The Week Ahead: Contenders clash head to head

The Week Ahead: Contenders clash head to head

This is what we've been waiting for.

Labor Day is here, and in The Week Ahead, which will fittingly be about the work that has to be done by teams trying to make it to the postseason, there's drama around every American or National League corner.

Take your pick of the magnificent matchups with October implications that are hitting the field right away. Choose your own adventure in regards to what's at stake.

The headliner, for obvious reasons, is Mets-Nationals -- a straight-up all-out battle for a division.

The three-game set between NL East-leading New York, which has a four-game advantage on preseason favorite Washington, begins Monday at 1:05 p.m. ET at Nationals Park. The opener pits Mets left-hander Jon Niese against Nats ace Max Scherzer.

The Nationals enter this one on a five-game winning streak while the Mets dropped a Sunday game to the Marlins in walk-off fashion and are entering the week amid recent uncertainty regarding the possible October availability of righty Matt Harvey. There's plenty of emotion on tap.

Wright's diving stop

"We lost a couple tough ones here, but there's no reason to have this effect on us moving forward," Mets captain David Wright said after Sunday's loss. "But we have to turn the page and get ready for D.C."

The week also gets started with four series in which one of the teams is contending for October and really can't afford to get swept.

The Orioles need to upend the Yankees in the Bronx to keep their fading Wild Card hopes alive. The Giants need to do the same against the D-backs in Phoenix. The Angels could use a home sweep or at least two of three against the crosstown-rival Dodgers to inch closer to the Rangers in the Wild Card race.

The Twins need to take a chunk out of the Royals' monstrous AL Central lead in a hurry, but they'll have to do it at Kauffman Stadium. The Cubs and Cardinals are going at it in St. Louis as the NL Central continues to impress, with three clubs looking like postseason locks.

Escobar's solo home run

And that's just the early part of the week.

The Bronx will be the setting for major mid-week drama when the Yankees host the AL East-leading Blue Jays in a four-game series. As great as Toronto has been lately, going 21-6 in August and steaming into September with the second-best record in the AL, the Yankees haven't been too bad themselves. Entering Monday, they're only 1 1/2 games behind the Jays.

The intrigue continues throughout the weekend, where contenders are in head-to-head showdowns in both leagues.

The marquee pairing for Friday through Sunday would be the Astros and Angels, who will play three in Anaheim. Houston has been leading the AL West for much of the season and enters Monday with a three-game advantage over the Texas Rangers, but Mike Scioscia's Angels are not giving up. They finished off a series win over Texas on Sunday with a 7-0 win and might have some momentum heading into the week with only a 2 1/2-game Wild Card deficit.

"There's a lot of baseball left," Angels outfielder Mike Trout said after Sunday's victory. "We won this series, and that's always big. We're trying to win series."

Trout's running catch

The same will go for the Orioles, who will host the high-flying Royals in a three-game weekender, and the D-backs, who get the NL West-leading Dodgers at home.

Meanwhile, contending clubs all over the map figure to get stronger this week just by showing up. Impact players should be coming back to the diamond, and it couldn't come at a better time than right in the middle of the September stretch drive.

The Cardinals have the best record in the game and have outfielder Randal Grichuk back, at least as a pinch-runner for the time being. St. Louis hopes to have slugger Matt Holliday in the lineup soon after being out with a right quadriceps strain.

The Giants have been struggling lately, but they will get a lot of help back over the next two days. Second baseman Joe Panik (lower back inflammation) is expected to play Monday, and starter Matt Cain (right elbow nerve irritation) and reliever Jeremy Affeldt (left knee subluxation) are slated to be added to the active roster on Tuesday.

Panik takes fielding practice

The Rays could have Steven Souza Jr. back early in the week as the outfielder nears his return from a left hand fracture, and the Royals hope that reliever Kelvin Herrera and outfielder Alex Rios will be cleared of their chicken pox infections by early in the week.

In New York, the Yankees will welcome back their veteran left-hander, CC Sabathia, for a Wednesday start against the Orioles. Sabathia has been on the 15-day disabled list with right knee inflammation since Aug. 24, but he is now back for his team when they need him most.

"I've been testing it pretty good in the bullpens," Sabathia said of his knee Sunday, two days after testing it in a simulated game. "Even playing catch on the side, I was letting it go. I was confident that I wouldn't feel anything and I would be ready to go."

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.