The top of the stretch is in view. The contenders are gearing up for that final push. The best part of the season is almost here.
The week ahead in Major League Baseball will close out the pivotal month of August and lead us into the frenzied, fantastic free-for-all known as September, when pennant races rule. But before we get ahead of ourselves, let's take stock of where we stand entering the final seven-day panel in the regular season's penultimate month.
A simple glance at the standings and winning percentages shows us that the American League West is still where it's at, and the events of Sunday didn't do anything to change that.
The Los Angeles Angels and the Oakland A's have the two best records in the Major Leagues, and they begin a four-game series Thursday in Anaheim, but the surprising Seattle Mariners just won't seem to go away. The Mariners made franchise history over the weekend by sweeping a series in Boston for the first time, and they did it despite a rare shaky start by right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma. Entering Monday, when the club begins a six-game homestand at Safeco Field, Seattle is 13 games over .500 for the first time in 2014 and is a game ahead of the Detroit Tigers for the AL's second Wild Card spot. The Mariners have matched last year's win total (71), and they have 33 games to play.
"Everyone is feeling real good, we're strong, we're healthy, eager to pick each other up and win ballgames," Seattle reliever Tom Wilhelmsen said. "These are really important games, especially right now at this time of the season."
The Mariners are still six games behind the Angels and five behind the A's in the most stacked division in the Majors, although it remains to be seen how the Halos will fare after losing ace Garrett Richards, who is out for the year after suffering a patellar tendon tear. Oakland, meanwhile, just lost closer Sean Doolittle for at least 15 days because of a rib cage strain.
So it's way too early to predict how that division will end up, and the same can be said, once again, for the National League Central, which was the barn burner of all divisions last year and is turning out to be pretty exciting this season, too.
After Sunday's games, the Milwaukee Brewers had a 1 1/2-game lead over the St. Louis Cardinals in the division, but the Pittsburgh Pirates were only five games behind Milwaukee after beating the Brewers in two of three games over the weekend. The Pirates are only a game and a half out of the second NL Wild Card spot currently inhabited by the San Francisco Giants, and there's plenty of baseball left.
This week, the Bucs can make some noise early on in a two-game series against St. Louis at PNC Park. It helps that outfielder Andrew McCutchen seems to be rounding back into form after missing time because of a rib fracture.
"We're right where we need to be," McCutchen said. "We did a good job. Playing against the first-place team and taking two out of three at their place is really good."
In the amazing AL Central battle, the Kansas City Royals continue to hold a lead, but Detroit whittled it to two games by beating the Minnesota Twins on Sunday while Kansas City lost to the Texas Rangers.
Elsewhere in the AL, the East continues to belong to the Baltimore Orioles, who hold an imposing six-game lead entering the week. The O's will go back home to Camden Yards and stay there all week, hosting a four-game set against the Tampa Bay Rays and a three-game series against the Twins. The Orioles will try to pad their division advantage in what's becoming a runaway season despite season-ending injuries to Matt Wieters and now Manny Machado and down years from Chris Davis and Ubaldo Jimenez.
Baltimore will also try to bounce back from a tough road trip in which it went 4-5.
"It's been a long 10 days," manager Buck Showalter said after a loss to the Chicago Cubs on Sunday. "But every team this time of year has some challenges, physically and mentally and emotionally. You get on the plane, you head toward some friendly faces, and hopefully we can get back to feeling good about postgame."
That sentiment will be wished for by all contenders, including the Los Angeles Dodgers, who, like the O's, have a bit of breathing room in their division. Los Angeles lost to the New York Mets on Sunday, but the Dodgers still have the top spot in the NL West by 4 1/2 games over the San Francisco Giants.
Meanwhile, the Washington Nationals cruised in a Sunday rout of San Francisco and have seen their NL East lead balloon to eight games over the Atlanta Braves, who are now a game behind the Giants in the NL Wild Card hunt.
The Nationals have a challenging week ahead, with three games at Philadelphia, an off-day and then a long trip to Seattle to play a weekend three-gamer against the smoldering Mariners.
While the NL East standings might not change any time soon, there could still be some movement with rosters heading into the September callup period. The waiver Trade Deadline, after all, is Sunday, and a few contending clubs could use some help.
Speaking of which, the A's added to their catching depth by trading for Geovany Soto, and it wouldn't be surprising to see the Angels and maybe even the Mariners to get involved in a deal for Bartolo Colon or another veteran arm.
In other words, it's almost September, and all over the big leagues, it's game on.
"When you have a tight race, it's always going to come down to the wire," Halos center fielder Mike Trout said over the weekend.
Trout was talking about the A's, but he could have been talking about any of the other races that will continue to percolate this week.
"We still have a month left," Trout said. "There's still a lot of baseball to be played."