Pennant Fever: 5 Key MLB Weekend Division Matchups to Watch

Doug MeadCorrespondent IJuly 20, 2012

Pennant Fever: 5 Key MLB Weekend Division Matchups to Watch

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    Generally, pennant races aren’t decided in July, but this weekend could go a long way in helping to decide the fates of 10 MLB teams.

    In five separate series starting on Friday night, we will get a look at division matchups that could go a long way in determining the fates of each team for the final two-plus months of the season.

    Three of the matchups feature first- and second-place teams going at each other, and one in particular—Chicago White Sox vs. Detroit Tigers—could determine a new leader in the AL Central by late Sunday afternoon.

    The two other series could determine whether or not teams involved in the matchups are buyers or sellers at the trade deadline.

    Here is a look at the five matchups.

Atlanta Braves (50-41) vs. Washington Nationals (53-37)

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    Pitching Matchups:

    Friday: Tommy Hanson (10-5, 4.02 ERA) vs. Stephen Strasburg (10-4, 2.66 ERA)

    Saturday: Ben Sheets (1-0, 0.00 ERA) vs. Edwin Jackson (5-5, 3.89 ERA)

    Sunday: Jair Jurrjens (3-3, 6.20 ERA) vs TBD

    Fortunately for the Atlanta Braves, southpaw Gio Gonzalez won't pitch in this series, but they’ll start off with a pretty tough assignment: facing Stephen Strasburg on Friday night.

    The Braves are riding high, winning eight of their last 10 games, and now sit just 3.5 games in back of the Nats in the NL East.

    However, the Nationals have had the Braves’ number so far this season, winning six of the previous eight matchups. While the Braves won’t be out of it if they stumble this weekend, winning the weekend series would do a lot for the team's psyche.

Milwaukee Brewers (44-47) vs. Cincinnati Reds (52-40)

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    Pitching Matchups:

    Friday: Marco Estrada (0-3, 4.13 ERA) vs. Homer Bailey (8-6, 3.93 ERA)

    Saturday: Yovani Gallardo (8-6, 3.59 ERA) vs. Bronson Arroyo (4-6, 4.03 ERA)

    Sunday: Mike Fiers (3-3, 2.01 ERA) vs. Johnny Cueto (11-5, 2.28 ERA)

    The Cincinnati Reds are locked in a tight race atop the NL Central with the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Milwaukee Brewers are doing their best to keep up despite a depleted roster.

    With season-ending injuries to Mat Gamel, Alex Gonzalez and Chris Narveson, and a broken hand suffered by hot-hitting catcher Jonathon Lucroy, it would have been more than okay to assume the Brewers were done for the season.

    However, they are only six games out of a wild-card slot in the National League, and their play this weekend could determine whether or not GM Doug Melvin decides to buy or sell.

    Sunday’s matchup promises to be a thriller, with rookie Mike Fiers bringing his 2.01 ERA up against snubbed All-Star Johnny Cueto, who is coming off a six-inning scoreless effort against the Arizona Diamondbacks last Tuesday.

Toronto Blue Jays (45-47) vs. Boston Red Sox (48-45)

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    Pitching Matchups:

    Friday: Aaron Laffey (1-1, 3.38 ERA) vs. Josh Beckett (5-7, 4.44 ERA)

    Saturday: Carlos Villanueva (4-0, 2.68 ERA) vs. Aaron Cook (2-2, 3.34 ERA)

    Sunday: Henderson Alvarez (5-7, 4.29 ERA) vs. Jon Lester (5-7, 4.80 ERA)

    The Toronto Blue Jays pulled off a 10-player trade with the Houston Astros on Friday, shipping off ineffective reliever Francisco Cordero, reserve outfielder Ben Francisco, four minor league prospects and a player to be named later for starter J.A. Happ and relievers Brandon Lyon and Dave Carpenter.

    Toronto partially addressed their need for a starting pitcher after a season-ending injury to Kyle Drabek and with Drew Hutchison and Brandon Morrow still on the shelf. Whether or not the deal means that the Blue Jays haven’t given up on the season remains to be seen.

    The Red Sox have won five of seven since the All-Star break, and while they sit 9.5 games in back of the New York Yankees in the AL East, they’re just one game out of a wild-card slot. With seven teams bunched within 1.5 games of each other for the two wild-card slots, the Sox will be looking to continue their winning ways.

    Both Josh Beckett and Jon Lester will be hurling this weekend for the Sox, and both need to show their dominant ways if the Sox plan on seriously contending. The thought of three straight seasons without a playoff berth is just not acceptable in Boston.

Texas Rangers (55-36) vs. Los Angeles Angels (50-43)

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    Pitching Matchups:

    Friday: Derek Holland (6-4, 4.57 ERA) vs. Jered Weaver (11-1, 2.26 ERA)

    Saturday: Yu Darvish (10-6, 3.96 ERA) vs. Ervin Santana (4-9, 5.60 ERA)

    Sunday: Matt Harrison (12-4, 2.87) vs. TBD

    In what has become the Yankees-Red Sox of the West, the Texas Rangers and Los Angeles Angels face off at the Big A this weekend.

    The Angels dropped three out of four to the Detroit Tigers this week and look to bounce back at home against the visiting Rangers. Angels ace Jered Weaver will look to right the ship on Friday, and Sunday’s game could mark the return of starter Dan Haren, on the DL will back issues.

    Haren threw a rehab game last Monday and was pronounced fit after throwing a bullpen side session on Wednesday. Haren will throw lightly again on Friday, and is likely to be named the starter for the Sunday finale.

    If Haren can return to last year’s form, the Angels' need for an impact starter at the trade deadline will be lessened.

Chicago White Sox (50-42) vs. Detroit Tigers (49-44)

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    Pitching Matchups:

    Friday: Jake Peavy (7-6, 3.12 ERA) vs. Justin Verlander (10-5- 2.43)

    Saturday: Chris Sale (11-2, 2.11 ERA) vs. Rick Porcello (6-5, 4.66 ERA)

    Sunday: Phillip Humber (4-4, 5.77 ERA) vs. Jacob Turner (0-1, 10.29 ERA)

    The Chicago White Sox travel to Comerica Park to take on the streaking Detroit Tigers this weekend.

    The White Sox own a 1.5 game lead in the AL Central over the Tigers. However, if the Tigers win the first two games of the series, they will take over the lead in the AL Central exactly one year to the day that they took the division lead and ran away with the title.

    Having Verlander ready in the opening game of the series certainly helps, although the White Sox have proven to be a tough opponent when facing Verlander (12-10, 4.13 ERA in career vs. Chicago).

    The Tigers are riding a hot hand, having just taken three of four from the visiting Los Angeles Angels, while the Chisox dropped three of four at Fenway Park against the Boston Red Sox.

    The Tigers can repeat recent history with a sweep this weekend.

     

    Doug Mead is a featured columnist with Bleacher Report. His work has been featured on the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, SF Gate, CBS Sports, the Los Angeles Times and the Houston Chronicle.