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Blockbuster matchups will rock the playoff races

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There are only 10 days left in MLB’s regular season, but five playoff spots are still up for grabs. As the hunt for October comes down to a few huge late-season series, we’re about to find out who’s in and who’s out.

Here’s what we’ll be watching this weekend:

There’s still a lot to be decided in the NL playoff chase, with Cardinals-Cubs the big matchup, and Pirates-Brewers and Nats-Marlins also impactful series. Among the four teams fighting for three spots (NL Central, two wild cards), what single factor will have the biggest role in determining who’s in and who’s out?

Eddie Matz: Washington’s schedule. The Cards, Cubs and Brewers all play six games during the final week of the season. Meanwhile, thanks to having no off day and playing a makeup doubleheader, the Nationals are slated for eight games over the final seven days. That’d be tough sledding for any club, but especially so for the Nats, whose bullpen has about as much depth as a kiddie pool. It doesn’t help that Washington’s competition next week (the Phillies and Indians) is the toughest among this quartet of contenders. If the Nats manage to hang on and make it to the wild-card game, they certainly will have earned it. (But I don’t think they’re going to earn it.)

Sam Miller: The Brewers’ bullpen. The other three teams in the race all have relatively traditional workhorse rotations — each has four starters who will qualify for the ERA title, and the Brewers have none. Rather, like last year, their September success has come with the congealment of the bullpen, pieces picked up throughout the year, or shuffled into new roles, or simply peaking at the right time. This month has been the Milwaukee bullpen’s finest, with season-best walk and strikeout rates and a season-best ERA. That’s crucial: The Brewers’ rotation is built to go four or five innings per start — only two starters have gone deeper than that this month, only two have thrown as many as 90 pitches, and none has gone seven or thrown 100. Milwaukee showed us last year what a hot bullpen can do in short, urgent bursts, and they’re trying to do it again, with an almost all-new cast (plus Josh Hader).

David Schoenfield: I’m going with the Cubs’ offense — the one currently playing without Javier Baez and that just got Anthony Rizzo back after that sprained ankle — improbably he was on a scooter Wednesday and started Thursday. I mean, how far can Nico Hoerner carry this team on his back? The Cardinals and Nationals also have a little more margin for error, and the Brewers have the easiest schedule, so the Cubs have their backs up against the wall. They will also end the season with six games on the road — where they are a miserable 31-44 this season. They will also be reminded of how the offense tired down the stretch last year. Good luck, boys.

In the AL, the series to watch are Red Sox-Rays, Rangers-A’s and the interleague Phillies-Indians matchup (Sunday Night Baseball, 6:30 p.m. ET, ESPN), with Tampa Bay, Oakland and Cleveland in the running for the two wild-card spots. Same question as above: What is the most important factor in the AL playoff race?

Matz: Healed hurlers. The A’s have welcomed back stud left-hander Sean Manaea and top prospect Jesus Luzardo. Reigning Cy Young winner Blake Snell and early season breakout star Tyler Glasnow have returned to the Rays. Meanwhile, the Indians haven’t been quite as fortunate, as ace Corey Kluber remains sidelined and fellow right-hander Carlos Carrasco has been limited to six outs or fewer since coming back earlier this month. For a Cleveland team currently on the outside looking in, that’s suboptimal.

Miller: Caveat: Sometimes really good teams rest their players as they gear up for their playoff assignment, and sometimes really bad teams are, by September, hot or filled with great call-ups. But the schedule gap between the A’s and the Rays is about as wide as Oakland could hope for: The Rangers, Mariners and Angels have a combined winning percentage of .441, and half of their good players are out for the year. Meanwhile, the Red Sox, Yankees and Blue Jays are a combined .535. (Cleveland’s opponents: .483.) Again, that’s not destiny. But baseball games are zero-sum affairs, and every ounce of quality your opponents have is as significant as whatever ounces you, yourself have. It makes it really unlikely the A’s could lose this by any method other than total collapse.

Schoenfield: The A’s lead the wild-card race and have that easy schedule, so I think they’re in. So I’m looking at the Rays and Indians and point to the Tampa Bay rotation … bullpen. As Eddie said, Snell and Glasnow just returned, but Snell went only two innings and Glasnow has gone two and three. That means Kevin Cash has to get a lot of work from his relievers in games those two start. It’s remarkable, really: Charlie Morton has been the only constant in the rotation all season. In the bullpen, keep an eye on Nick Anderson. Since he came over from the Marlins, he has pitched 18 innings, given up nine hits, struck out 35 and issued zero unintentional walks.

The Year of the Home Run continues unabated, with the Twins and Yankees on the verge of reaching 300 each. In five words (no more, no less), sum up your feelings on this season’s long-ball binge.

Matz: Triples are way more exciting.

Miller: Eras, not players, break records.

Schoenfield: It was fun at first.


PICK ‘EM TIME

Setting aside Thursday’s opener to the four-game Cardinals-Cubs series, which team will take two of three (or three of three) this weekend at Wrigley?

Matz: The Russell-less, Baez-less and Rizzo-less Cubs have been able to get by recently against mediocre competition. The Cards are far from mediocre these days. Therefore, I’ll take them.

