Five Big Things is Big League Stew's look at the week ahead in MLB action, examining storylines and matchups you should keep an eye on.
1. THE ROYALS ARE SO CLOSE TO FIRST PLACE THEY CAN SMELL IT
The Kansas City Royals are making a charge at first place in the AL Central again, and this time they're just a half game out. The Royals have won seven straight while the Detroit Tigers have lost five of their past seven. But even a share of first place isn't going to come to Kansas City in the next few days without having to beat the best team in baseball.
The Oakland Athletics visit K.C. for a four-game series starting Monday and the Royals will have to beat Oakland's best. In order, the Royals' lineup will face Sonny Gray, Jon Lester, Scott Kazmir and Jeff Samardzija. That's a tough task, but then again, when you're the team chasing the Tigers, having to beat tough pitching is part of the game.
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2. CAN THE GIANTS GET IT TOGETHER?
The team that last ran into the buzzsaw that is the Royals has its own set of problems. We're talking about the San Francisco Giants, losers of four straight and now outside of the playoffs, were they to start today. The Giants continue to be offense-challenged, but at least they can try to get their act together this week against two sub-.500 teams — the Chicago White Sox and the Philadelphia Phillies. The Giants are still very much in the playoff hunt, but they haven't been playing like a playoff team. They're 16-20 and have a minus-five run differential since July 1.
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3. THE 20TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE 1994 STRIKE
Twenty years ago this week, the MLB season turned into a big question mark that would never be answered. The 1994 season stopped because of one of the game's most famous strikes, which began 20 years ago Tuesday. It ended a number of important storylines — whether the Montreal Expos could win the World Series, whether Tony Gwynn could hit .400 and whether Matt Williams could knock 61 homers. No doubt we'll hear more reminiscing this week about the 1994 season and its what-could-have-been mystery.
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4. MICHAEL PINEDA RETURNS
We haven't seen him in a while, so it might have slipped your mind how strange/controversial of a season New York Yankees pitcher Michael Pineda was having before his suspension and time on the disabled list. Pineda, 25, was looked at as a threat for a breakout season in the Yankees' rotation after not pitching in the big leagues since 2011 because of shoulder surgery. In four April starts, he was 2-2 with a 1.83 ERA — and two controversies.
He was twice caught using pine tar while pitching to get a better grip on the ball. The first time, he went unpunished. The second time, on April 23 against the Red Sox, he was ejected and suspended 10 games. He never returned, instead going on the disabled list with back/shoulder trouble. The Yankees — 2 1/2 games out in the wild card — could certainly use an at-his-best Pineda. But you have to wonder if that's what they're getting at this point.
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5. THE BRAVES BATTLE FIRST-PLACE FOES
After losing eight straight, the Atlanta Braves took two of three from the division-rival Washington Nationals over the weekend. The Braves are 3 1/2 games back in the division race and two games back in the wild card, neither out of the question in August. This week, we'll see if they're in full rebound mode. It's a tough one — the Braves get a visit from the Dodgers to start the week, then the A's come to town for the weekend. It's sort of like the playoffs are coming to town. Will the Braves be ready?
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