East contenders set to make final statements before All-Star break
By Matt Kelly
Sunday marks the final day of 2016's first half, meaning it's the final chance for teams to make a statement heading into the All-Star break.
And, if recent history has anything to say, it's that first-half performance can go a long way toward ensuring division title celebrations in October.
In the last 21 Major League seasons dating back to the first full year of the Wild Card Era in 1995, 123 teams have held at least a half-game lead in their divisions at the All-Star break. Of those 123 leaders, 79 of them -- or 64 percent -- have gone on to win division titles.
Furthermore, 71 percent of World Series participants (30 of 42) in that same span were division champions, signifying that winning your division should remain a primary goal -- even in this recent age of increased playoff spots.
The Orioles' 3-2 victory over the Angels on Saturday ensured that all six division leaders will boast at least a one-game advantage over their rivals heading into the All-Star Game presented by MasterCard (7:30 p.m. ET, Tuesday on FOX). Both the Blue Jays and Red Sox sit just two games back, however, and have one more chance to give Baltimore something to think about over the hiatus.
All three participants in the American League East chase -- currently the closest division race in the Major Leagues -- will be in action Sunday. So, too, will the Mets, who have one more chance to close a widening gap between themselves and the NL East-leading Nationals.
It's all part of one last 15-game slate of baseball before the Midsummer Classic, all of it available on MLB.TV
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Here is a look at what to watch for today in the Majors (all times ET):
Here come the Jays: DET@TOR, 1:07 p.m.
The Tigers snapped Toronto's season-best seven-game winning streak Saturday, but the Blue Jays have still been one of baseball's most balanced teams in July. The Jays have outscored opponents, 57-21, over their last eight contests. Their starters have gone 5-0 with a 2.44 ERA over that span, while the offense has returned to its prolific 2015 standards by plating an average of 7.1 runs a game and clubbing 13 homers since July 2. Leading the charge is 2015 AL MVP Josh Donaldson, who needs to score just one run Sunday to become the sixth player in American League history to tally 80 runs and hit 20 home runs before the All-Star break.
Stat that matters: Though he is 8-3 lifetime against Detroit, Toronto's Sunday starter R.A. Dickey has served up 20 home runs to the Tigers -- tied with the White Sox for the team with the most homers hit against him in his career. Long balls haven't seem to hurt Dickey in recent times, either, as he has gone 4-3 with a 3.30 ERA in his last seven starts despite coughing up 11 home runs in that span.
Freak hopes to tame the birds: LAA@BAL, 1:35 p.m.
Tim Lincecum has been trending downward since his strong season debut on June 18. The two-time Cy Young Award winner has failed to complete the fifth inning in each of his last three starts, posting a sky-high 10.50 ERA and giving up roughly two hits per inning.
"I know I didn't see this happening or see myself here," said Lincecum after giving up five runs to Tampa Bay over just 4 2/3 innings in his last start Tuesday. "I thought I would have ironed out some things by now, but obviously I have been here for a long time and I need to find a way out of it."
Lincecum will face his toughest test yet against a high-octane Orioles lineup led by All-Star selection Mark Trumbo, who slugged his MLB-most 28th homer Saturday -- just six shy of his career high for an entire season, 34, that he set with the Halos in 2013.
Opposing Lincecum on the hill for the Orioles will be Chris Tillman, who is aiming to become the first Orioles starter with 12 wins at the All-Star break since Sidney Ponson in 2003.
Stat that matters: Lincecum has failed to challenge right-handed batters in his return to Major League action. Over his starts, Lincecum has thrown strikes on just 50.6 percent of his pitches to righties -- the lowest total among any qualified starter over the last 30 days. Consequently, right-handed batters have recorded a stratospheric 1.682 OPS against Lincecum in his past two starts, which is the highest mark against any big league starter over the last 14 days.
Red Sox looking for right Price: TB@BOS, 1:35 p.m.
Forget the weight of expectations that has come with the seven-year, $217 million contract that David Price signed with the Red Sox this past offseason. For now, Price is hoping to put together one solid showing before the break that will hopefully help him reset heading into an important second half for his club.
"I'm tired of this," Price said after his last start, in which he gave up two first-inning runs to the Rangers -- running his ERA in the first inning this season to 6.00 -- before eventually settling down to allow three total runs over eight innings. "This is not me. I've got to get better."
Price will be making his sixth career start against the Rays, his original club with whom he won the 2012 AL Cy Young Award and earned four All-Star Game selections. Price was hung with a loss in his first matchup against Tampa Bay on June 29, allowing four runs over 6 1/3 innings despite striking out 10. Price has lost each of his last three starts in which he has punched out at least 10 batters.
Stat that matters: This is the first time the Rays have been 19 games under .500 in a season since the franchise was renamed in 2008. In fact, the franchise has not languished this far below even since the former Tampa Bay Devil Rays were 19 games under to finish the 2007 season.
Matz tries to steady Mets rotation: WSH@NYM, 1:10 p.m.
The Mets could use any sort of positive encouragement to close their first half after losing a trio of stars this weekend, along with two of their first three games to rival Washington. Sunday starter Steven Matz is certainly not at 100 percent either, as he's gutting through a bone spur in his left elbow that will reportedly need to be surgically removed down the road. Despite the prognosis, the rookie southpaw has pitched just fine in his last two starts. He'll need to continue to be a rock for a once-vaunted Mets rotation that is suddenly lacking depth.
"I don't think he is feeling anything right now," manager Terry Collins said of Matz after he gave up just two Miami runs on a Giancarlo Stanton homer in his last start Tuesday. "It will flare up and then there's days it doesn't bother him at all."
Matz, who is tied for second among MLB rookies with seven victories, has not won since May 25 when he tossed eight scoreless innings against the Nationals. Washington enjoys a five-game lead over New York after their 6-1 win in Queens on Saturday night and are 8-4 against the Mets in 2016. This will be the last meeting between these NL East rivals until Sept. 2.
Stat that matters: The foundations of an incredible first half for Nationals second baseman Daniel Murphy lay in his 12 games against his former team. An astounding 18.1 percent of his Major League-leading 116 hits have come against the Mets, along with 37.5 percent of his career-high 16 home runs and 29.6 percent of his 64 total RBI. Overall, Murphy is batting .438 this year against the club he played with for the first seven seasons of his career.
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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.