Week Ahead: Pennant races percolate

Week Ahead: Pennant races percolate

The first Trade Deadline is in the books. The second one is almost a month away. So instead of spending most of our non-baseball-game-watching hours wondering where the Hot Stove smoke might lead us, we're back to staring at the standings once again.

Naturally, as the week ahead dawns and the season steams close to the midpoint of August, pennant races are heating up. It helps to get the good vibes going now, because we've seen year in and year out that some mojo in these dog days of summer can carry all the way into deep October.

Take the Cubs. The darlings of early 2016 stumbled onto some trying times in midseason, but they never gave up their hammerlock on the National League Central's top spot, and they enter the next seven days on another Windy City winning streak.

The Cubs have won seven consecutive games, have extended their MLB-best record to 69-41 and enter a week full of home games, with two Interleague matchups against the struggling Angels on Tuesday and Wednesday and a renewal of their legendary rivalry with the second-place Cardinals with a Thursday-to-Sunday set.

"We're just playing baseball and having a good time doing it," first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. "It's great, and we want to keep playing good baseball."

That will be a similar theme throughout the ballparks of the American and National Leagues this week, particularly atop divisions that are way more tightly contested. The AL Central and AL East, for example, are set up for serious late-summer drama, and crunch time begins now.

The Indians still lead the AL Central, but the Tigers have cut that advantage to two games. This week, both teams have difficult challenges on the road. Cleveland heads to Washington for a quick two-game series starting Tuesday, then returns to Progressive Field for four against the Angels. The Tigers, who have won eight of their last 10 games, travel to Seattle to play the Mariners and then head to Texas for a three-game weekender against the Rangers.

"I wish they hadn't done it, but ... it wasn't realistic that somebody wouldn't close the gap," Tribe manager Terry Francona said of the Tigers. "Look, I never thought we were going to run away and hide in this thing. This will be fun. This is what you work for: to get there and have a chance."

Detroit will have to enter this brutal swing through the West without starting pitcher Jordan Zimmermann (strained right lat) and third baseman Nick Castellanos (broken left hand), but they have rookie sensation Michael Fulmer (9-2, 2.42 ERA) on the hill for Monday's series opener at Safeco Field.

In the AL East, the Blue Jays have been playing better of late and trail the first-place Orioles by only one game, but they need to get their bats going. On Sunday, Toronto stranded eight runners and did not score more than four runs for the eighth straight game.

"We really haven't been swinging [the bats well] since the beginning of the last homestand," Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said. "We're due to explode."

Things seem to be combustible in the NL West these days, too.

The Giants had a comfortable cushion atop that division for much of the season, but the Dodgers have cut into it in recent weeks. After beating the Red Sox in the Sunday night game, the Dodgers enter the week trailing the Giants by a mere game and might have the favorable schedule over the next seven days.

The Dodgers start the week by welcoming the rebuilding Phillies for a three-game series, and they'll stay in Chavez Ravine to play the Pirates for three games over the weekend. The Giants must travel to Miami for a three-game set early in the week before crossing the country again to meet the first-place Orioles for a weekend three-gamer at AT&T Park.

Oh, and after he was seen playing catch on the Dodger Stadium field prior to Sunday's game, it seems that ace Clayton Kershaw (herniated disk in back) can spend the week ahead getting another seven days closer to returning from the disabled list.

"Just continue to get his intensity up and stretch him out a little more," Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. "Like I've said all along, with Clayton, he's not a guy that we worry about as far as the intensity, the intent to get back, so he'll be back as soon as he possibly can.

"Whenever he feels ready to go, then we'll pencil him in and get him going. All along, we've expected -- and a little bit of it is being hopeful -- but we expect him to make starts for us this year at some time."

The Giants, and the rest of the contending teams in the Major Leagues, will be watching and waiting.

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.