AL West rivalry revival and more must-attend games for May
As we enter its second month, the 2013 Major League Baseball season has begun to take its own course, making games and series that might have seemed ancillary a month ago suddenly relevant and compelling. With the weather warming up -- and drying up -- you won't need one of the following can't-miss matchups as an excuse to get out to the ballpark, but if you're in range of one, you just might need an excuse not to.
The Brewers enter the month sandwiched between National League Central favorites St. Louis and Cincinnati, a half game behind the former and a half game ahead of the latter. They play the Cardinals at home starting on May 2 but the bigger test will come when the visit defending division champion Cincinnati in mid-month.
Remember, the Brewers finished strong last season, going 29-13 (.690) after Aug. 19. This year, they opened 2-8, but surged into contention via a nine-game winning streak and now stand three games over .500. Outside of sweeping the defending World Series champion Giants and their current series win over the upstart Pirates, however, they've done most of their winning against weaker teams, with six of their 14 wins on the season coming against the last-place Cubs and Padres.
Detroit and Washington were the pennant favorites coming into the season, and while the Nationals have thus far failed to hold up their end of the bargain, entering May a game below .500, this brief, two-game set could still be a preview of the World Series. The opener is expected to feature a pitching matchup that would be hard to resist: Detroit's Anibal Sanchez against Washington's Jordan Zimmermann. Sanchez (3-1) is third in the American League with a 1.34 ERA and struck out 17 Braves in his last start. Zimmerman (4-1, 2.00 ERA) is fifth in the majors with a 0.86 WHIP and twirled his first career shutout by one-hitting the Reds on 91 pitches on April 26.
This is the key matchup of the month. The A's and Rangers kick off their season series in Oakland, where the A's stole last year's AL West title with a three-game sweep over the final three days of the season.
This year, those two teams are back atop their division, with Oakland currently trailing Texas by two games but 4 ½ games ahead of third-place Seattle. The A's haven't had a losing month since last May and just got Yoenis Cespedes back off the disabled list (he is 5-for-17 with a double, a triple, a home run and seven RBIs in three games since his return).
The Rangers, meanwhile, enter May tied with the Braves for the second-best record in the majors thanks in large part to baseball's stingiest pitching staff, which has allowed just 3.2 runs per game on the season. The A's will travel to Arlington for a three-game set in Texas from May 20-22.
The Rockies lost 98 games last year and looked like a no-win assignment for rookie manager Walt Weiss coming into the season. Instead, Colorado has the second-best record in the NL coming into May and a one-game lead over the Giants in the NL West despite the fact that the Giants swept the Rockies in a three-game set in San Francisco in the season's second week. If they're able to remain in that cluster atop the division by the time they return to AT&T Park, we'll have to start taking them for real.
In addition to having interleague series throughout the season, another significant change to interleague play this year is the handling of the so-called "natural rivalries." Instead of playing a total of six games split between two non-consecutive series, the natural rivals are now playing four games in four days with two in each ballpark and all 15 rivalries are meeting simultaneously over these four days.
Some of these series, such as Yankees-Mets, Angels-Dodgers, Cubs-White Sox, and Giants-A's, are compelling every time, but there's added excitement to the Cardinals-Royals matchup this year with Kansas City off to such a hot start. The Royals, who haven't been to the postseason since beating the Cardinals in the 1985 World Series, enter the month in second-place in the AL Central, just a half-game out of first, while the perennial contenders from St. Louis reside atop the NL Central by that same scant margin. The series will move down I-70 to the Gateway City on May 29 and 30.