The Week Ahead: How will AL West be won?

Astros-Rangers, Cubs-Pirates four-game sets could be pivotal

The Week Ahead: How will AL West be won?

Not many predicted that the likely winner of the American League West would be the team with the best Texas two-step.

But that's why they play 162 games.

So here we are in the third week of September, and this is exactly what we've got. The week ahead gives us a four-game series between the two clubs that could go a long way toward determining the division.

The first-place Astros will travel from Anaheim to meet the second-place Rangers in Arlington to begin this pivotal Lone Star Series on Monday night, and they'll be riding the momentum of their stunning five-run rally with two out in the ninth inning to beat the Angels on Sunday.

Houston has a 1 1/2-game lead in the AL West, the smallest cushion in any division in the Major Leagues right now. The Rangers, meanwhile, go into this series following a 12-4 Sunday shellacking of the A's that gave them a 34-33 season record at home.

Both clubs will be featuring starting left-handed pitchers who were acquired via midseason trades for Monday's opener. The Rangers will throw Cole Hamels at Scott Kazmir in an intriguing mid-September ace-off.

"They're all big," Houston closer Luke Gregerson said earlier this week. "You try not to get too far ahead of yourself and think about what happens next week. We need to win in Oakland and we need to win in Anaheim and then we need to go win in Texas. We've got to take them one at a time. We start getting too far ahead, people try to start doing too much, and that's when you start to fall off a little bit."

Elsewhere around the big leagues, a division race that was considered over a few weeks ago might be percolating once again. The Cardinals are not exactly running away with the National League Central anymore, not with the Pirates behind by only 2 1/2 games and the Cubs (four games behind Pittsburgh) doing their best to stay in it, too.

On Tuesday the Cubs will begin a four-game series against the Pirates at PNC Park, and on Friday the Cubs will host the Cardinals for three.

St. Louis gave earlier consideration to giving its starting pitchers extra rest down the stretch, but that's no longer the plan.

"Last time we tried to give them rest, it wasn't overly welcomed, and we haven't had great results from it," Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak said. "Not to say that makes it the wrong answer, but I think now, with three weeks remaining, if we need them to start, they're going to start."

Starting pitching has been the main calling card for the sizzling Mets, who take a seven-game winning streak into the week ahead, and those pitchers, including Matt Harvey, figure to be important in the last regular-season Subway Series matchup of the year.

It's set to begin on Friday night at Citi Field, and it comes smack in the middle of a nine-game homestand that could very well wrap up the NL East for the Amazins if all goes as well as it has lately.

"We've been pretty resilient, pretty ruthless," Mets second baseman Kelly Johnson said last Saturday. "Both of those traits are huge."

The Blue Jays have been those things as well, but every day of the long season presents a new challenge, and Toronto enters the new week with a big one. Their shortstop, Troy Tulowitzki, has a cracked shoulder blade, an injury that should keep him sidelined for several weeks, making October availability an unknown at this point.

"We'll know more in the next few days, but if they had to guess, and it really is only a guess at this point, it could be two to three weeks, and then he could be back for October," Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos said. "Hopefully, we're playing at that time. That's really all we have, but we'll know more as the next few days come along."

The Jays acquired infielder Darwin Barney from the Dodgers for depth purposes, but Toronto's 3 1/2-game lead in the AL East doesn't look as ironclad as it did prior to Tulowitzki's injury.

Meanwhile, Washington needs to win a lot of games, and it needs to do it this week. The Nationals were the prohibitive favorite in the NL East heading into the season, but injuries and the resurgence of the Mets have the Nats entering the week 9 1/2 games behind in the division and 10 back in the Wild Card race.

This week they get three games against the Phillies and four against the Marlins in an attempt at a historic late-season rally.

"Let's just do it," Nationals ace Max Scherzer said. "I give a rat. We've just got to play great baseball. We can't control anything. All we can control is ourselves. Let's go out there and compete and do what we need to do to win ballgames."

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.