MLB Week 8 Roundup: Cream rising in NL, Falling in AL

The return of Yu Darvish could turn the AL West into a runaway for the Texas Rangers.
Saturday turned out to be the wildest day of the season, when no lead was safe and last year’s top dogs showed that they still have plenty of fight. The National League is experiencing some separation from its top teams, while the American League still looks like anyone’s guess. A closer look at the week that was as the calendar is about to turn to June:
American League East
The epic series between the Red Sox and Blue Jays — more specifically, the epic game on Saturday — had just about everything. Except for maybe pitching. After the first seven meetings were mostly pitching-dominated, the teams combined for 39 runs in the three games in Toronto this weekend. The Red Sox have baseball’s most potent offense, which has helped masked some pitching deficiencies. They still look to be the most complete team in the American League East, but don’t count out the Orioles, Blue Jays, and maybe even the Yankees. Baltimore was able to tread water on a nine-game road trip and now gets heavy into division play in the next few weeks. The O’s have a pretty potent offense of their own and a strong bullpen. The Blue Jays, similarly powerful on offense, have the inverse situation in terms of their pitching staff – outstanding rotation, shaky bullpen. The Yankees’ starting pitching has emerged of late, and there is no question about their outstanding back-end trio in the ‘pen. We’ll learn a lot more this coming week, as the Orioles host the Red Sox and Yankees, and the Blue Jays host the Yankees and travel to Boston.
American League Central
I hope you didn’t count the Kansas City Royals out. It’s entirely possible that the Chicago White Sox did. The South Siders’ season is headed in the wrong direction after three absolutely, gutwrenching losses at Kauffman Stadium this weekend. The league’s best bullpen in the season’s first few weeks has been one of the worst of late. The White Sox blew a four-run lead in the seventh, a six-run lead in the ninth, and two-run lead in the eighth this weekend to fall out of first place. The Royals are winning without Mike Moustakas, Alex Gordon, and now Salvador Perez. They simply won’t quit, and are a great lesson for other young teams looking to get to the top. But Kansas City won’t run away with the division, either. The Cleveland Indians are a legitimate contender with their strong starting pitching and balanced offense (which has had to make do without Michael Brantley) will keep them in business. The Tigers might hang around but are flawed and inconsistent. Most likely, the division will come down to Kansas City and Cleveland, unless the White Sox can recover from this latest ego blow and the Tigers can also fortify their own shaky bullpen.
American League West
I’m done speculating why the Mariners can’t win at home, yet own baseball’s best road record. They found a new and impressive way to lose Sunday, having two runners thrown out on the basepaths on the same play to end the game down 6-5 in the ninth. What’s worse for Seattle is that down in Texas, Yu Darvish is back in business for the Rangers. Texas still looks like the best team in a pretty mediocre division that really only has two contenders in the Rangers and Mariners. Felix Hernandez’s struggles compounded this weekend’s stunning sweep at the hands of the lowly Twins and could be cause for concern. The feeling is that unless the Mariners start winning at home, the Rangers could run away with the West. Because it is highly unlikely the Mariners will keep winning at a 72% rate on the road.
National League East
We know this is a two-team fight, but which team is more likely to kick their Jekyll-and-Hyde habits? The Mets lead the Majors in home runs and have the most enviable young rotation in baseball, yet all eyes are on the badly-struggling Matt Harvey. Terry Collins is overusing closer Jeurys Familia, and it’s only May. The bullpen as a whole will suffer if Familia continues to struggle, as he’s permitted six runs in his last two outings after allowing just five in his first 23. The Nationals earned a split with the Cardinals and finished the season series 5-2 against a perennial thorn in their side, but there has to be concern about the recent struggles of Max Scherzer and Gio Gonzalez. This should go back and forth all season for two very similar teams. The Phillies will fade, and the Marlins are likely nothing more than a .500 team. The Braves are a joke, but ironically could have as much an impact as anyone late in the season going head-to-head with the Mets and Nats. My initial gut reaction is to pick the Mets to take the division by a hair, but you might as well flip a coin at this point.
National League Central
So the Cubs are pretty good. This much we know. Winning the NL Central seems like a formality at this point. Chicago has a 6 1/2 game lead on Pittsburgh and 9 1/2 game edge on St. Louis, and is a combined 9-3 head-to-head against those teams already, with nine of those 12 games coming on the road. The Cardinals are a hard team to figure out. They own the NL’s second-best run differential at plus-41, yet are only 26-25 and a puzzling 13-15 at Busch Stadium. It is very likely they will get on a roll at some point in the near future, as the massive struggles of the starting pitching are an aberration. They won’t win 100 games as they did last year, but you’d be extremely foolish to count them out. The Pirates are the silent assassins here. A team expected by many to fade back to the pack looks as talented as it has in any of their recent playoff seasons, with their young stars all putting together big seasons. Gregory Polanco and Starling Marte are having exceptional years, and the offense is rolling even with Andrew McCutchen putting up pedestrian (at least for him) numbers. There is legitimate concern about the rotation after Gerrit Cole, as Francisco Liriano continues to walk batters at an alarming rate. The middle relief is also shaky (isn’t that the case for most teams, though?), but the back-end is very dependable. Don’t be shocked if Pittsburgh tops the 90-win mark again, although last year’s total of 98 doesn’t seem likely.
National League West
Talk about a one-man show. We already knew the San Francisco Giants were good bets to contend for a title in this even-numbered year of 2016, but the NL West is about to be a runaway. The Dodgers are going to struggle to make a wild-card push, and the Rockies should be pleased if they can get to .500 this year. The inconsistent Diamondbacks and hapless Padres are going to dwell the cellar, meaning the Giants could have the West wrapped up by late August. They have a dominant starting rotation trio, and just imagine if Matt Cain and Jake Peavy can be half of their former selves. The bullpen is holding up just fine without Sergio Romo, and the offense is chugging along even without getting much from Buster Posey (at least until Saturday’s two-homer game, that is). When the Giants get back to October, look out — they have won nine straight postseason series.

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