Division rivalries highlight important slate of series openers
By Matt Kelly
Four teams are still in the ring.
But in three weeks' time, only one of them may survive to play in October.
The race between the top four teams in the American League East could hardly be any closer as the season comes down to the final 20 games. Only four games separate the first-place Red Sox from the fourth-place Yankees, and the top four contenders scheduled to play 68 percent of their final 80 remaining games against one another.
The more these familiar foes beat each other up, the easier it will be for teams outside the division to hang around for Wild Card spots. With that in mind, the only sure way for an AL East team to qualify for the postseason may be to go and claim the division title.
The next heavyweight fight in the East will feature the Orioles travelling to Boston, but that's just one of a handful of divisional rivalry games to keep an eye on as part of a full 15-game Monday schedule. The Cardinals will try to give the Cubs something to think about for October as they begin play in St. Louis. In both Washington and Houston, two Wild Card hopefuls will need to overcome their 2016 bullies to stay in the postseason hunt.
It's the stretch run of the season, and the only place to catch all the September action is on MLB.TV.
MLB.TV Premium has returned with the same features as last year, and is only $9.99 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.
Here's what to watch for today in the Majors (all times ET):
O's try to make up ground: BAL@BOS, 7:10 p.m.
Monday's opener at Fenway Park will feature two starters trending in opposite directions.
Baltimore probably wasn't expecting left-hander Wade Miley to come in and completely shut down opposing lineups when he was acquired from the Mariners at the Trade Deadline. But Miley is struggling to even get outs as opposing batters have hit .319 and clubbed six home runs in his first seven starts as an Oriole. Worse yet, Miley isn't doing what Baltimore brought him in to do -- eat innings -- as he has averaged less than five innings per start since the trade.
Red Sox starter David Price has done just the opposite since end of July, winning six of his last decisions with a 2.83 ERA while holding hitters to a .219 average. Price has also averaged nearly seven innings per start over that span, and he looks to be rounding into what Boston paid for last offseason -- just when his team needs him most.
"I knew it was going to happen," said Price after he limited the Padres to two earned runs in his most recent start Wednesday. "I knew good things were going to happen to me. I just want to keep it going."
Appropriately enough, these two teams that are separated by just two games in the standings are tied at six games apiece so far in the season series.
Stat that matters: Hitters have collected 12 homers when swinging on the first pitch against Price -- the second-most against any big league pitcher this season (Hisashi Iwakuma - 13). The Orioles' Chris Davis (11 home runs) and Adam Jones (10) rank first and second in the Majors on first-pitch home runs in 2016.
Dodgers return to Yankee Stadium: LAD@NYY, 7:05 p.m.
A pair of unproven callups will take the mound as the Dodgers make their first visit to Yankee Stadium in three years. Right-hander Jose De Leon, Los Angeles' No. 2 prospect on MLB Pipeline, hopes to build on his Major League debut Sept. 4 when he struck out nine Padres batters in six innings of work en route to his first career victory.
"Jose did a lot for himself and reinforced that confidence we have in him," Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said of De Leon, who will take Scott Kazmir's spot in the rotation once again.
The Yankees finally lost Sunday to Tampa Bay, snapping their seven-game win streak, but they remain just two games back of the Orioles and Blue Jays for the final AL Wild Card. Monday starter Bryan Mitchell looks to repeat his stellar season debut on Wednesday, when he shut out Toronto over five innings in a spot start.
Stat that matters: Yankees outfielders Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury combined to go 16-for-45 (.356) and scored 11 combined runs at the top of the lineup over the team's recent win streak. New York has gone 11-1 when those two players each collect multiple hits in the same game, and have won their last eight such contests.
Hendricks hopes to cage Cardinals: CHC@STL, 8:15 p.m.
Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks has rattled off 19 consecutive starts in which he's allowed three runs or fewer, which is the longest such streak this year and tied for the seventh-longest by a starting pitcher this decade. He'll look to pad his potential NL Cy Young Award resume against the rival Cardinals, a team he's gone winless against in two starts this season.
St. Louis holds a 7-6 edge over Chicago in the season series, making the Cards just one of two NL teams to hold a winning record against the Cubs this year. Sitting just a half-game back of the second NL Wild Card, the Cardinals are hoping for a repeat from starter Mike Leake of his last outing against the Cubs. The veteran righty held Chicago to three runs over six innings as part of a 6-4 St. Louis win back on Aug. 14.
Stat that matters: In six starts against St. Louis, Hendricks has allowed a higher OPS to Cardinals hitters (.771) than any other NL team he has faced in his career.
Mets riding Wild comeback: NYM@WSH, 7:05 p.m.
The Mets have rattled off six consecutive series wins since they stood two games under .500 just three and a half weeks ago. Now, New York begins Monday in the driver's seat for the final NL playoff spot.
"A month ago was tough," said Mets infielder Kelly Johnson during the team's weekend series in Atlanta. "Runs were tough to come by. Hits were tough to come by.
"But I think the general feeling was if we were healthy, all things considered, we were going to flip that and we were going to get hot at some point. That's exactly what happened."
New York will need to keep the momentum going against a rival that has tortured it all season. The Nationals hold a 10-6 edge over the Mets, and have made their bones in general by feasting on NL East rivals in 2016. Washington's 45 wins against division opponents are far and away the most of any big league team so far.
Stat that matters: Nationals infielder Daniel Murphy is working on a 16-game hitting streak against New York this season. That's the longest hit streak against the Mets by any player who formerly played for the organization.
Lone Star dominance: TEX@HOU, 8:10 p.m.
Similar to the Mets, the Astros will need to overcome their own divisional bully this week to keep pace in the Wild Card chase. The Rangers have knocked Houston around to the tune of a 13-3 advantage this season and a 26-9 edge since the start of last season. The Astros' pitching staff has been the biggest culprit in the team's recent woes in this matchup, giving up an average of 5.4 wins per game to the Rangers over the last 35 games in the Lone Star rivalry.
If the Astros want to turn that trend around Monday, they'll also need a turnaround from starter Doug Fister. The veteran right-hander has struggled to a 7.33 ERA over his last five starts, recording an out in the sixth inning just once over that span. "He's having a hard time ending at-bats," Astros manager A.J. Hinch said of Fister. "There are a lot of pitch counts. There are a couple of misfires that aren't normal for him.
"Execution is key in his game when he's good, and certainly he stands out when he struggles."
Fister will need to execute against a potent Rangers lineup that includes a motivated Carlos Gomez. Gomez is batting just .236 since joining Texas on Aug. 20, but he went 4-for-11 (.364) with a double in his first series against his former team just over a week ago.
Stat that matters: Texas' two biggest acquisitions at the non-waiver trade deadline, Carlos Beltran and Jonathan Lucroy, have combined to go 7-for-17 at the plate against Fister in their careers with two doubles and two home runs.
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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.