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Monday, August 29, 2011
Weekly preview: Battle for home field

By David Schoenfield

It's not even September and we may be down to just two races: the Rangers lead the Angels by three games in the AL West and the Diamondbacks lead the Giants by four in the NL West. There is hope the Rays (6.5 behind the Yankees) or White Sox (six behind the Tigers) will claw back into things. Let's check out the week ahead.

SERIES OF THE WEEK

Yankees at Red Sox, Tuesday through Thursday

Tuesday: CC Sabathia (17-7, 2.99) vs. John Lackey (12-9, 5.98)
Wednesday: Phil Hughes (4-4, 6.46) vs. Josh Beckett (11-5, 2.43)
Thursday: A.J. Burnett (9-11, 5.31) vs. Andrew Miller (6-1, 4.42)

Home-field advantage in the playoffs is important, but not all that important. As Dayn Perry writes on ESPN Insider today, since 1998 the home playoff team has won 54.9 percent of its games, nearly the same percentage as the regular season. The team with the home-field advantage has also won 48 of 91 series since 1998, or 53.8 percentage. What's more important is winning the first game of a series, particularly in the best-of-five Division Series; since 1995 the team that won the first game went on to win the Division Series nearly 72 percent of the time.

That said, I think both teams want to win the AL East, both for pride and also for the possibility of avoiding starting on the road in Texas, since the Rangers are a much better team at home. Hughes had been excellent in August until his last start, when the A's knocked him out in the third inning. Burnett allowed 30 runs in 22.2 innings in August and he allowed runs in his only start against Boston this season. Miller is still trying to get his mechanics into a consistent rhythm and release point, but his last two starts were excellent, especially his last one in Texas where he held the Rangers scoreless over 6.1 innings, struck out six and induced nine groundballs.

PITCHING MATCHUP OF THE WEEK

John Danks (6-9, 3.63) vs. Justin Verlander (20-5, 2.38), White Sox at Tigers, Friday

Verlander has won eight straight starts and should have five starts remaining, giving him a chance to be the first pitcher to win 25 games since Bob Welch of the 1990 A's. If the White Sox have any chance to the Tigers, they'll likely have to sweep this weekend series. Don't count out on Danks coming up big -- he has a 2.03 ERA since June 6.

THREE SWINGS

1. Ervin Santana won his start on three days' rest for the Angels, but Jered Weaver got roughed up a bit on Sunday, tiring in the seventh inning. Considering game-time temperature was 100 degrees and Weaver was pitching in a ballpark where the ball flies out, it's hard to know if Sunday's mediocre results came from pitching on short rest or not. If I were Mike Scioscia, I'd definitely consider starting Santana, Weaver and Dan Haren on short rest at some point. The Angels do need to take advantage of the next three series -- they play the Mariners twice and Twins once, while the Rangers have two series against the Rays and one against the Red Sox. And while I liked Scioscia's decision to move up Santana and Weaver, his lineup decisions are still hurting the club. As The Common Man pointed out, Mike Trout is hitting .389/.450/.778 with two homers in 20 PAs since his recall, so of course he sat Sunday. And don't get me started on Jeff Mathis ...

2. Zack Greinke, who improved to 10-0 at home on Sunday, returned from the DL on May 4. Since then, the Brewers have the best record in the NL at 67-37 ... yes, better than the Phillies' 63-37 mark. The Brewers are on pace to break their franchise record for wins (95 in 1979 and 1982) and even have an outside chance at catching the Phillies for best record in the NL. They have eight more losses, but just two fewer wins. As Bill Baer points out, if they Phillies play all their remaining regular-season games, they'll finish with 33 games in 31 days. That schedule, combined with the desire to rest some regulars, could give the red-hot Brewers the opportunity to secure home-field advantage.

3. Matt Kemp is batting .320/.390/.574 and absolutely remains in the NL MVP race. It's worth noting, however, that only five players have won an MVP Award from a losing team: Alex Rodriguez of the 2003 Rangers, Cal Ripken of the 1991 Orioles, Andre Dawson of the 1987 Cubs, and Ernie Banks of the 1958 and '59 Cubs. While Kemp may end up as deserving of the honor, I don't think he'll win -- his year doesn't stand out above his peers like Rodriguez or Ripken, who were clearly the best players in their league those seasons. (Dawson is another matter; that was one of the worst MVP choices ever.)