AL Central contenders set to battle on MLB.TV

Cole also back in action after memorable last outing

AL Central contenders set to battle on MLB.TV

Just 11 days ago, the defending champion Kansas City Royals sat two games under .500, and many began to wonder if their time at the top had passed.

Now, Kansas City sits just two games back in the American League Central, with the division leaders right in their crosshairs.

The White Sox and Royals begin a pivotal four-game series at Kauffman Stadium, but that's not the only reason to tune in Thursday. Elsewhere, the Pirates' ace aims to keep his three-game win streak going after one of the strangest starts of his career. In the Bronx, the Yankees hope CC Sabathia can continue his journey back toward becoming a quality starter once again. And two of the National League's top contenders for playoff spots square off in Washington.

It's all happening Thursday as part of an eight-game schedule on MLB.tv.

MLB.TV Premium returns with the same features as last year, but at $109.99, it is a full 20 bucks cheaper than the 2015 cost. This package has the best value and provides access to more than 400 devices and a free subscription to the MLB.com At Bat Premium app (a $19.99 value). It offers the best picture quality ever -- a new 60 frames per second -- for supported devices. Monthly signups for MLB.TV Premium are now underway as well for $24.99.

The new MLB.TV Single Team package is also now available as an $84.99 yearly subscription. You can watch a single team's live out-of-market games in full HD.

Here is a look at what to watch for today in the Majors (all times ET):

Champs set sights on division lead: CHW@KC, 8:15 p.m.

The Royals have won four straight series and went 4-2 on their road trip through Chicago and Minnesota. Now the champs return home for another pivotal set with the division-leading White Sox. After a middling 19-19 start, Kansas City is now just two games back of Chicago thanks to a stabilized rotation that could now include Danny Duffy, who will start Thursday's series opener. Taking the place of injured starter Kris Medlen, Duffy has been stellar in his return to the rotation. He's tossed 7 1/3 scoreless innings so far while on 45- and 60-pitch limits, respectively, in his first two outings.

"We evaluate daily," Yost said of Duffy's role. "We just know that, really, we can't go wrong either way.

"If we put him back in the bullpen, we're going to have an outstanding reliever. If we keep him in the rotation, he's going to be very solid for us."

Duffy's scoreless outing

Expect Duffy to toss at least 80 pitches Thursday as he continues to solidify into what manager Ned Yost hopes will be a reliable option at the back of the rotation. He'll match up against Miguel Gonzalez of the White Sox for the second time in six days. Gonzalez allowed just two Kansas City runs over six innings last Saturday but is still seeking his first victory since last July 25.

Stat that matters: According to FanGraphs, Duffy is one of only two left-handed pitchers (along with Washington's Felipe Rivero) with at least 20 innings pitched this year who is averaging 95 mph or higher on his fastball. And with Duffy restricted to pitch count limits, he's been using his fastball more like a reliever during his first two starts. His 72.7 percent usage rate is well above his 66.5 percent average use of the fastball over the course of his career.

Cole returns after wacky outing: ARI@PIT, 12:35 p.m.

Gerrit Cole's victory against Colorado on Friday was one to remember, as he became the first pitcher since 1992 to allow one run over seven or more innings while also allowing 10 hits without recording a single strikeout.

Cole strands the bases loaded

A more reliable recipe for success against the Diamondbacks may be Cole's ability to keep the ball in the park. He's allowed just three round-trippers all season, while Arizona hitters have homered just once every 56 at-bats over their past 12 games -- the lowest rate of any big league team.

The D-backs will start Patrick Corbin, who is sporting a 2.29 ERA over his last three starts. PNC Park may be a welcome sight for the left-hander, as his 2.01 road ERA is nearly 4 1/2 runs lower than his average at Chase Field.

Stat that matters: Pirates right fielder Gregory Polanco has enjoyed his move up to the No. 3 spot in manager Clint Hurdle's lineup. Entering Wednesday, Polanco was hitting .317 (20-for-63) with seven doubles, three homers and 13 RBI in the 15 games in which he started in the three hole. He is a lifetime .361 hitter when batting third.

Yanks face challenge in lefty Happ: TOR@NYY, 4:05 p.m.

The Yankees offense entered Wednesday with only 78 weighted runs created plus (a statistic used to measure hitters' production after accounting for league averages and park effects) against left-handed pitchers -- the second-lowest total in the American League, according to FanGraphs. The Bronx Bombers will face a tough test in southpaw J.A. Happ, who's allowed three or fewer runs in 18 of his last 19 starts dating back to Aug. 14 of last year.

Meanwhile, Yankees fans will be eager to see if C.C. Sabathia can repeat his splendid performance Friday, when he scattered three Oakland hits and allowed just one run over six innings in his return from the disabled list.

Sabathia's one-run outing

Catcher Brian McCann said he feels Sabathia's cutter, which has been a work-in-progress for the past year or so, could be turning into a difference-maker.

"He's starting to get a way better feel for it -- on both sides of the plate," McCann said. He's keeping hitters off balance."

Stat that matters: Did Jose Bautista's scuffle with Rougned Odor wake up the Blue Jays' slugger? Entering Wednesday, Bautista was batting .308 with four homers and a 1.224 OPS in the eight games since the fracas on May 15. He was batting just .217 with six homers and an .802 OPS in his first 39 games of the season.

Rising and falling starters duel in D.C.: STL@WSH, 7:05 p.m.

Cardinals starter Mike Leake has allowed only two runs in 21 innings over his last three starts to drop his season ERA nearly two whole runs. Meanwhile, Nationals starter Joe Ross has lost four straight starts and posted a 4.50 ERA since his last victory against St. Louis on April 30. It's a matchup of two starters trending in opposite directions when these two NL contenders open their second series of the season in the nation's capital Thursday.

Questions reside for both teams' lineups coming into this four-game set. Leadoff man Matt Carpenter did not make the trip to Washington after his wife went into labor Wednesday morning, and there is no date set for his return. On the other side, Nationals star Bryce Harper returns to the lineup after a mental day off Wednesday. Opposing pitchers have followed the Cubs' lead ever since Chicago memorably walked Harper 13 times over four games from May 5-8. In Harper's 14 games since that series, the slugger is hitting just .200 with 18 walks, only one home run and an unusually low .300 slugging percentage.

Stat that matters: It's never over until it's over against St. Louis. The Cardinals have scored 34 runs in the ninth inning this season, seven shy of their total number of ninth-inning runs in 2015. They also have a +51 run differential total against opponents after the sixth inning this year.

MLB.TV Premium subscribers get the Mosaic View -- split screen or quad, available on PC or Mac only. That always comes in handy, especially when scoreboard-watching looms. MLB.TV Premium and MLB.TV Single Team subscribers both enjoy HD and both will get real-time highlights and player stats automatically loaded moments after they occur (only for the game you are watching with MLB.TV Single Team, and for all games with MLB.TV Premium)

Matt Kelly is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @mattkellyMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.