Week Ahead: Contenders clash from coast to coast

Dodgers lead Giants by half-game; Beltway Series renewed

Week Ahead: Contenders clash from coast to coast

There's only a quarter of the MLB regular season left to be played, and it's time for teams with an eye on the playoffs to make their move. This week shouldn't disappoint: in the last dog days of August, baseball's heavyweights are set to duke it out from coast to coast.

On Tuesday in Los Angeles, the Giants and Dodgers, neck-and-neck for the National League West title, meet for the first of nine critical games remaining between them this season. Across the country, the Nationals and Orioles, both in postseason position, clash in the Beltway Series, starting Monday -- two games in Baltimore, followed by two in D.C.

And there's more. The juggernaut Cubs follow the Giants into Chavez Ravine for a weekend series against the Dodgers showcasing some of the league's brightest young stars. The American League, not to be outdone, brings together two of its top teams, as the West-leading Rangers host the Central-leading Indians from Thursday through Sunday.

Last year, the Dodgers didn't clinch the NL West title over the Giants until Sept. 29, when Clayton Kershaw outdueled Madison Bumgarner, and the two titans of the division appear poised for another high-stakes stretch run.

"We have a jolt every day. We love to play this game. We love this time of year," Giants right fielder Hunter Pence said of the Giants and Dodgers' jockeying atop the West.

The Giants had a firm grip on the division for much of the season, but the Dodgers -- without the injured Kershaw -- have closed the gap from a season-high eight games on June 26 to a half-game lead entering the series.

For the Dodgers, things won't get any easier once the Giants leave town -- they welcome the Cubs, who have the best record in baseball, on Friday. Cubs-Dodgers has all the makings of a must-watch series, and it starts with their youth movement.

For Chicago, 24-year-old Kris Bryant has followed his Rookie of the Year-winning 2015 with an MVP-caliber 2016. Entering Monday, Bryant was batting .300 with 31 home runs and 83 RBIs.

Statcast: Bryant's homer

"There's still a lot of season left, but for me, I just kind of went into this year working on making a little more contact, and I think having that approach has allowed me to tap into more power," Bryant said.

But the Dodgers likely have this year's NL Rookie of the Year in Corey Seager, and the 22-year-old also has an MVP resume in his first full season in the Majors. Seager is hitting .316 with 21 homers and 58 RBIs, and the shortstop has provided stellar defense at a premier position.

"When you don't think he can do any more, he continues to exceed that," Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. "Every time he comes up to bat, something special can happen."

Seager's two-homer game

On the opposite coast, the Orioles, who hold the second AL Wild Card slot, will try to keep up in the playoff chase. They'll have to go through their Interleague rivals -- the Nationals, who are in position to put the NL East in a stranglehold.

Washington, in its quest to erase last season's disappointing finish with a division title, is pulling away from the Marlins and the rest of the East. The Nationals have an 8 1/2-game lead over second-place Miami, and the Mets, last year's division and NL pennant winners, are a distant third.

The Orioles, who led the AL East for much of the summer, now trail the Blue Jays and Red Sox in one of baseball's strongest divisions. If the season ended today, all three teams would make the playoffs.

"I mean, it's so close, the separation between the teams," O's slugger Chris Davis said. "It's going to be all the way down the stretch. I think that's a given. Every year it seems like the division is always separated by one or two games. The important part is to keep going. There is still plenty of time left."

Rounding out the week ahead is the Rangers-Indians weekend series. The Indians begin the week with a seven-game lead over the Tigers in the AL Central, after a win over Toronto on Sunday. The Rangers begin the week with a six-game lead over the Mariners in the AL West and the best record in the AL, narrowly edging Cleveland.

David Adler is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @_dadler. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.