Surging young arms duel at Wrigley; Strasburg aims for 15 wins today
By Matt Kelly
Last fall, the Astros fell just a handful of outs shy of meeting the Blue Jays in the American League Championship Series.
Now, after both Houston and Toronto stumbled a bit out of the gate to start this season, the two clubs are once again looking toward another potential October run. Neither team is currently on top of its division, however, and with a crowded field gathering around the two Wild Card spots, their series this week could hold major implications toward who gets in and who stays out of playoff baseball.
The Jays and Astros are just one matchup to keep an eye on as a fresh batch of series commence Monday. Elsewhere, a pair of young pitchers hope to spin July successes into August at Wrigley Field, and Washington's Stephen Strasburg sets his sights on win No. 15.
There's only one place to catch all of Monday's action: MLB.TV.
MLB.TV Premium has returned with the same features as last year, and is only $79.99 for the rest of the season. 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 available as a $59.99 yearly subscription. You can watch a single team's live out-of-market games in full HD.
Here's what to watch for today in the Majors (all times ET):
Playoff contenders meet in Houston: TOR@HOU, 8:10 p.m.
These teams open their first series against one another with the Blue Jays holding a slim lead on the top AL Wild Card slot and the Astros sitting 2 1/2 games outside the playoff picture. Starter Marcus Stroman has surprisingly not been Toronto's best pitcher so far this season (that distinction goes to Aaron Sanchez), but he's rounding into form at the right time. Stroman went 2-0 in July and posted a 7.5 strikeout-to-walk ratio that was more than triple his average during the first three months of this year. On offense, Jose Bautista is one home run away from becoming the 10th active player with 300 career homers.
The Astros are not exactly surging into this series, having been swept by the Tigers this weekend -- including a 11-0 drubbing Sunday in Detroit with ace Dallas Keuchel on the mound. But Astros manager A.J. Hinch refused to view the sweep as anything other than a minor blip.
"We've been through this before where we've had a little bit of a lull," Hinch said. "We're beat up a little bit, but big deal. We're going to have to deal with it and get home and start against two really good teams this next homestand."
Houston's lineup may look slightly different for first pitch, regardless of what they do before Monday's 4 p.m. ET non-waiver Trade Deadline. Carlos Gomez is day to day with a right hamstring strain and Marwin Gonzalez is scheduled to see a specialist to address a sore right hand, meaning the Astros could call up a few replacements from its farm system.
Stat that matters: Keep an eye on the Blue Jays' approach against the Astros right-handed pitchers in this series. Toronto hitters have swung at only 42.3 percent of pitches from righties over the past two weeks -- the lowest rate of all 30 teams in that span. Their patience has been keyed by their offensive leader, Josh Donaldson, who is averaging a Major League-high 5.17 pitches per plate appearance against righties during that same span of time.
Conley, Hendricks bringing summer heat: MIA@CHC, 8:05 p.m.
Monday's matchup at Wrigley Field features two of July's best young performers in Miami's Adam Conley and Chicago's Kyle Hendricks. Conley went 3-0 with a 1.82 ERA while holding opponents to a .223 average last month, while Hendricks was arguably even better, going 3-1 and posting a microscopic 1.07 ERA and limiting batters to a tepid .557 OPS.
After getting Dee Gordon back from his suspension last week, the Marlins hope to see first baseman Justin Bour in the lineup Monday. Bour, sidelined since July 6 with a right ankle sprain, is sporting an .873 OPS in 68 games this season. But all eyes will be on the at bats of Ichiro Suzuki, who is sitting on 2,998 career hits and is looking to become just the second player (after Stan Musial) to get his 3,000th hit at Wrigley.
Stat that matters: Entering Sunday, opposing batters were hitting just .214 against Chicago's pitchers this season, which is on pace to be the lowest opposing average allowed by a Cubs pitching staff dating back to 1913. The Marlins, for their part, led the National League with a .277 average in July.
Strasburg shoots for 15-1: WSH@ARI, 9:40 p.m.
Any fears about a slump for Strasburg when he took his first loss to the Dodgers on July 21 were quickly dispelled his next time out on Wednesday, when he tossed seven dazzling shutout innings against the Indians. The bounceback performance improved Strasburg to 17-1 in his last 18 decisions going back to last season.
"He has a lot of weapons," said an impressed Terry Francona after Strasburg's dominant win over the Tribe. "He can throw the ball by you. He can throw his fastball to both side of the plates. He can cut the fastball with a slider and change up. He has everything."
Interestingly, Strasburg -- who currently ranks fifth in baseball with an average of 10.93 strikeouts per nine innings -- has posted just a 7.1 K/9 ratio in seven career starts against Arizona. That's his lowest rate against any opponent over his seven-year career.
Stat that matters: Arizona's scheduled Monday starter Archie Bradley is leading all rookies with 73 strikeouts since he was recalled on May 29. In that span, Bradley has limited opponents to a .228 batting average.
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.