Week Ahead: Can anyone slow A's, Tigers?
AL Central, West leaders separating from field; Cueto looks to keep dominating
They've played each other in the American League Division Series the last two years. Both times, the ALDS provided great drama. Both times, they went to five games. Both times, the Detroit Tigers beat the Oakland A's, with Justin Verlander handcuffing Oakland's bats in Game 5.
And now that the 2014 season is more than a quarter of the way complete and sample sizes are no longer small, we see something very familiar brewing for The Week Ahead.
Namely, as of right now, two of the very best teams in the AL are the Tigers and the A's, and they're quickly starting to separate themselves from the pack.
Detroit took Sunday's game against the Red Sox, 6-2, and has won six in a row to jump out to Major League-best 27-12 record and a seven-game lead in the AL Central, the biggest divisional cushion in the game. The Tigers are 14-4 on the road, Miguel Cabrera is heating up, the team got back starter Anibal Sanchez, who won in Boston on Sunday in his first start since April 26 -- after being sidelined because of a laceration on his right middle finger -- and all seems to be well.
"It's May," Tigers starter Rick Porcello said after earning the victory in Saturday's game. "I've said before, this is a marathon, it's not a sprint. ... The most important thing to me right now is that we're in first place and we're playing good ball. That's huge. We want to keep that going."
Meanwhile, the A's have the best run differential in baseball, a number that grew to cartoonish proportions (235 scored, 140 allowed) over the weekend, when Oakland beat the Indians, 13-3, securing a sweep in Cleveland, in which it outscored the Tribe by a combined 30-6 over three games.
"They've got it going, right now," Indians manager Terry Francona said. "They have good starting pitching, a very good bullpen and they're swinging it from one through nine."
This week the Tigers head to Progressive Field to play the Indians, while the A's get a taste of the AL East in the form of the Rays and Blue Jays.
Intrigue is brewing in the National League, too, where parity seems to be the theme of late. Sure, the Giants are still enjoying a three-game lead in the NL West over the Rockies and their sizzling shortstop, Troy Tulowitzki, and the Brewers are treading water after a fantastic April to stay four up on the Cardinals, but the Braves and Nationals are only a half-game apart in the race for the NL East and the Marlins are only a half-game behind Washington.
Meanwhile, two of the playoff teams from a year ago, the Reds and Dodgers, haven't hit their strides yet in 2014, but are hanging around somewhere near the .500 mark (the Reds are 19-23, the Dodgers are 23-22) and are featuring two of the NL's must-see players for the coming week.
Over his last 55 innings, Reds starter Johnny Cueto, who's slated to take the ball on Tuesday night against the Nationals in Washington, has allowed only five runs to lower his Major League-leading ERA to 1.25 over a league-most 72 innings pitched. He has yet to give up more than five hits in a game in 2014 and already has three complete games.
That makes Cueto the best pitcher in the big leagues right now, according to plenty of observers, including Cueto.
"I will say yes, because the numbers talk," Cueto said after his last win, via translator Tomas Vera. "My numbers are going to talk for me. Everybody else has to do and worry about their own numbers. When I go on the mound, I do my job. I have to do my job to get the best numbers."
For the Dodgers, outfielder Yasiel Puig has been doing that lately. In fact, the energetic, exciting second-year player has a .322/.411/.586 line entering Monday, with nine homers, 35 RBIs, and numerous highlight-reel defensive plays and bat flips.
"I've been working really hard so things can turn out the way I have prepared them," Puig said. "I'm working really hard, and I feel really comfortable at the plate."
Unfortunately for the White Sox, rookie sensation Jose Abreu won't be feeling comfortable at the plate for a few weeks, because he just went on the 15-day disabled list with tendinitis in his left ankle and will have to put his AL-leading 15 homers and 42 RBIs on the shelf for the time being.
Other notable injury absences in the week ahead include Reds slugger Joey Votto (left quad) and Nats starter Gio Gonzalez (shoulder inflammation) and could include Mariners outfielder Corey Hart, who left Sunday's game against the Twins with a left hamstring strain.
But there should be some happy returns from the DL this week, too.
Dodgers lefty Hyun-Jin Ryu is slated to re-enter the rotation, White Sox ace Chris Sale is a possibility for this week, Rays right-hander Alex Cobb could be ready to pitch for Tampa Bay and Cardinals reliever Jason Motte is a contender to rejoin the big club for the first time since undergoing Tommy John elbow surgery last May.