hope to win as many as they can at Fenway Park, since a sweep would put them in first place by 2 1/2 games. Matt Moore will get the ball for Tampa Bay, with rookie Brandon Workman pitching for Boston in the Monday lid-lifter.
Out West, the Dodgers continue their July joyride. Even though Yasiel Puig has cooled off and Matt Kemp was back out of Sunday's game with a turned ankle after another disabled-list stint, nothing seems to slow down Los Angeles these days.
The Dodgers are 20-5 since June 22 and have pulled within a half-game of the D-backs in the National League West.
Kemp said after the game he felt better and he didn't think the injury, which occurred in the ninth inning of Sunday's win over the Nationals, was anything serious. His teammates will hope that's true as they head to Toronto for a three-game Interleague set against the Blue Jays before returning to Chavez Ravine for a four-game weekend series against Cincinnati.
Meanwhile, the Reds could have used a win and a series sweep over Pittsburgh on Sunday to get closer in the NL Central, but they fell, 3-2. They're still only five back of division-leading St. Louis and three behind the Pirates as the new week dawns in perhaps the most intriguing race in baseball.
Pittsburgh looks more and more like a team that will finish with a winning record for the first time since 1992, and St. Louis' menacing offense still packs plenty of punch, even without outfielder Matt Holliday, who just went on the disabled list.
That means the Reds can't afford to squander chances to gain ground, especially as they depart for an 11-game road trip on the West Coast.
"It hurts when you have an opportunity," Reds manager Dusty Baker said. "That's kind of been the offense most of the year."
Opportunity is a big word this time of year because it's still very much in play.
In the AL West, the A's and Rangers are looking strong up top, but the Seattle Mariners have won six games in a row to climb within six of the .500 mark. They've got a chance to make noise down the stretch with their mixture of youth and veteran leadership. They're also scoring tons of runs.
In fact, Seattle has the most runs and home runs in the Majors in July and has scored four or more runs in 16 of its last 17 games.
"This is about as good a stretch as we've had since I've been here in 2011," center fielder Dustin Ackley said. "This is a great feeling. It's not like we're doing it here or there. We've been doing it every day for the last couple weeks, so that's definitely an exciting thing."
Also exciting: Matt Harvey of the Mets, who sparkled Sunday, along with 40-year-old A's righty Bartolo Colon, who shut out the Angels.
Also exciting: The battle brewing in the AL Central, where the Indians simply won't go away and are trailing the defending AL champion Tigers by a mere 1 1/2 games.
The Atlanta Braves might be the only team making their division race an afterthought, with a 6 1/2-game lead on Philadelphia in the NL East, but hey, it's still plenty early with 64 games left on their schedule.
A lot can change. Like, for example, rosters. By July 31.
We're still waiting to see what the Cubs do with Matt Garza. The Rangers are believed to be in hot pursuit, but will the Red Sox join the fray? What about the Pirates and Orioles?
And who else is available? Reports are saying Yovani Gallardo, Jake Peavy and Francisco Rodriguez could be on the move soon. Soon could be this week.
Whatever happens, things are starting to sizzle again this week, with the All-Star Game behind us and October not too far ahead.
Because that's just the way we like it.