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The Leadoff 5/23: Previewing the Week Ahead

Red Sox-White Sox, Brewers-Cardinals and Phillies-Mets are key series.

The Major League Baseball season isn’t broken down quite as cleanly as the NFL is, where you can declare after Week 4 that the season is one-quarter done. No, the schedule dictates that teams have days off that are different from even others in their division. Postponements also throw a wrench into keeping teams at the same pace.

Instead, baseball basically has three random dates on the calendar to see how teams are progressing (or, in some cases, regressing). The first one of those is Memorial Day, which is a week from today. (The All-Star break and the trade deadline are the others.) Due to the lockout, Memorial Day comes just after MLB teams have passed the quarter mark of the season.

Stats will be trotted out about how teams in first place on Memorial Day come out at the end of the season. But what should you take stock in? How your favorite team is playing and what holes have been exposed. We have seen teams in recent weeks make moves to demote struggling players and promote top prospects. The next month of games will really determine how teams position themselves for the second half and a potential run at a playoff spot.

This week, there are a few key series to keep you eye on:

 

Darn It: Sox Need Wins

 

The headline of this section applies to both the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago White Sox. For the Red Sox, it is obvious: This season hasn’t been close to what they imagined in spring training. Boston sits fourth in the American League East at 19-22, just 2½ games ahead of the last-place Baltimore Orioles and three behind the third-place Toronto Blue Jays (and 10 behind the first-place New York Yankees). For the White Sox, they were expected to be a force in the AL Central, but are treading water at 21-20, second in the division and four games behind the first-place Minnesota Twins.

These two teams meet for the second time this month in a three-game series Tuesday through Thursday at Guaranteed Rate Field. Chicago won the series at Fenway Park on May 6-8, with all three games low-scoring affairs: 4-1, 3-1, 3-2.

Boston has more at stake as speculation continues on whether the Red Sox will be sellers as the trade deadline approaches. And when do they decide to cut the cord and start dealing? The problem is the Red Sox have been healthy for the most part this season. Trevor Story, the key offseason free-agent signing, showed signs of life with a three-homer game Thursday, followed up by a grand slam the next day and added a fifth blast in four games Sunday.

Chicago, meanwhile, hasn’t taken a stranglehold of a division it won by 13 games in 2021. The offense has been particularly concerning, ranking in the bottom third of MLB. While shortstop Tim Anderson is performing at an All-Star level, slashing .359/.400/.517 and center fielder Luis Robert is hitting .285 with six homers and 17 RBIs, it plummets from there, with left fielder Andrew Vaughn the next highest batting average at .277. Pitching has been middle of the road, pulled down by starters Vince Velasquez (5.79 ERA) and Dallas Kuechel (6.60 ERA).

 

Showdown Central

 

Could the fate of the National League Central be at stake this week? Not really, but the Milwaukee Brewers travel to St. Louis for a four-game set with the Cardinals from Thursday through Sunday with both teams intending to make a statement.

The Brewers have spent the last month leading the Central, but the Cardinals are just three games behind entering Monday’s action. This series is part of two quirks in the schedule. First, it is the second of three four-game sets between the teams, all before the All-Star break. They split the first one at American Family Field. Second is this marks the second of three straight three-city road trips the Brewers, taking them first to the West Coast and San Diego before coming back to division play against the Cardinals and then the Chicago Cubs for four games, including a Memorial Day doubleheader.

St. Louis seems in a slightly more dramatic position as the Cardinals have had to make some significant roster decisions this month. First, it was demoting starting shortstop Paul DeJong, who was slumping, then this weekend the Cardinals brought up their top position and pitching prospects in infielder Nolan Gorman and left-hander Matthew Liberatore, who have been friends since childhood. The hope is to inject life into the lineup and add stability to the rotation.

Milwaukee is in the midst of 18 games in 17 days, yet had the best 40-game stretch in club history at 26-14. Pitching has been the calling card for the Brewers so far, including a dominant Josh Hader closing out games. The left-hander has converted 28 straight save opportunities, including 15 in as many appearances to begin this season, an MLB record. Right fielder Hunter Renfroe has been a key cog in the offense recently and is slashing .268/.305/.507 with nine homers and 19 RBIs.

 

Phillies Need Signature Series

 

By adding sluggers Nick Castellanos and Kyle Schwarber to an offense featuring reigning NL MVP Bryce Harper, the Philadelphia Phillies figured they weren’t going to have any trouble scoring runs. But the bats haven’t been quite as explosive as anticipated, with a team batting average of .248 ranking fifth in MLB and their 184 runs 10th-best.

Pitching is where the Phillies knew they would have to make inroads, but they are 19th in MLB with a 3.91 ERA. All that has added up to a sluggish 19-22 start, eight games behind the NL East-leading New York Mets as the two teams square off at Citi Field for a three-game series Friday through Sunday. The Phillies, who dropped two of three to New York in Philadelphia early in May, could be entering the danger zone if they don’t take at least two games in this series.

The Mets, meanwhile, are experiencing bumps in the road. Already with Jacob deGrom (stress reaction in right scapula) on the injured list and not expected back until mid-June at the earliest, fellow right-hander Max Scherzer was recently placed on the IL with an oblique strain and will miss six to eight weeks. Still, it has been a nice balance of pitching and offense, both ranking in the top 10 of MLB, that has the Mets leading the division.

Surprisingly, New York has the third-best batting average in MLB at .253, although its OPS is 12th at .709. First baseman Pete Alonso is supplying the power, leading the team with 10 homers and 37 RBIs (tied for the MLB lead), while also hitting .279. Right-hander Chris Bassitt has been a sneaky-good acquisition, posting a 4-2 record with a 2.77 ERA and 1.09 WHIP.

 

Featured image by Doug Carlin (@Bdougals on Twitter)

Steve Drumwright

Steve Drumwright is a lifelong baseball fan who retired as a player before he had the chance to be cut from the freshman team in high school. He recovered to become a sportswriter and have a successful journalism career at newspapers in Wisconsin and California. Follow him on Twitter @DrummerWrites.

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