The first-place Cleveland Indians strode into Fenway Park on Thursday night to face the Boston Red Sox, which normally wouldn't be significant but the return of Tribe skipper Francona to the place he managed to two World Series titles in his eight-year stint made it so. The Fenway faithful gave Francona a nice welcome, then watched in vain as the Sox got blasted 12-3 in the first game of this four-game set. The rest of the weekend should be a bit more competitive, and watch lefties Scott Kazmir and Jon Lester meet up Saturday afternoon. Kazmir lifetime at Fenway: 6-5 with a 3.90 ERA, but a 1.56 WHIP. Here's what else to keep an eye on this final May weekend.
1. Lying in wait: The Tampa Bay Rays enter the weekend in fourth place in the tough AL East, but still on the positive side of the .500 mark. Manager Joe Maddon adjusted his rotation a bit to face the rival New York Yankees, as right-hander Alex Cobb was moved up to pitch Sunday. The Rays took two of three from the Yankees at home in April, with Matt Moore and Cobb winning. Moore, leading the bigs with an 8-0 record, faces CC Sabathia on Saturday in the signature matchup. As colleague Dave Schoenfield pointed out recently, the Rays remain the team to beat in the division, and I certainly concur, having predicted a World Series title. It can still happen.
2. It's our stadium! For years Philadelphia Phillies fans populated the stands in Washington when their team came to town, but Nationals management had enough. They wanted to take back their home stadium in what used to be a one-sided rivalry, and it certainly worked last season. This will be the first meeting of the season between these NL East teams, with surprisingly just one game separating them in the standings. Does it say more about the Phils or the Nats? Has to be the Nats, right? The Phillies avoid Stephen Strasburg, the Nats miss Cliff Lee, and we'll see if a frustrated Cole Hamels can avoid his eighth loss Sunday.
3. Meanwhile, out West: Two of the three teams tied atop the NL West with 26-21 records meet this weekend. Last weekend the confident, contending San Francisco Giants lost three of four at Coors Field to the confident, contending Colorado Rockies, and the defending champs get a quick shot at revenge. Who would have guessed the Rockies would have a better team ERA than the Giants? Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum and Barry Zito are scheduled for action this weekend, and should fare better than Cain, Zito and Madison Bumgarner did in Denver. Ultimately the Rockies will have trouble keeping up as the summer goes on, but they can make yet another May statement.
4. Taking sides: The Milwaukee Brewers have owned the Pittsburgh Pirates in recent seasons, tallying a 36-12 head-to-head mark from 2010-12, and winning nine consecutive games in one stretch until the Pirates stopped it a few weeks ago. The NL Central rivals meet this weekend with one of them contenders, the other disappointing. The Pirates were contenders for half of last season as well before falling apart. Are they better equipped to make September relevant in 2013? Perhaps not, but they sure look to be in better condition than the Brewers, dead last in the NL in ERA. The Buccos are second-best.
5. L.A. story: And we finish with the franchise spending more money on its players than any other this season, the last-place Los Angeles Dodgers. And guess what! The manager is on the hot seat. Well, of course it's Don Mattingly's fault that Zack Greinke, Chad Billingsley and Hanley Ramirez got hurt, Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier and Dee Gordon can't hit and the team lacks proper depth at third base and in the rotation. Can Yasiel Puig save the day? Puh-leeze. The Dodgers and their embattled leader host the St. Louis Cardinals this weekend, with Sunday's Shelby Miller-Clayton Kershaw matchup potentially memorable, and hopefully Mattingly is still around next week.
Enjoy your weekend!