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The Leadoff 6/20: Previewing the Week Ahead

NL Central showdown, AL leaders square off, Freeman returns to Atlanta.

Now that all the dads out there have a new supply of socks and ties and barbecue tools from Father’s Day, here is another gift: A pretty good slate of games this week as pennant races start to come more into focus as we enter the last full week of June.

There are always several candidates for the best matchups of the week, but this one has very intriguing clashes. Among them? New York Yankees at Tampa Bay Rays (today-Wednesday), Philadelphia Phillies at San Diego Padres (Thursday-Sunday), Toronto Blue Jays at Milwaukee Brewers (Friday-Sunday) and Cleveland Guardians at Minnesota Twins (Tuesday-Thursday).

So without further adieu, and all due respect to the above series, here are the three grabbing the spotlight this week:

 

Central Powers Clash Again

 

For the third time this season, the top two teams in the National League Central will get together for a four-game series Monday through Thursday at American Family Field. And they do so tied for first place with identical 38-30 records. The first series two played out similarly, with the Brewers winning the first and last games and the St Louis Cardinals capturing the middle pair.

While there is still plenty of time to make a move in the division, there will only be precious few games left between the teams. They won’t meet again until a three-game set in mid-August, then wrap up the season series with a pair of two-gamers in September.

A recent eight-game losing streak, the first six of which surprisingly came at home, knocked the Brewers out of first place for the first time since April 23. The weekend series vs. the Cincinnati Reds, which the Crew won out of three, marked the end of Milwaukee’s third straight three-city road trip, going 15-14. Of their first 68 games, only 27 have been at American Family Field.

Left fielder Christian Yelich, the 2018 NL MVP, has shown signs of finding his swing again. Yelich recently had a nine-game hitting in which he hit .359 (14-for-39), including a pair of homers. That streak coincides with his move to the leadoff spot.

St. Louis, meanwhile, won six of eight after the last series these two teams had and also had another stretch in which it won five of seven. First baseman Paul Goldschmidt was a big part of that surge and leads the NL in the three slash categories .344/.423/.624 to go along with his 16 homers and 58 RBIs. Third baseman Nolan Arenado has 13 homers and 45 RBIs. Right-hander Jack Flaherty has returned to the rotation and will get the nod Tuesday.

However, the Cardinals will be without catcher Yadier Molina, who went on the 10-day injured list Friday with right knee inflammation. It is not known how long Molina will be out.

 

Astros Visit Bronx During Tough Stretch

 

Even though it is still June, it is hard to not think of the Houston AstrosNew York Yankees four-game series that begins Thursday at Yankee Stadium as a playoff preview. The Yankees have the best record in MLB at 49-17 and an 11-game lead over Toronto in the American League East, while the Astros have the second-best mark in the AL at 41-25 with a 9.5-game advantage over the Los Angeles Angels in the West.

While it is a litmus test for both to see just where they stand, the series comes during a tough stretch for the Astros. Houston is coming off winning two of three against the Chicago White Sox before a two-game home series against the NL East-leading New York Mets that precedes the Yankees set. After that, the Astros stay in New York for two more games against the Mets before returning home for a rematch against the Yankees for one game as part of the games lost to the lockout.

The Astros have retained their perch atop the West despite losing shortstop Carlos Correa in free agency. Following rookie Jeremy Peña’s thumb injury, the Astros have turned to Mauricio Dubón, acquired from the San Francisco Giants a month ago, at short.

Meanwhile, the Yankees have been bashing every team they play with an MLB-leading 110 homers. Aaron Judge leads MLB with 25 homers to go along with a .305 average. Still, what has been the most surprising has been the starting rotation. Aside from right-hander Gerritt Cole, what New York is getting from right-hander Jameson Taillon and left-hander Nestor Cortes has given depth to the rotation. Taillon is 8-1 with a 2.70 ERA, while Cortes is 6-2 with a 1.94 ERA.

 

Freddie Returns to the ATL

 

This one figures to be a bit emotional. Freddie Freeman, who had played in the majors since 2010 exclusively with the Atlanta Braves and last year helped them win the World Series, returns to the city as a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers for three games Friday through Sunday.

Freeman had a little taste of what he will experience when the Braves visited Dodger Stadium from April 18-20 as he reconnected with his former teammates. But this will be different as the fans will shower Freeman with their appreciation and there will surely be a tear or two shed.

What happens on the field will be important for both teams. The Dodgers are in another fight for the NL West title and lead San Diego by half a game, while the Braves — who recently ripped off 14 straight victories — are back in the thick of the NL East race, trailing the Mets by 5.5 games.

The Dodgers have gotten healthier on the mound, with left-handed starters Clayton Kershaw and Andrew Heaney coming off the injured list, but right fielder Mookie Betts went on the 10-day IL Sunday with a cracked rib. That will be a huge blow to an offense that recently has had trouble scoring, including a stretch of five times in six games of two runs or less.

Home runs were key to the Braves’ 14-game run, hitting an MLB-best 35 during that streak. But the Braves lost a key part of their offense when second baseman Ozzie Albies fractured his left foot was falling after an awkward swing. Following surgery, he will be out until mid-August.

 

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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