Week Ahead: Central divisons heating up

Indians-Tigers, Cubs-Cards continue to jockey for position as summer arrives

Week Ahead: Central divisons heating up

The week ahead brings us into a new season. Literally.

Various regions of the baseball-crazy United States of America are already experiencing Major League heatwaves, so it's only fitting that the solstice makes the players on the 30 rosters of the American and National Leagues officially boys of summer once again.

There's no sign of central air conditioning, either. At least not in the AL Central, where intrigue has been boiling over for weeks.

The Indians are in first place by a half-game over the defending World Series champion Royals. Meanwhile, the Tigers are in third, a mere 4 1/2 games behind, and Cleveland and Detroit are meeting at the end of the week in what is suddenly a hugely important three-game series.

Cleveland has been contending for much of June and Detroit has played better ball of late despite having lost three games in a row to Kansas City over the weekend. The stakes are as high as the temperatures with the All-Star break not even a month away.

The Tigers have to deal with the recent fractured elbow of slugger J.D. Martinez while the Indians are still waiting for the return of their All-Star outfielder, Michael Brantley, from a shoulder injury.

But the emergence of rookie Michael Fulmer in the Detroit rotation and the maturation of Indians pitchers Trevor Bauer and Danny Salazar has helped both clubs excel of late.

In other words, the weekend at Comerica Park should be a doozy.

"It's tough," Tigers designated hitter Victor Martinez said of the division race after a recent win over the Royals. "We expect it to be this way. There's nothing easy in this game. We'll just keep playing this game and see what happens."

They'll keep playing all the games, especially on Tuesday, day of the solstice, which kicks off summer proper.

And what better matchup for the longest day of the year than one of the game's longest-standing rivalries?

Contreras' first career homer

Yes, the Chicago Cubs might be running away with the NL Central, but the St. Louis Cardinals are in second place and Wild Card contention and have a chance to pick up three games on the team they're trying to catch if they can get hot in Wrigley Field early in the week.

Don't forget that the Cardinals were the team that soared in the division in 2015 only to fall in the first round of the postseason … to the plucky Wild Card Cubs.

But also don't forget that the Cubs have the best record in the Majors, in large part because all five of their starters are in the top 20 in the NL in ERA.

"We have no reason to be fearful of anything," Cubs ace Jake Arrieta said. "We're what, 2 1/2 months into the season? And we've all shown the ability to have a lot of success consistently thus far. I think that breeds more confidence."

Two other teams that don't lack for confidence are meeting again this week. They would be the Royals and Mets, otherwise known as the clubs that met in last year's World Series. They'll get after it Tuesday-Wednesday at Citi Field, the site of Kansas City's clinching 12-inning win in Game 5 of the 2015 Fall Classic.

Both teams have suffered a slew of injuries this year, particularly at third base, where Mike Moustakas of the Royals (knee surgery) and David Wright of the Mets (neck surgery) are likely out for the year. The Mets are also missing first baseman Lucas Duda and catcher Travis d'Arnaud. The Royals are currently without left fielder Alex Gordon.

Both teams are also not making excuses.

"Our lineup is what it is because that's what we have," Mets manager Terry Collins said recently. "I'm not going to sit here and complain about it. We've got to get it done."

If they can't, other teams will.

And two of those clubs with World Series hopes are matched up in the early part of the week when the NL East-leading Nationals take on the Dodgers, who are in second place in the NL West.

As we steam along into summer this week, we'll be watching series just like these with eyes peeking a bit ahead to that cooler month known as October.

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.