CHICAGO — Francisco Lindor and the Cleveland Indians, looking up at Nelson Cruz and the surprising Minnesota Twins. Matt Chapman and the Oakland Athletics, trying to run down Jose Altuve and the Houston Astros. Max Scherzer and the Washington Nationals, chasing Ronald Acuna Jr. and the Atlanta Braves.
Baseball ramps up again this weekend, and a handful of contenders have a lot of work to do.
Five of the majors’ six divisions feature deficits of at least 5½ games as play resumes after the All-Star Game. Life is pretty good for two iconic franchises, with the Los Angeles Dodgers in control of the NL West again and the New York Yankees looking down on the rest of the AL East despite a rash of injuries.
“This team is capable of some great things,” Yankees pitcher James Paxton said. “You’ve got some really talented players here, guys with a lot of drive, great leadership. We’re set up really well to make a good run the second half here as well.”
The one exception at the moment is the crazy NL Central, where the Chicago Cubs have a 4½-game advantage — over last-place Cincinnati. That’s right, it’s just 4½ games from top to bottom, with Milwaukee a half-game back of the inconsistent Cubbies.
“Nobody really wants to run away with it,” Cardinals shortstop Paul DeJong said. “That gives us confidence as a group to think that we can run away with it.”
It sets up for some very tough decisions ahead of the trade deadline after trade waivers were eliminated in the offseason, meaning no player can be traded after July 31 through the end of the regular season. Players who clear outright waivers can still be claimed and will be eligible for the postseason if they are in the organization before Sept. 1.
Buying or selling will be one tricky call for several teams, all the way to the final days of July. The hard deadline also could affect the prices for some of the top players on the market, possibilities like San Francisco pitchers Madison Bumgarner and Will Smith, Toronto right-hander Marcus Stroman and Detroit lefty Matthew Boyd.
“I know something could happen, but I don’t take a peek at what people are saying,” said Smith, who has 23 saves, tied for second in the NL. “There’s so much out there, and you don’t know what’s true.”
Cleveland could inject some drama into the AL Central as soon as this weekend, when Minnesota visits for a three-game series. The Indians hit the All-Star break with the majors’ longest active win streak at six in a row, improving to 21-6 since June 1 and moving within 5½ games of the division-leading Twins.
“In the beginning it seemed like we were good, then all of a sudden in May we had that stretch where we weren’t playing as good as we wanted to play,” Lindor said. “But right now, we continue to play the game right, and we’re enjoying it, we’re all having fun. We all get along, we love each other, we back each other up. We’re having a blast.”
Washington also is having some fun again, moving into position to shake up the NL East after a terrible start to the season . Led by Scherzer, the Nationals have won 15 of 19 to pull within six games of the division-leading Braves.
Washington plays Atlanta 14 times in the last half of the season, including seven games in July.
The Nats have seven players with at least 11 homers, led by Anthony Rendon with 20. But everyone is going deep these days.
Beginning with Thursday night’s Astros-Rangers game, the game’s top sluggers will resume their assault on an array of home run records. Yelich leads the way with 31 so far, putting together an appropriate encore to his NL MVP performance a year ago.
The majors are on pace for 6,668 homers, which would smash the record 6,105 hit in 2017, and the real heat of the summer, when the ball carries better, is only just beginning.