Live games cure MLB-deprivation outbreak

1st weekend after All-Star break offers intriguing showdowns

Live games cure MLB-deprivation outbreak

The 87th All-Star Game is in the history books.

The American League has secured home-field advantage for the World Series once again, Eric Hosmer has another trophy and we might be kept up nights with visions of being gloveless in the path of batting-practice home runs hit by Giancarlo Stanton.

Now it's time to look forward again. After an excruciating two days without live Major League games, the second half of the season is upon us. And while the week ahead is really just a weekend heading out of the break, it's a big one.

Midterm Report: Team-by-team first-half recaps

This is when things start getting serious. This is when October plans start becoming real. This is when momentum needs to be grabbed, when contenders need to assert themselves anew on the field, in the clubhouse and on the now-bubbling Hot Stove.

The Texas Rangers might be discussing potential deals with other clubs as the Aug. 1 non-waiver Trade Deadline nears, but they're also adding an ace without having to give up any players. Right-hander Yu Darvish is scheduled to return to the Rangers' rotation on Saturday in the middle of a three-game series against the Cubs in Chicago that could end up being a World Series preview.

Darvish, who missed all of last season because of Tommy John surgery, came back this season but made only three starts, going back on the disabled list after his June 8 start against the Astros because of shoulder discomfort. Recent rehab outings have gone well, and it's good timing for Texas, which also has starters Derek Holland (left shoulder inflammation) and Colby Lewis (strained shoulder muscle) on the DL.

The Cubs and Rangers hope this post-break showdown allows them to reclaim some mojo that might have disappeared while both teams scuffled a little in recent weeks. The Cubs have lost eight of their past 10 but still own a seven-game lead over the Cardinals in the National League Central. Texas has dropped seven of its past 10 but still has 5 1/2 games on second-place Houston in the AL West.

"Every team goes through stretches where they don't do enough to win ballgames," Rangers third baseman Adrian Beltre said. "We didn't do enough in this stretch. But we can't sit here and panic. We know we are a good team."

More good teams will be at it over the weekend.

The Nationals, who currently sit in first place in the NL East, will host the Pirates, who have been playing much better baseball of late, winning 12 of their past 16 to climb within a half-game of St. Louis in the NL Central. Andrew McCutchen rediscovered his hitting stroke before the break, going 6-for-12 with two homers as Pittsburgh took two of three from the Cubs.

McCutchen's solo homer

And on Saturday, the Bucs welcome back their staff ace, right-hander Gerrit Cole, who has been out since exiting a June 10 start with triceps tightness.

"He wants to be out there," Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage said recently. "He's watching the games that we're playing. He's just itching to get back out there."

The same could be said for healthy players who feel like they've had way too much vacation time lately, but that ends this week as the curtain rises for the second act of this dramatic season.

The Red Sox and Yankees are going at it in the Bronx this weekend and Stanton is back in Miami, where he'll try to keep that Home Run Derby vibe going in a crucial series for his Marlins, who are now tied with the Mets for second place in the NL East, six games behind the Nats.

Stanton's 61 Derby homers

The Mariners host the Astros in a three-game matchup of AL West contenders. A series sweep by the home team would pull Seattle even with Houston in second place in the division. The Mariners' up-and-down season could use a boost like that as injured ace Felix Hernandez prepares for a Friday night rehab start at Triple-A Tacoma and readies for a possible return next week.

Meanwhile, with a bit more than two weeks remaining until the big Deadline, there are plenty of impact players who could be moving to different ZIP codes soon.

Starters Rich Hill, Sonny Gray, Julio Teheran, Jake Odorizzi, Drew Pomeranz, Matt Moore and Jeremy Hellickson, hitters Carlos Gonzalez, Ryan Braun, Carlos Beltran, Matt Kemp, Jay Bruce, Josh Reddick and Jonathan Lucroy, and relievers Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller, Arodys Vizcaino and Ryan Madson are just some of the names being bandied about.

That's a lot of talent in one paragraph, and a few high-profile uniform changes could go a long way toward turning those second-half standings around.

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.