Miller: Somebody should mention that the Cubs have been invincible at home this year, though I don’t really believe that’s likely to persist. Still, even regular, non-invincible home-field advantage is significant, and the Cubs are now past Jack Flaherty in this series and get to skip the resurgent Adam Wainwright. So I’ll take them against the three worst FIPs in the Cardinals’ rotation, without much conviction.

Schoenfield: The Cubs dig down and take two of three weekend games. Because Nico Hoerner. And because we want a four-way tie between the NL Central teams and the Nationals.

Among the players on the seven teams fighting for a playoff spot (Rays, A’s, Indians, Nationals, Cardinals, Cubs and Brewers), who will have the most total bases this weekend?

Matz: Drawing the Pirates for the final stretch of a pennant chase/MVP race is like getting the million-dollar question on “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire” when you have all your lifelines left. And your uncle is a writer on the show. And he just had dinner at your house and told you what the million-dollar question (and answer) was going to be for your upcoming episode. Sadly, Christian Yelich is not an option. So I’ll take Keston Hiura.

Miller: Baseball is weird and anything can happen, but drawing the Marlins for the final stretch of a pennant chase/MVP race is like getting a Final Jeopardy category on which you did your doctoral research. I’ll take Anthony Rendon.

Schoenfield: Funny thing, Nicholas Castellanos is playing these days like the baseball version of Ken Jennings and James Holzhauer. And speaking of the Daily Double, that’s what Castellanos hits every day. He’s only four doubles shy of becoming the first player since 1936 to reach 60 doubles.


TWO TRUE OUTCOMES

Home run hitters

Matz: Yordan Alvarez

Miller: Eugenio Suarez

Schoenfield: Jorge Soler

Strikeout pitchers

Matz: Yu Darvish

Miller: Shane Bieber

Schoenfield: Lance Lynn for the title

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Yankees’ Masahiro Tanaka unsure whether he can take 1st rotation turn

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NEW YORK — Yankees pitcher Masahiro Tanaka is unsure whether he will be able to take his first turn through the rotation as he recovers from a line drive off his head.

Tanaka was hit on the right side near the temple by Giancarlo Stanton‘s shot during batting practice on July 4. While the 31-year-old right-hander says he has no concussion symptoms, he has not thrown off a mound since.

New York opens the season July 23 at Washington, and Tanaka is projected as part of a rotation behind new ace Gerrit Cole, joined by James Paxton, J.A. Happ and perhaps Jordan Montgomery. He still hopes to avoid missing any starts.

“I want to be optimistic and say yes,” Tanaka said Tuesday through a translator. “But obviously the injury is at the head, so I think it’s something that I need to be cautious about and kind of take it careful, more so than other injuries.”

Right fielder Aaron Judge was close to returning to intrasquad games following a stiff neck that sidelined him since late last week.

Tanaka was taken to a hospital for a CT scan after he was hit. New York put Tanaka through the concussion protocol but he said he has not felt any symptoms.

“Obviously, we’re taking things a little bit more carefully now. But the good thing is that I’m feeling fine right now,” Tanaka said. “I feel very lucky because, it could have been something that’s much worse.”

He doesn’t think he will fear being hit again.

“I think everything will be OK once I step on the mound,” Tanaka said. “But you really don’t know until you face a live hitter and at that point in time, you might feel some worries or concern going up on the mound. But as of now, I feel OK getting back on the mound.”

Tanaka is 75-43 with a 3.75 ERA in six seasons with the Yankees and is entering the final season of a seven-year contract.

After spring training was stopped by the pandemic on March, Tanaka initially remained near the Yankees’ spring training complex in Florida, then returned with his family to Japan. He did not detail whether his decision was tied to allegations of threats against Asians in the U.S. but did say he was “considering what was best for the family.”

“Obviously, there were some incidents but someone had to make a decision of what we were going to do,” he said.

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Fantasy baseball X factors – Pitchers

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It seems a bit hard to fathom, judging by the organization’s success the past decade, but despite playing in the most extreme pitcher’s ballpark in the major leagues, no San Francisco Giants starting pitchers show up on initial rosters in more than a small handful of ESPN standard leagues. It sure did not used to be that way! Right-hander Johnny Cueto used to be really, really good and a fantasy staple, and right-hander Jeff Samardzija certainly had his place as a strikeout option. Kevin Gausman was supposed to be a star back in his Orioles days, and Drew Smyly … well, OK — but he was worth rostering five years ago.

Current Giants pitchers figure to look far different in a few seasons, since they are in rebuilding mode, but when discussing X factors in today’s fantasy world, well, there is a potential fit here.

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MLB All-Star Game – Pete Rose vs. Ray Fosse, still controversial half a century later

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The MLB All-Star Game would have been held today, but there will be no Midsummer Classic this year. Instead let’s take a look back at one of the most famous moments in All-Star Game history.

Exactly 50 years ago today, on July 14, 1970, Cincinnati Reds great Pete Rose plowed into Ray Fosse to score the game-winning run for the National League in the All-Star Game.

Fosse suffered a fractured and separated shoulder, which healed incorrectly and caused him chronic pain for the rest of his career.

Rose, nicknamed Charlie Hustle, remains MLB’s all-time hits leader — but did he go too far in an exhibition game?

The debate goes on, half a century later. No matter which side you’re on, we can probably all agree it’s an argument many baseball fans feel passionately about.

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