The Week Ahead: Nationals on a roll

The Week Ahead: Nationals on a roll

The starters for the American and National League All-Star teams were announced on Sunday evening, and the rest of the rosters for the Midsummer Classic will be revealed on Monday. There will be much arguing, discussing, debating and debunking over the seven days of The Week Ahead in Major League Baseball.

And then there are the other All-Star-related topics to discuss as well. Who will you tab for selection for the big game at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati a week from Tuesday out of the Final Vote contenders? Who's going to win the Gillette Home Run Derby presented by Head & Shoulders? Who will shine the brightest in the Futures Game?

All that is important, no doubt, but let's not forget that there's a whole seven days of ball before the annual midsummer celebration begins.

The last Week Ahead before the All-Star break begins on Monday and is headlined by the Nationals, who are the hottest team in the game, having won three in a row, and who are back at home to start the week against the Reds.

The Nats swept a weekend series from the suddenly reeling Giants (losers of six straight) to improve their record to 46-36 and take a commanding 4 1/2-game lead in the NL East over the second-place Mets. Even though right-hander Stephen Strasburg is on the disabled list with a strained oblique, the Washington club we're seeing right now is the one we expected to dominate this division and coast into October.

Elsewhere, there will be plenty of divisional intrigue to tap into over the next seven days.

The AL East is still a confusing beast, with four teams (the Yankees, Orioles, Rays and Blue Jays) within two games of one another and the last-place club, the Red Sox, hardly out of it at all with a mere six-game deficit.

The early part of the week sees each team branching out to challenges away from the East, with the first-place Yankees playing the recently improved A's; the Orioles, Rays and Jays going on the road to take on the Twins, Royals and White Sox, respectively; and the Red Sox venturing outside the AL entirely for a home Interleague series against the Marlins.

The Red Sox have has won seven of its last 10 and three straight series, so maybe something is finally clicking in Boaton.

"We're winning some games," catcher Ryan Hanigan said. "We've got to push, we know it. ... Guys are feeling good, I think. Hopefully, it's going to be a fun second half."

The same feelings have to be felt by the clubs that have comfortable division leads heading into the new week. Outside the AL East, there are some seemingly cozy cushions.

The AL Central-leading Royals have 4 1/2 games on the Twins entering Monday play, and the Astros have three games on the Angels in the AL West, although Los Angeles has won three in a row since the departure of general manager Jerry Dipoto shook up the front office. In the NL, the Nats aren't the only team feeling the good vibes. The Cardinals, who have the best record in baseball at 53-28, have a six-game lead on the Pirates in the Central, and the Dodgers have four games on the Giants in the West.

Then again, it is July. Things can change in the standings as quickly as players change uniforms. And with 25 days until the non-waiver Trade Deadline, the swap speculation is already in frenzy mode.

Who's going to go first? Will it finally be Jonathan Papelbon, or maybe Cole Hamels or Mat Latos? Will Aramis Ramirez be procured for a contender looking for a bat? Will a club with October on its mind look for veteran innings down the stretch from someone such as Aaron Harang or Kyle Lohse? All of those players and more are possibly in play, and after witnessing the blockbuster with Jeff Samardzija going to the A's last Independence Day, anything's possible to break, even pre-break.

In the immediate category, the Mariners are likely to welcome back right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma this week. The veteran has been out for months with a strained right lat but appears to be ready to rejoin a rotation that needs his services as Seattle tries to climb out of the season-long funk that has it in fourth place in the AL West.

And the Yankees could soon get the services of reliever Andrew Miller and maybe even outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury, both of whom have also been on the DL.

Doug Miller is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @DougMillerMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.