The Week Ahead: Bucs, Cubs look to gain on Cards

The Week Ahead: Bucs, Cubs look to gain on Cards

How good is the National League Central? Consider this: The St. Louis Cardinals still have the best record in Major League Baseball, and as the week begins, the hottest clubs in the sport's best division are the second-place Pittsburgh Pirates and third-place Chicago Cubs.

The Pirates have won four games in a row and eight of their last 10, and are now only five games behind St. Louis. Pittsburgh is coming off a weekend sweep of the Mets, who are comfortably in first place in the NL East. They're 23 games above the .500 mark, and they're not looking to slow down any time soon.

"It doesn't matter who we play," Bucs center fielder Andrew McCutchen said. "We're capable of competing with anybody out there. We're a good team. We don't have one of the better records in baseball for no reason."

This week, baseball gets tougher for every team, as the pivotal pennant-race month of September gets closer, but the Pirates will have more chances to gain ground on the Cardinals. All of their games this week will be played at PNC Park, with the first three against the Arizona Diamondbacks and then a four-game series against the playoff-contending Giants.

"The better the competition, the better for us, I believe," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said, and the Cubs seem to agree lately.

The North Siders lost to a scintillating Chris Sale on Sunday to snap their winning streak at nine games, but they're still feeling pretty good about themselves heading into a week in which they will go up against the Tigers for two and the Braves for four. All six games will be played at Wrigley Field.

"You're not going to win them all, man," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said on Sunday. "That doesn't happen. We've been playing really well. We continue to play really well. Today we just ran into a good pitcher and that was the difference in the game."

Meanwhile, it would be unwise to forget about the Cardinals, who are 75-42 and have won seven of their last 10. They get a good home test vs. the Giants for three games before an off-day and a weekend set in San Diego, and they have done just fine with front-runner status the last few seasons.

In the American League West, however, the Astros are new to this leading-the-division thing, and the Angels and the rejuvenated Rangers are in hot pursuit.

Texas might be the trendy team of interest here. The Rangers have won four consecutive games to pull to within four games of Houston and will play two teams with sub-.500 records this week, with three at home vs. Seattle and four at Detroit. Houston will be home all week, with four against the Rays and three against the Dodgers while the Angels will hold court in Anaheim with four against the White Sox and three vs. the Blue Jays.

"It's nice," Rangers third baseman Adrian Beltre said. "We're playing better baseball at home. We're playing better defense, the pitching has been outstanding and the offense is more consistent. That's the key as we make our last push, and we have the team to do it, and make the playoffs."

The Yankees have to be thinking similar thoughts after staving off the Jays' recent torrid play by winning two of three in Toronto in a weekend series. Even though New York dropped the Sunday finale, rookie starter Luis Severino continues to impress and the Yankees are in first place in the division by a half-game.

"I thought we did a good job coming in here and winning a tough series on the road," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "We snatched one the other day and had a few chances today. We didn't have many chances, but any time you can win two out of three, that's a good series."

The Yankees will return to the Bronx for seven home games (three vs. the Twins, four vs. the Indians) this week while the Blue Jays will hit the road in a short five-game week (two at Philadelphia, three vs. the Angels in Anaheim).

Meanwhile, some astute students of baseball history will have their eyes affixed on Arlington on Tuesday night, when Mariners right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma is scheduled to make his next start after no-hitting the Orioles last Wednesday.

In Kansas City, the team with the best record in the AL will be hoping that good news comes out of the weekend, when the Royals' hugely valuable left fielder, Alex Gordon, is slated to play in Minor League rehab games. Gordon has been out since July 8 with a grade two-plus groin strain, although his team's stellar play in his absence has lessened the blow.

And in a year that's already seen Phillies stalwarts Cole Hamels and Jonathan Papelbon finally move on to other teams in deadline trades, it's possible that the week ahead could feature the departure of another.

Philadelphia second baseman Chase Utley is reportedly mulling multiple offers, since he has 10-and-5 no-trade rights (10 years in the Majors, five consecutive with the same club) and can reject any trade. But sources indicated to MLB.com's Todd Zolecki that the Angels, Cubs and Giants are in the mix for Utley's services, as are the Astros, Dodgers and Yankees.

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.