The third full week of June dawns with a striking imbalance between American and National League. The four best records in the majors all belong to AL teams—the Yankees, Red Sox, Astros and Mariners. What’s more, the gap between the fourth team, the Mariners, and the NL teams tied for the senior circuit’s the best record, the Brewers and Braves, isn’t slim. At 46–26, the Mariners are 3.5 games ahead of the Brewers and Braves, who are 42–29.
The last time a league had sole ownership of at least the three best records in the majors was 2007. The Red Sox and Indians led the way at 96–66, with the Angles and Yankees finishing the season at 94–68. The best record in the NL that season belonged to the Diamondbacks, who went 90–72. Could the AL repeat this feat 11 years later? It’s possible. The Yankees, Red Sox and Astros were all expected to be among the best teams in the majors and have surpassed expectations. With the mathematical halfway point of the season approaching, they’re all between five and six games ahead of the best record in the NL. The Yankees and Red Sox are 6.5 games ahead of the Cubs, who own the NL’s best run differential, while the Astros are 5.5 games clear of them. The Nationals, another assumed NL powerhouse, are 9.5 games behind the Yankees and Red Sox, and 8.5 shy of the Astros.
The Mariners seem the likeliest team to fall off the pace. They’ve been excellent in one-run games, going 23–10 in such affairs, but their scant run differential translates to a Pythagorean win-loss of 38–34. The bet here is that an NL team will eventually pass at least the Mariners, but the top-four teams in the AL are going to make this an interesting subplot to watch the rest of the season.
With that, let’s get to this week’s Table Setter.
Hitters to Watch This Week
It was always going to be just a matter of time before Ozuna got going this season. He is hitting .411/.450/.821 with seven homers and 17 RBI in 60 plate appearances in June. The Cardinals offense has let down its starting pitching often this season, which makes Ozuna’s waking up not only welcome, but absolutely necessary.
Khris Davis, OF, A’s
Davis had a tough weekend, going 0-for-9 with three walks in the A’s three-game series with the Angels, but he remains one of the hottest hitters in baseball over the last two weeks. He has seven homers and nine RBI in that time, raising his slugging percentage to .540 from .503. Davis spent the last 10 days of May on the DL, and it’s clear to see how his presence impacts the entire lineup in Oakland. The team could have a great week, with six games against the Padres and White Sox.
Nelson Cruz, DH, Mariners
Like Davis, Cruz, too, is also on a power binge. He has belted seven homers in the month, driving in 13 runs while raising his slugging percentage 42 points in 16 games. Cruz’s .249 batting average and .339 OBP trail where he usually is at this point of the season, but the fact that he has gotten the power going over the last two weeks bodes well for the remainder of the summer. The surprising Mariners are facing their biggest week of the season, with series against the Yankees and Red Sox.
Alex Bregman, 3B/SS, Astros
Bregman was one of the stars of the Astros’ weekend sweep of the Royals, going 5-for-13 with two homers, one double and five RBI. The Astros have won 11 straight games to get back ahead of the Mariners for sole possession of first place in the AL West, and Bregman has been one of their best players during the streak, slashing .289/.349/.737 with four homers and 10 RBI.
Randal Grichuk, OF, Blue Jays
On June 3, Grichuk was hitting .099/.195/.211 on the year. He has gone 15-for-41 with five homers, three doubles and 13 RBI in 12 games since then, raising his slash line to .196/.276/.429. The season-long slash line still looks ugly, but Grichuk is hitting .366/.422/.805 in 45 plate appearances during his hot streak. Strikeouts are always an issue, but this is the kind of power he can provide when he’s swinging the bat well.
Pitcher to Watch This Week
Kenta Maeda, SP, Dodgers
Maeda returned from the DL last week, allowing two runs in five innings against the Rangers. He took a no-decision, striking out one while surrendering five hits and three walks. He may not be Clayton Kershaw or Corey Seager, but the Dodgers need him to stay healthy if they are going to turn around this frustrating season and challenge for their sixth straight NL West crown. He’s slated for two starts this week, facing the Cubs on Monday and Mets on Sunday.
Steven Wright, SP, Red Sox
Wright turned in two more great starts last week. First, he threw 6 2/3 shutout innings against the Orioles, allowing four hits and three walks while striking out five. He then took the ball over the weekend against the Mariners, limiting them to one run on five hits and two walks in seven innings. Wright has likely locked up a spot in the Red Sox rotation this month, totaling a 0.44 ERA and 0.92 WHIP in three starts. He’s slated to face the Mariners again this weekend, taking the mound in the series opener on Friday.
