The major league season continues to fly by, and storylines abound. After sitting things out for a week, the 6-4-3 returns.
That means that there's even more to get to, so let's get right into this week's version.
Six Red Sox Thoughts
1. Morales must stay
Franklin Morales has been unbelievable in his short stint as a starting pitcher. Can that last? It's probably too early to tell. The book on Morales has always been that he has lights-out stuff, he just struggles to keep it in the strike zone. Well, he's keeping it in the strike zone right now (24 strikeouts and just three walks since moving to the rotation), and the success continues to come. He went toe-to-toe with Felix Hernandez on Friday night in what was one of the best games of the season thus far. It's a credit to Morales' hard work, as well as the willingness on the part of Bobby Valentine and the rest of the staff to give him the chance when it came, and they appear ready to let him stay around for now. Morales has definitely earned that right, and he may be a part of the rotation for a while.
2. Lasers engaged?
Dustin Pedroia is going back to Cali this week, and the Red Sox have to be hoping a return to his native state will help the second baseman heat up. Pedroia is due for one of his patented hot streaks, and maybe his game-tying home run on Sunday will be the springboard for that. All you have to do is look back to last season to realize what he can be capable of over an extended period of time. From June 1 through July 31, Pedroia hit .379 with 11 home runs, 39 RBIs and 1.107 OPS. In a totally related note, the Sox played .700 baseball over that run. As Pedroia goes, the Red Sox go. The lineup is getting healthier, something that will only help Pedroia be even better. The hot streak is going to come, and there's no better time than right now for the Sox.
3. Help is on the way
The Red Sox outfield is crowded as it is, but things are about to get real tight out there. Jacoby Ellsbury and Carl Crawford continue to progress in their respective rehab programs, and barring some sort of setback, they both sound like they're close to returning. When they do, it will complicate things a little bit, but the fact remains that you're getting two All-Star caliber players back. Ellsbury's return has the potential to be huge, as his return to the leadoff spot should go a long way in stabilizing the lineup. Don't overlook the defensive importance of the duo's return, either. However, it will be interesting to see whether or not the Sox look to trade a player like Cody Ross or Ryan Sweeney near the deadline to help clear things up a little bit.
4. Piecemeal pitching performances
The Sox have gotten a little bit lucky in terms of the schedule, at least for now. There's never a bad time for a pitching staff to match up with the Seattle Mariners, and we saw that over the weekend. Both Morales and Aaron Cook stepped up and delivered huge performances, and Josh Beckett was solid in his return to the rotation. With Clay Buchholz out for the near future and Jon Lester struggling to find some consistency, the Sox are going to need all the help they can get on the mound. This seven-game West Coast road trip against the light-hitting Mariners and A's may be just what they need right now, especially with a weekend series with the Yankees looming.
5. Cause for concern for Felix?
Felix Doubront carried the Red Sox rotation in May and into the first week of June. Since then, however, he's taken a step back. Since June 8, Doubront is just 2-2 with a 5.93 ERA in 27 1/3 innings of work. Perhaps the most alarming thing about this stretch has been Doubront's inability to strike out batters. He's averaging less than a strikeout per inning over his last five starts after registering 9.5 strikeouts per nine innings in his first 11 starts of the season. The stuff is obviously there, and Doubront has already proved this season that he can have success at this level, so for now, we'll call this a bump in the road, but it's worth keeping an eye on.
6. Little starpower
For the first time since 2001, the Red Sox are sending just one representative to the All-Star Game. David Ortiz will be flying solo to Kansas City next week, and really, it shouldn't come as much surprise. Jarrod Saltalamacchia has something of a case, but it's tough to argue that Joe Mauer doesn't deserve to go, and that's even before you get into the bogus rule that one player from every team must attend. However, when you struggle to stay above .500 for the first half of the season as the Sox have, it shouldn't come as much of a surprise when the All-Star Game roster is not littered with representatives from your team.
Four Observations Around Baseball
1. Grumpy old men
Speaking of the All-Star Game, we've got more drama in the Cardinals-Reds rivalry. The NL Central foes have upped the ante in their longstanding rivalry in the past couple of years, and the latest chapter was written Sunday. The Reds aren't too happy about the Tony La Russa's reserve selections, most notably the absence of Johnny Cueto. Reds manager Dusty Baker expressed his disappointment on Sunday after learning of the news. That led La Russa to respond by saying that he was "disappointed" that Baker would be "attacking my integrity." Baker loves the spotlight as much as anyone, so the fact that he's squabbling with an ex-manager about something like this should surprise no one.
2. New sheriffs out West
Remember when the Dodgers were a house on fire, jumping out to the best record in baseball through the first two months of the season? Seems like a long time ago. The Dodgers have fallen on hard times thanks in large part to injuries, and the Giants are making them pay. San Fran opens the week in first place, after a 17-win showing in June. The scariest thing for the Dodgers and the rest of the league, though? Tim Lincecum may be ready to return to at least some semblance of his Cy Young form. He looked tremendous in his last start, going seven scoreless against the Dodgers. If he's going well, that gives the Giants one of the best staffs in baseball, especially given Matt Cain's dominance and Madison Bumgarner's continued development.
3. Philling up the loss column
The Phillies are in a bad way in the NL East. The choice of many to win that division, the Phillies are now 11 games back, thanks in large part to a five-game losing streak. Chase Utley returned to help try to provide some needed pop (and did so with a homer in his first at-bat back), but it hasn't made a difference yet. The Phils have taken a beating with injuries, but even so, you would think that Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels would be able to keep them afloat. They may be ready to wave the white flag, though, as Hamels trade rumors begin to surface.
4. Hey, Mr. Wilson!
Is anyone talking about Angels pitcher C.J. Wilson? The afterthought of an offseason shopping spree in Anaheim, Wilson, not Albert Pujols, has been the Halos' most important pick-up. On May 21, the Angels fell to 19-25, eight games back in the AL West. The next day, Wilson threw eight shutout innings against Oakland. The Angels haven't lost when he's started since, and over that time, they've gone 26-10. The Angels once again look like a dangerous team, and they may even give the Rangers trouble the rest of the way out.
Three Things to Watch This Week
1. Sox-Yanks get down at Fenway
For the first time since Fenway Park's birthday party, the Red Sox and Yankees meet this weekend. It's a four-game set with a doubleheader on Saturday that will mark the beginning of 16 meetings between the rivals over the final two and a half months of the season. For a Boston team that is fighting and clawing to get back in the race for the division, they can go a long way in doing that with a big weekend against the Bombers.
2. Two of the NL's best in the nation's capital
We already talked about the San Francisco Giants some, but they'll be in the spotlight this week, as they look to continue their run of impressive baseball. They'll have to do so against an East-leading Washington team that doesn't look ready to go anywhere. It's a three-game set starting Tuesday in D.C., which will include a rare 11:05 a.m. start on the country's birthday on Wednesday.
3. Who else is heading to Kansas City?
The final vote contest for the All-Star Game will go through Thursday, and there's one real interesting race in the National League. We're likely looking at a two-horse race between Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper and Braves third baseman Chipper Jones. Hopefully there's a way both can get in, as Harper should be there as one of the game's brightest young stars, but Jones should certainly be there as well in the final season of a Hall of Fame career. With injuries likely to play a role at some point, it's not unlikely to think that both will get in which would be the best thing for baseball.