The Leadoff 7/18: Previewing the Week Ahead

After stars shine, Mariners face Astros with 14-game streak on line.

Welcome to All-Star week. Time to kick back and relax as all teams have a few days off before starting the stretch drive. Well, not really kick back. The All-Star break isn’t really a break for fans.

Today is media day for the All-Stars. The starting pitchers will be announced, as will the batting orders. Much discussion will take place over players who might only get one or two plate appearances. Of course, with most teams have four days off, that cuts down on the number of matchups to discuss.

Don’t worry. I found plenty to talk about.

 

All-Stars Take Center Stage

 

After missing out on hosting the All-Star Game due to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles is the site of the Midsummer Classic for the first time since 1980. Tuesday’s game starts at 5 p.m. Pacific and will be televised by Fox.

A handful of elected starters won’t play due to injury and a slew of replacements have been named for those players and others who are hurt or pitchers who won’t be able to participate. Everyone is trying to figure out who NL manager Brian Snitker of the Atlanta Braves and American League manager Dusty Baker of the Houston Astros will select as the starting pitchers.

Dodgers left-hander Clayton Kershaw is the sentimental pick for the NL as he has never started an All-Star Game, but his teammate Tony Gonsolin has the much better stats. Kershaw is 7-2 with a 2.13 ERA in 12 starts, while Gonsolin is 11-0 with a 2.02 ERA in 17 starts. Miami Marlins rookie Sandy Alcantara (9-4, 1.76 ERA) and reigning NL Cy Young Award winner Corbin Burnes (7-4, 2.14 ERA) of the Milwaukee Brewers are other leading candidates (Note: Burnes has since declined to participate in the All-Star Game and will be replaced by Miles Mikolas (7-7, 2.54 ERA)).

The AL choice is essentially a three-person race: Los Angeles Angels two-way star Shohei Ohtani (9-4, 2.38 ERA), Tampa Bay Rays right-hander Shane McClanahan (10-3, MLB-best 1.71 ERA) and Houston Astros righty Justin Verlander (12-3, 1.89 ERA).

Of course, there is Home Run Derby on Monday. Pete Alonso of the New York Mets is the two-time defending champ and takes this competition seriously. He was seeded No. 2 (based on season totals through Wednesday) and faces No. 7 Ronald Acuña Jr. of the Braves in the first round. Kyle Schwarber of the Phillies is the top seed and squares off against No. 8 Albert Pujols of the St. Louis Cardinals. The other two matchups are No. 3 Corey Seager vs. No. 6 Julio Rodríguez of the Seattle Mariners and No. 4 Juan Soto of the Washington Nationals vs. No. 5 José Ramírez of the Cleveland Guardians.

 

Astros Next For Streaking Mariners

 

Now, for the games that count in the standings. No team is as sizzling at the moment as the Seattle Mariners, who have 14 in a row, one shy of the club record. That has only gotten the M’s within nine games of the Houston Astros in the AL West entering a three-game series at T-Mobile Park from Friday to Sunday. The Mariners might have an extra advantage in that the Astros have a makeup doubleheader, due to the lockout, against the New York Yankees at Minute Maid Field on Thursday.

While a lot of things are clicking for Seattle — going from 10 games below .500 on June 18 to nine games above at 51-42 — nothing has been more at the forefront during a 22-3 surge to the break than the bullpen. M’s relievers have a 1.49 ERA and gone 10-0, including seven one-run wins when the offense produced four or fewer runs. Overall, pitching has been the backbone for Seattle. The Mariners have allowed the fourth-fewest runs in MLB (349), behind the Los Angeles Dodgers (293), New York Yankees (298) and Houston Astros (305).

Seattle has also won 21 one-run games, tied with the Toronto Blue Jays for most in the majors and won eight straight series, including four consecutive sweeps. All of the three previous teams to enter the All-Star break with a winning streak of 10 or more games wound up winning the pennant (1935 Detroit Tigers, 1945 Chicago Cubs, 1975 Cincinnati Reds).

But the Astros are no slouch, going 23-9 before the break and posting the third-most wins in MLB with 59. Like the Mariners, Houston is led by its pitching staff, which has a 2.98 ERA, just behind the Dodgers’ MLB-best 2.96. Verlander, at 39 years old, has found the Fountain of Youth, going 12-3 with a 1.89 ERA, which is second-best in MLB. He has allowed one run or less in six of his last seven starts. Closer Ryan Pressly has pitched nine perfect innings in his last eight appearances, picking up five saves and two wins. Reliever Ryan Stanek extended his streak to 25⅓ scoreless innings Sunday despite allowing the two inherited runners to score in a 4-3 loss to the Oakland A’s.

 

East Meets West

 

One of the more intriguing series to open the second half is a battle of the surprising NL East leader, the New York Mets, and the second-place team in the NL West, the San Diego Padres. The teams from the opposite coasts clash in a three-game series at Citi Field in New York from Friday to Sunday.

While taking two of three from the Arizona Diamondbacks in the final series, the Padres finished the first half losing 11 of 17. Still, San Diego holds one of the three NL wild-card spots and faces a key stretch coming out of the break facing the Mets and AL Central-leading Minnesota Twins in two of the first three series, then facing a tough stretch against NL West foes.

One of the keys to the Mets’ success has been how well they have done on the road. New York has gone 30-20, trailing only the Astros and Los Angeles Dodgers (both at 31) for most wins away from home. It is possible the Mets will get ace right-hander Jacob deGrom back during this series. DeGrom is scheduled to throw a simulated game Tuesday before possibly returning to the rotation following his stress reaction in his right shoulder from spring training.

DeGrom’s return would be a big boost to a Mets team that has seen the Atlanta Braves tighten the NL East race. New York held a 10½-game lead on June 1, but the Braves have whittled that down to 2½ games at the break.

 

Rivals Square Off With Momentum

 

After spending the week before the All-Star break on the road — well, not quite as they played a pair of games in Anaheim against the Los Angeles Angels — the Dodgers return home after all of the festivities at their stadium. Thanks to swoons by the Padres and San Francisco Giants, the Dodgers now find themselves a comfortable 10 games up in the NL West over the second-place Padres.

The Giants? They pulled within 12½ games by taking three of four from the NL Central-leading Milwaukee Brewers in the final series before the break. The question now is: Has the ship been righted and can San Francisco win enough games in the next two weeks to avoid being a seller at the deadline. The Giants are just half a game out of the third and final NL wild-card spot.

At 48-43, the Giants won’t repeat their historic 107 wins of last season and might not push the Dodgers for the division title. But winning at least two of the four games in the series that begins Thursday would at least be a mental boost after going 27-34 since May 1 before a 7-2 run before the break. Right-hander Logan Webb has been a stabilizing force, going 4-1 over his last seven starts with a 1.37 ERA.

Los Angeles, meanwhile, has stepped on the gas in July, going 13-2 while averaging 5.5 runs and allowing just three per game. The Dodgers are slashing .271/.359/.484 this month while hitting 23 homers. All-Star first baseman Freddie Freeman is slashing .407/.448/.729 with four homers and 12 RBIs in July, while third baseman Just Turner is at .388/.475/.531 and shortstop Trea Turner .311/.364/.525.

 

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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