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The Leadoff 7/4: Previewing the Week Ahead

Cardinals-Braves showcases teams looking to move up.

School is out. Summer vacations are under way. Sunscreen is in demand. As the calendar flips to the first full week of a new month to begin the second half of the year, today marks the Fourth of July, aka Independence Day, the 248th birthday of the United States declaring its independence from England.

While we still have work to do to get back to the united part of our country’s name, baseball provides a respite from real-world issues. The Fourth of July from a baseball perspective is a great day to tailgate (or grill out while you watch the game on TV or listen to the radio) before watching your favorite team or just any game with friends and family before the fireworks launch.

Two of the six division races (American League East and National League West) have the first-place team up by double digits, with the other four all within 3½ games. And with a month until the Aug. 2 trade deadline, games take on a little more importance regarding the standings.

While it will be a big week for the New York Yankees — the Bombers travel to Pittsburgh to face the upstart Pirates in a rematch of the 1960 World Series, then go to Fenway Park to face the rival Boston Red Sox — they also have a 13½-game lead in the AL East, so the games don’t have the crucial feel of the series listed below.

 

Second, For Now

 

Two second-place teams looking to move up a rung in their respective divisions clash as the Atlanta Braves host the St. Louis Cardinals for four games today through Thursday.

After a subpar first two months, the World Series champion Braves took off in June, posting a 21-6 record and entering this series 3½ games behind the first-place New York Mets in the NL East. The Cardinals, meanwhile, have been locked in a battle with the Milwaukee Brewers atop the NL Central. The Cardinals are just two games behind the Brewers as the series in Atlanta begins.

With Ronald Acuña Jr. yet to consistently do Ronald Acuña Jr. things, Matt Olson, who replaced Freddie Freeman at first base, has been a doubles machine, producing an MLB-best 31 to go along with his 12 homers and 43 RBIs. Austin Riley continues to establish himself as a top third baseman with 20 homers and 43 RBIs and shortstop Dansby Swanson is contributing more offensively, slashing .301/.360/.500 with 14 homers and 46 RBIs. Spencer Strider has emerged as an NL Rookie of the Year candidate, posting a 2.87 ERA in 18 appearances, including seven starts. That solidifies the back end of a rotation led by left-hander Max Fried (8-2, 2.66 ERA), Kyle Wright (9-4, 3.03 ERA) and Charlie Morton (4-3, 4.34 ERA).

For the Cardinals, offense has been at the forefront of their success. That all begins with first baseman Paul Goldschmidt and third baseman Nolan Arenado. Goldschmidt is slashing .341/.423/.625, leading MLB in OBP, while second in average on slugging percentage. He also has 19 homers and is second in MLB with 65 RBIs. Arenado, who hit for the cycle Friday for the second time in his career, is slashing .290/.352/.539 with 17 homers and 55 RBIs. Three rookies have earned key roles: infielder Brendan Donovan, outfielder Juan Yepez and second baseman Nolan Gorman.

 

White Sox Face Crucial Series With Twins

 

Will this be the last stand for the Chicago White Sox? Sitting in third place at 38-39 and 4½ games behind the Minnesota Twins in the AL Central, the White Sox host the division leaders for a three-game series today through Wednesday.

It might be a little early to say that considering these two teams have only played one series to this point, a three-game Twins sweep at home April 22-24. But that just means the White Sox need to do well in this series and the four-gamer leading into the All-Star break or else face questions about selling off personnel at the trade deadline.

For some reason, the White Sox have not played well at home, posting a 16-21 mark and being outscored 212-152. Offense generally hasn’t been a problem, with four players — first baseman José Abreu (136), shortstop Tim Anderson (134), third baseman Jake Burger (114) and center fielder Luis Robert (107) — with an OPS+ well over 100. Instead, pitching has been a sore spot, led by Opening Day starter Lucas Giolito. The right-hander is 5-4 with a 4.90 ERA, with an ERA+ of 80 and FIP of 4.54 for the preseason division favorite.

Meanwhile, the Twins were active in the abbreviated spring training and the moves have paid dividends. The two biggest acquisitions were right-hander Sonny Gray via trade and shortstop Carlos Correa through free agency. Gray is 4-1 with a 2.47 ERA, while Correa is slashing .294/.358/.465 with nine homers and 29 RBIs. But the emergence of center fielder Byron Buxton has given the offense another dimension. He is slashing .227/.303/.569 with 21 homers and 38 RBIs.

 

Giants Look To Make Move

 

After a 14-7 April, the San Francisco Giants have basically been a .500 team. They went 13-14 in May and 13-13 in June. May featured a bad month of pitching, with a 5.44 ERA that ranked 29th in MLB. June saw a bounce back by the staff, posting a 3.29 ERA that ranked fifth. But the offense was just the opposite, with a good May (.760 OPS, fourth in MLB) and a poor June (.702, 20th).

That means July is important for the Giants if they are to remain in the NL West race. Entering a four-game road series against the San Diego Padres from Thursday through Sunday. The Giants trail the first-place Los Angeles Dodgers by 8½ games and the second-place Padres by five. Injuries have prevented the Giants from any consistency. As an example, infielders Thairo Estrada and Wilmer Flores, expected to be platoon players entering the season, lead the Giants in plate appearances. The magic that made the Giants’ 107-win 2021 so memorable has also not surfaced, with a 10-16 record in one-run games.

Meanwhile, the Padres have rode strong starting pitching to this point of the season. The Padres have the most innings pitched by a starter (459) and the fifth-best ERA (3.50). Right-hander Joe Musgrove has blossomed into an ace, while left-handers Sean Manea and MacKenzie Gore as well as righty Yu Darvish all have ERAs under 4.00. Only lefty Blake Snell has struggled, going 0-5 with a 5.13 ERA.

Third baseman Manny Machado, who just returned from a sprained left ankle, is an early NL MVP candidate, slashing .320/.391/.530 with 12 homers and 46 RBIs. Second baseman Jake Cronenworth and first baseman Eric Hosmer have also been boosting the offense with Fernando Tatis Jr. still about a month away from returning from surgery to repair a fractured left wrist. Getting more from center field and right field will be a focus as the trade deadline approaches.

 

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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