Zach Eflin, SP, Phillies
Eflin has won three straight starts, beating the Cubs once and Brewers twice. He has allowed four runs on 14 hits in 18 2/3 innings in that span, striking out 17 while walking just three. Eflin struggled for much of his first month in the rotation, but has turned it around against two of the best offenses in the NL. He gets one start this week, facing the Nationals on Friday in a big series in the NL East.
Hector Rondon, RP, Astros
Rondon converted his fourth straight save opportunity on Sunday, and is now safely ensconced as the closer in Houston. Rondon has been great all season, pitching to a 1.38 ERA, 1.90 FIP and 1.04 WHIP with 31 strikeouts in 26 innings. Rondon was a huge part of the Cubs’ NLCS team in 2015 and World Series team the next year, and after an up-and-down 2017 season seems to have reclaimed the magic that made him a successful closer for three straight years. If he can stabilize the backend of the Astros’ bullpen, he’ll turn into one of the most important players on arguably the league’s best team.
Jon Lester, SP, Cubs
Lester has won three straight starts and six of his last seven, placing himself on a trajectory to make the fifth All-Star Team of his career and second since joining the Cubs. He’s 8–2 on the year with a 2.28 ERA, 1.08 WHIP and 69 strikeouts in 83 innings. FIP doesn’t love him because of his low strikeout total, and there is some cause for concern given that his hard-hit rate is up, his soft-hit rate is down, and his groundball rate is south of 40%. Lester will take the mound once this week, drawing the Dodgers in the finale of a three-game set between familiar NLCS foes on Wednesday.
Matchups to Watch This Week
Miles Mikolas vs. Nick Pivetta, Monday
Mikolas and Pivetta have been two of this season’s brightest surprises. Mikolas has made 13 starts, amassing a 2.43 ERA, 3.10 FIP, 0.96 WHIP and 63 strikeouts against nine non-intentional walks in 85 1/3 innings. Pivetta, meanwhile, owns a 4.25 ERA, 3.10 FIP, 1.24 WHIP and 81 strikeouts in 72 innings. Mikolas seems ticketed for his first career All-Star Game, while Pivetta seemed on that same path before a couple of shaky outings against the Cubs and Rockies in his last two trips to the mound. Still, this should be one of the best matchups of the week at the start of a key three-game series between two of the NL’s legitimate postseason contenders.
Chris Sale vs. Jose Berrios, Tuesday
Sale had a couple rough outings in a row by his standards in late May and early June, allowing 10 runs in 10 1/3 innings in losses to the Braves and Astros. He has bounced back in two starts since then, holding the White Sox and Orioles to two runs on eight hits in 14 innings, striking out 19 while walking five. Berrios, too, has been excellent of late, allowing three runs over 15 innings across his last two outings. The first of those was a complete game win, his second of the season, over the White Sox in which he fanned 10 batters and walked none. Sale-Berrios is a top-tier matchup in any week, and Berrios will get a great test against the mighty Red Sox lineup, as well.
James Paxton vs. Luis Severino, Thursday
With all due respect to Sale and Berrios, Paxton-Severino is the marquee matchup of the week. Not only are they likely to be teammates at the All-Star Game next month, but they’ll both be challenged by one of the best lineups in baseball on Thursday. The Red Sox hit Paxton hard in his last start, allowing six runs—five earned—in just 2 1/3 innings. Severino, on the other hand, is working on a streak of 12 straight quality starts. He shut down the Rays his last time out, throwing eight shutout innings while allowing five baserunners and striking out nine. The two likely All-Stars meet in the final game of a huge three-game series between teams with two of the four best records in the majors.
Cardinals at Brewers, Thursday through Sunday
Mariners-Yankees is one of the biggest series of the week, but we just touched on it and are about to give the Mariners some more attention. Given that, let’s shift our gaze to Milwaukee, where the Cardinals and Brewers will stage a big four-game series this weekend. The teams have played nine games against one another thus far this season, with the Brewers holding a slight 5-4 advantage. The Crew starts this week in first place in the NL Central, a half-game ahead of the Cubs and four games ahead of the Cardinals, making this a big series for all three teams. The Cardinals will send Carlos Martinez, Jack Flaherty, Miles Mikolas and Luke Weaver to the mound, in order. The Brewers counter with Junior Guerra, Chase Anderson, Jhoulys Chacin and Freddy Peralta.
Mariners at Red Sox, Friday through Sunday
The Mariners and Red Sox just finished a great three-game series this weekend in Seattle, with the home team taking two of three. Those were both one-run games, before the Red Sox salvaged the finale with a 9-3 win on Sunday. What better way to follow that up than with a return series in Boston the very next weekend? The Red Sox and Mariners enter this week with the best and fourth-best records in baseball, respectively. Assuming both teams stay on schedule, the pitching matchups will be Wade LeBlanc against Steven Wright, Mike Leake against Eduardo Rodriguez, and Marco Gonzales against Chris Sale.