By Michael Cooper
The storylines just never seem to take a break around the baseball world. This weekend, they’ll be plenty of them. The team with the best record in baseball will face the defending World Series champions, who happen to be on a seven-game winning streak. The upstart American League West leaders will take on one of baseball’s elite. A budding AL East rivalry will renew.
Plus, a week after the first appearance of baseball’s top hitting prospect, we’ll see the much-anticipated debut of one of the top pitching prospects when Atlanta’s Tommy Hanson takes the hill on Sunday.
Phillies at Dodgers: Baseball’s best team, the Dodgers, will finally face some real competition in a rematch of the National League Championship Series this weekend. Los Angeles has made a living of picking on its inferior NL West opponents, going 25-9 within the division. They’re just 12-9 against everyone else — which could pose a problem for the Dodgers down the road.
Offensively, the Dodgers aren’t hitting home runs, but they’re leading the league in average (.284) and on-base percentage (.366) and are third in RBIs (280) and runs (296) — all without Manny Ramirez. The pitching staff has been outstanding as well, ranking second in the majors in ERA (3.68) and strikeouts (419). They are, however, walking runners at an alarmingly high rate, tied for worst in the majors with the Marlins (228).
The Phillies offense is just as potent. Despite a team batting average of .266, the Phils are third in the majors in home runs (75), fourth in RBIs (275) and slugging (.472) and fifth in runs (287). With a powerful 1-2 punch of Chase Utley and Ryan Howard and the resurgence of off-season signing Raul Ibanez, Philadelphia won’t have problems staying in ballgames.
The problem has been pitching. They rank 27th in the game in ERA (4.88) and just lost No. 2 starter Brett Myers for the season with a hip injury. The Phillies will no doubt be in the market for pitching at the trading deadline. They’ll likely be a player in the in the Jake Peavy sweepstakes (if he’ll take them), and will also be in on the likes of Erik Bedard and Roy Oswalt.
Pitching matchups — Today: Jamie Moyer (4-5, 6.75) vs. Eric Milton (2-0, 3.14); Saturday: Joe Blanton (4-3, 5.86) vs. Hiroki Kuroda (1-1, 2.53); Sunday: Antonio Bastardo (1-0, 1.50) vs. Randy Wolf (3-1, 3.21).
Rays at Yankees: This series will be worth watching for the pitching matchups alone. It also wins the award for “Most Likely To See A Bench-clearing Brawl.”
Two of the best young lefthanders in baseball will face off on Friday in Tampa Bay’s David Price, who struck out 11 in 5.2 innings against Cleveland on Monday for his first major league win, and New York’s CC Sabathia, who already has one Cy Young Award to his credit. Saturday’s game could be another gem with the Rays’ Matt Garza facing off with Joba Chamberlain — both pitchers are gamers who won’t back away from challenging hitters.
Injuries have played a key role in the Rays struggles this year. Second baseman Akinori Iwamura is out for the season with a torn left ACL. Shortstop Jason Bartlett (.373, 7 HR, 14 SB) was tearing up the league before suffering a sprained ankle. In 44 games, Bartlett already had 30 RBIs after bringing in just 37 runners all of last season. Pat Burrell has played in just 30 games with a neck strain and the pitching staff is without four key members — Scott Kazmir, Chad Bradford, Brian Shouse and closer Troy Percival.
The Yankees are 7-3 in their last 10 games and are tied for first place with the Red Sox. The club’s fortunes have also been linked to a player’s recovery from an injury. Without Alex Rodriguez, the Yankees were 13-15. Since his return on May 8, the Yankees are 19-7. A-Rod hasn’t put up big numbers (.250, 7 HR, 21 RBI in 25 games), but he’s allowed other players, like Mark Teixeira (.279, 16 HR, 44 RBI), to see more pitches to hit.
Pitching matchups — Today: David Price (1-0, 3.00) vs. CC Sabathia (5-3, 3.46); Saturday: Matt Garza (4-4, 3.67) vs. Joba Chamberlain (3-1, 3.71); Sunday: Andy Sonnanstine (4-5, 7.07) vs. A.J. Burnett (4-2, 4.69).
Rangers at Red Sox: The Rangers are just trying to keep their heads above water after going 5-5 in their last 10 games, including four losses to the other AL East bully New York.
Josh Hamilton in on the disabled list from anywhere between two weeks and two months with an abdominal strain. That means the Rangers will look to youngsters Chris Davis, Elvis Andrus and Nelson Cruz to keep pace with the Angels. Playing tough in Boston could show the American League the Rangers will be force to be reckoned with all season.
The Red Sox, who just finished off a 6-4 road trip with stops in Minnesota, Toronto and Detroit, are still in disbelief about the struggles of David Ortiz. The slugger is pulling out all the stops to improve his performance, including a visit to the eye doctor. The Boston faithful are already in the market for a slugger and are hoping to be in the sweepstakes for Matt Holliday or possibly even Corey Hart. Regardless, they’ll be in a dogfight all season with the Yankees, who’ll come to Boston starting next Tuesday.
Pitching matchups — Today: Kevin Millwood (4-4, 3.23) vs. Brad Penny (5-1, 5.63); Saturday: Derek Holland (1-2, 6.33) vs. Jon Lester (4-5, 5.65); Sunday: Vicente Padilla (3-3, 5.57) vs. Daisuke Matsuzaka (1-3, 7.17).
Brewers at Braves: This series should be featured simply for the fact that the Braves have a new No. 3 hitter and debut one of baseball’s biggest prospects on Sunday.
The Braves are ready to prove they’re a contender in the NL East — and grabbing Nate McLouth from the Pirates is a great start. McLouth was just starting to blossom in obscurity in Pittsburgh, batting .276 last season with 26 home runs, 23 stolen bases, 94 RBIs and a career-high .853 OPS while winning a Gold Glove in center field. He was batting just .256 this season, but has still shown effective power with nine home runs and 34 RBIs. He’ll provide the Braves with a big 1-2 punch with Chipper Jones as well as great defensive prowess.
The biggest debut in the past eight days will take place on Sunday when Tommy Hanson takes the mound for the Braves. The 6-foot-6 righthander is one of the top pitching prospects in baseball and was the MVP in the Arizona Fall League. In Triple-A Gwinnet this season, Hanson dominated with a 1.49 era and 90 strikeouts in 66.3 innings pitched. The 22-year-old has a fastball that consistently reaches 94 mph and a dominant curveball and plus-changeup to go along with it. Hanson’s an ace in the making and his performance down the stretch could pay big dividends for the Braves.
Meanwhile, the Brewers just can’t seem to get on a roll. After sweeping three at home against Cincinnati last weekend, the Brew Crew lost three of four in Florida. They’ll need to right the ship against Atlanta to keep pace with St. Louis, especially with the pitching staff whose given up 5.8 runs over the last five games. Luckily, Yovani Gallardo (5-2, 3.18) will start tonight to try and stop the skid.
Pitching matchups — Today: Yovani Gallardo (5-2, 3.18) vs. Jair Jurrjens (5-2, 2.59); Saturday: Jeff Suppan (3-4, 5.09) vs. Javier Vazquez (4-4, 3.58); Sunday: TBD vs. Tommy Hanson.
For your viewing pleasure
Here’s a schedule of nationally televised games this weekend:
Saturday: Indians at White Sox, Phillies at Dodger, Twin at Mariners, Fox, 4 p.m.; Orioles at Athletics, MLB Network, 9 p.m.
Sunday: Rangers at Red Sox, TBS, 1:35 p.m.; Phillies at Dodgers, ESPN, 8 p.m.