Weekend Ahead: Leaders seek momentum

Dodgers-Nationals, Mets-Cards series open second half in style

Weekend Ahead: Leaders seek momentum

It's only a three-day week, but it's one of the most important of the season, and every contender and hopeful October participant in Major League Baseball knows it.

The Week Ahead, shortened because it's the weekend after the All-Star break, is a chance to seize momentum for the second half of the 2015 campaign. It's a chance to build on progress made before Tuesday's 86th All-Star Game presented by T-Mobile, in which the American League defeated the National League, 6-3, to win home-field advantage in the World Series.

And even though the Midsummer Classic at Great American Ball Park is in the rearview mirror, Mike Trout and the Angels are not.

As we move into the next phase of the narrative that will define this year in baseball, the back-to-back All-Star Game MVP and his club are firmly back where they finished at the end of the regular season in 2014, and where they intended to be when Spring Training broke: first place in the AL West.

Manager Mike Scioscia's team weathered internal issues, said goodbye to outfielder Josh Hamilton and general manager Jerry Dipoto, fought through its own sluggish play and the simultaneous meteoric rise of the young and very talented Houston Astros, and enter Friday's second-half lid-lifter at home against the Boston Red Sox. The Angels have a half-game lead in the division and look forward to the possibility that closer Huston Street will return soon from a groin strain.

"It was like, 'When are we going to turn this thing around?'" Angels All-Star first baseman Albert Pujols said. "I know our offense wasn't clicking all year long, but I kept [saying], 'It'll happen. You can't force stuff. It'll happen, because we know that we have the ballclub to do that; we know that we have the talent."

The Astros have to feel they have the talent, too. After all, they're right there, as they've been for most of the season, and they'll get some added help soon with the expected return of starter Scott Feldman from May knee surgery.

Meanwhile, on the other coast, the NL East has not been the foregone conclusion everyone thought it would be heading into the season. Yes, the Nationals are in first place, but they're not running away with the division despite the spectacular season Bryce Harper is having. That's because the Mets -- and particularly the Mets' pitching -- just won't go away.

The world saw a bit of it up close when reigning Rookie of the Year Jacob deGrom mowed through his All-Star inning with three strikeouts on 10 pitches. And the team with the best record in all of ball right now, the Cardinals, will see a tad more of it Friday when hard-throwing rookie Noah Syndergaard, fresh off a 13-strikeout effort in his pre-break outing, takes the hill against St. Louis.

#THIS: deGrom's epic ASG debut

Arms have not been the problem for New York. The main reason they're two games behind the Nats is lack of offensive continuity, and the Citi Field faithful has been calling for the promotion of Minor League outfielder Michael Conforto. A callup over the weekend would be a surprise, but this season has seen a steady stream of highly touted prospects reaching the big leagues, maybe a bit earlier than expected. Conforto, reached at the Futures Game during All-Star Week, seems to feel like he belongs right now.

"I've pictured myself as that person and I do think I'm ready," Conforto said. "But it's not my call. All I can do is just prepare myself, and show up in [Double-A] Binghamton or wherever I'm at, and show up with the right attitude and the right work ethic. My play on the field will speak for itself."

That's what's been happening in Pittsburgh, which has become par for the course the last three seasons. The Pirates won their last three prior to the break to pull within 2 1/2 games of St. Louis, the team they know they'll have to tangle with before bringing more October baseball to the Steel City.

"It's how it's been," Pittsburgh All-Star center fielder Andrew McCutchen said. "We know they're a good team. We can't control what they do. All we can control is what we do. It's just, 'Keep going, keep going and keep going.' The only way we can win is by winning."

#THIS: Cutch is Clutch

That, of course, is the refrain for all the teams within striking distance of the top heading into the pivotal three-game week ahead.

The marquee series of the weekend, the one that could very well be a preview of an NL Division or even Championship Series, pits the NL West-leading Dodgers against Washington at Nationals Park.

Don't forget the Twins, either. One of the feel-good stories of the first half is alive and kicking and only 3 1/2 games behind Kansas City in the AL Central. Minnesota heads out to Oakland for a weekender against the A's and gets the tough All-Star Sonny Gray in its first game.

Elsewhere, the weekend figures to see the welcome return of a few high-profile players who have been sidelined by injuries -- and, of course, the possible moving around of key trade targets at the two-week mark before the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline.

Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia is slated to come back from a right hamstring strain, Yankees outfielder Carlos Beltran could return from a left oblique strain, and the Rangers will get back their promising young left-hander, Martin Perez, from Tommy John surgery.

Otherwise, don't be the least bit surprised if some blockbuster deals are made, because it's now officially the season.

Jeff Samardzija, Cole Hamels, Johnny Cueto, Ben Zobrist and Justin Upton are the names swirling among trade rumors.

Those game-changers, like anyone else, can shake up the status quo -- and the standings -- at any moment.

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