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We are embarking on the last full week of June and, when we hit July, the contenders will start to separate themselves from the pretenders and teams will determine whether they want to be buyers or sellers at the trading deadline. One team, in particular, is reshaping its season now and a couple others will get welcome additions without the need to make a trade. That and much more make up the storylines to watch for this week across baseball.
Blue Jays Flying High – One of the more disappointing teams in the Major Leagues all season long has been the Toronto Blue Jays. That’s far from the case now. The Jays are the hottest team in the game, having won 11 games in a row against some tough competition. The last 10 of those wins came against the Rangers, Rockies, and Orioles — all teams with winning records. Toronto is now two games above .500, just five games back of first place, and is no longer in the A.L. East basement, leading the Rays by percentage points. This will be a huge week for Toronto with seven games on the road within the division, three in Tampa and then four in Boston. What’s even better for the Blue Jays is that their star shortstop, Jose Reyes, will likely return to the team during the Red Sox series after missing the last two months with a sprained left ankle.
More Stars Return – The return of key players doesn’t stop in Toronto. The N.L. West-leading Diamondbacks will be welcoming back Aaron Hill on Tuesday. Like Reyes, the Arizona second baseman has played in only 10 games this season, but his stay on the disabled list was caused by a broken left hand. In his 36 at bats, he was hitting .306 with two home runs. He has been good during his stint in AAA too, with 9 hits in 24 at bats.
Arizona’s division rival L.A. may also get back one of its starting outfielders this week as Matt Kemp is rehabbing from a hamstring injury that has kept him out of action for almost a month. Kemp, like much of the Dodgers team, has struggled this year. He is hitting just .251 with only two homers in 51 games and a team-high 60 strikeouts. He began his rehab assignment on Saturday and was far from impressive, going 0-for-5 with four strikeouts. The initial plan is for Kemp to spend three or four days at Triple-A, but if he still has a hard time making contact, he could stay longer. When he does return, young phenom Yasiel Puig would likely move to left and Andre Ethier would play right.
Closer Watch – Ninth inning question marks continue to plague some of the best teams in baseball and this week may decide which direction they’ll go for the rest of the season. In Detroit, the Tigers have designated Jose Valverde for assignment, and manager Jim Leyland says Joaquin Benoit is his first option at the moment. He has yet to have a save chance since that announcement, but picked up the win against Boston on Sunday, though he did give up two hits and a run in 1.1 innings. If Benoit doesn’t work out either, Leyland’s internal options include Al Alburquerque and Bruce Rondon.
Speaking of Boston, the Red Sox, too, are going through a changing of the guard at the back end of the bullpen. It’s been a tough year for Red Sox closers, with Joel Hanrahan out for the rest of the season with an arm injury and now Andrew Bailey being replaced. In his last five appearances as closer, he blew three save chances, gave up two runs in another game in which he did manage to earn the save, and still gave up a hit in his other outing. Then on Sunday he gave up a run in 0.1 innings in a non-save situation. Manager John Farrell says Koji Uehara will get the save opportunities moving forward.
Meanwhile, a closer controversy may be brewing in Arizona, as well. Heath Bell has 13 saves this season, but also owns a 5.02 ERA. He blew his third save chance on Saturday and has allowed at least one run in each of his last five outings and has given up at least a hit or walk in his last 10. Diamondbacks manager Kirk Gibson says he is sticking with Bell for the time being, but it certainly sounds like there isn’t much wiggle room anymore. Depending on how things go, there could be a new closer in Phoenix by the end of the week, especially with J.J. Putz scheduled to return from the disabled list. Gibson could also decide to go with either David Hernandez or Brad Ziegler if he so chooses.
Series of the Week – As always, there are many intriguing series on the horizon for the next seven days, quite possibly highlighted by the A.L. East matchups involving the Blue Jays. Other series worth paying attention to this week include, Giants/Dodgers, Diamondbacks/Nationals, Rangers/Yankees, Rockies/Red Sox, Reds/Athletics, Yankees/Orioles, Tigers/Rays, Reds/Rangers, Giants/Rockies, and Cardinals/Athletics. If you’re looking for great pitching matchups, there are a couple of those, too. On Tuesday, the Mets’ Zach Wheeler and White Sox’ Chris Sale square off, and undefeated Patrick Corbin will once again chase win number 10 on Thursday when his Diamondbacks face the Nationals. He’ll have to beat Stephen Strasburg to get it.
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