Welcome back to The Rotation! Here's a look at five topics shaping the week ahead in Major League Baseball.
1. O, what a feeling
Maybe you counted out the O's at the start of the season. Or at the Trade Deadline when they so clearly needed a stabilizing starter and came out with … Wade Miley. Certainly, you counted them out when Chris Tillman went down.
But look, Tillman hasn't pitched since Aug. 20, and in the time since the O's have gained a half-game of ground (they are now within two) in the American League East race. They also remain in Wild Card position. This hammers home the lesson that you can never really write off a Buck Showalter-managed club until it is mathematically eliminated.
The problem with this particular Showalter team is that it is substantially better at home (45-25) than on the road (31-38). So a 10-game stretch that began on Labor Day in Tampa Bay (a 7-3 Baltimore win), before moving on to Detroit and Boston, takes on monumental meaning.
Tillman, recovering from shoulder issues, is scheduled to start Sunday in Detroit, Kevin Gausman has had a huge second half (2.73 ERA in 10 starts) and Dylan Bundy, who has blown past his initial innings limitations, seemed to get a second wind against the Yankees over the weekend (although stumbled against the Rays on Wednesday when he gave up five runs in 3 2/3 innings pitched). Perhaps the Orioles' much-maligned rotation will finish with a flourish and ease the stress on an overworked 'pen that is operating without Darren O'Day.
"Gausman and Bundy have stepped up to solidify our rotation," general manager Dan Duquette wrote in an email, "and our bullpen, interior defense and home run power are big assets. Adam Jones is back [from a hamstring injury], and we're battling every day for the playoffs. Certainly, if Tillman returns in form later this week, it improves our club."
2. That ain't Wright
Elsewhere in the East, Red Sox and Blue Jays will meet at Rogers Centre this weekend in what is a clear Series of the Week. The two clubs enter Thursday separated by just a game.
Breakout knuckleball artist Steven Wright will take no part in the week's proceedings. The Red Sox lost him to a shoulder injury suffered when he dove back to the bag while pinch-running for David Ortiz in a game against the Dodgers on Aug. 7. The Red Sox were down to two position players (Hanley Ramirez and Sandy Leon) on the bench, and John Farrell opted to preserve them for pinch-hit opportunities.
Now, a month later, the guy with the unexpectedly awesome 137 ERA+ is still on the shelf, with increasing likelihood that he's done for the year.
Boston has reinserted Clay Buchholz into its rotation to account for Wright's absence. Buchholz, who posted a 2.86 ERA in nine August outings (including three starts), pitched well on Tuesday in San Diego, giving up just one run in 6 2/3 innings.
But of course, if Buchholz is in the rotation, he's unavailable in the 'pen, and the Red Sox have struggled to piece together consistent setup work ahead of Craig Kimbrel this season. With Trade Deadline acquisition Fernando Abad proving to be A-bust, this was a team that needed the September roster expansion in the worst way, and the Red Sox hope that the newly promoted Joe Kelly, who has thrived in relief work since a July transfer, and left-hander Robby Scott will help settle things.
3. Bonds renewal?
Going into August, the MLB.com projections were giving the Marlins a 42-percent shot at getting into the postseason. Two very key developments have happened since then: The Marlins have lost 12 one-run games and are clinging to less than a 5-percent hope of a National League Wild Card spot.
So, as thoughts begin to drift toward next season, one wonders if the Barry-Bonds-as-hitting-coach experiment has been successful enough to inspire a sequel.
Remember, Bonds arrived to Miami on a one-year contract, and nobody knew if his hitting talent would translate to teaching talent or if the daily demands of the job would even be attractive to him by year's end.
"I'm very happy I did it," Bonds said over the weekend. "It's been very gratifying. The guys are great, the team's good, personnel's been great, ownership has been great, the city has been wonderful."
Does that mean Bonds is up for more?
"It's up to them," he said. "I live in the here and now. Right now? Yes. If they give me the call, that could be another yes. If they choose not to call me, I have no control over that."
Young outfielders Marcell Ozuna and Christian Yellich took big steps forward this season, and the Marlins are scoring roughly a third of a run more per game than they did a year ago.
But how much of that is attributable to Bonds and how much credit goes to cage rat Frank Menechino, who serves as assistant hitting coach? Even Don Mattingly, in a recent interview with The Miami Herald, said Bonds is "a work in progress from a standpoint of the amount of time and the preparation."
For his part, Bonds admitted that his own career -- in which he never had an adjusted OPS worse than league average or worse than that of his rookie year (103) -- has limits in relatability. He never rode the roller coaster so many young players do.
"It's not tough on me, it's tough for them," he said. "They're going through it, I'm not. I can go to history class and tell them all the history lessons, but they have to do the work. They have to put it together. I can only give them a story."
4. Going deep
It was pointed out to the home-run king* that the 2016 season could see more homers than any other in the history of Major League Baseball.
*The title applies, but we'll go ahead and keep it lowercase due to the complications that accompany Bonds' clout.
"The home runs," Bonds said, "don't surprise me. The strikeouts surprise me. They're about ready to break that record, too, if they haven't already."
Actually, that record for K's was broken in 2015. Just like it was in 2014. And '13. And '12. And '11. And … well, let's just say that if the current rate holds, this will be the ninth straight year the single-season strikeout record will be broken.
"In my day," Bonds said, "you couldn't strike out as much as these guys do and still be in Major League Baseball."
True that. But in Bonds' day, they also didn't have the power 'pens of the modern game.
"People don't understand how good pitching is nowadays," Indians first baseman Mike Napoli said. "Back in the day, you had a couple guys throwing 95-plus. Now, pretty much every guy has it, and you've got starters throwing it for seven innings. It's tough, but it's just how the game is, and you have to accept it."
Teams have long accepted the strikeouts that come with power. But this is the first full season in which the trade terms have been so equitable. This year's rate of 1.16 per game is just the slightest tick below the all-time rate of 1.17 in 2000, the height of the steroid era in which Bonds flourished. The rate is a stark rise from 2015 (1.01), which itself represented a huge leap from 2014 (0.86).
"I think it's good for the game," Napoli said. "It felt like pitchers were dominant for a long time, and now it's evening out."
5. Big returns
Our long national nightmare is almost over: Clayton Kershaw returns to the Dodgers' rotation Friday in Miami. He'll be on a limited pitch count after throwing 35 pitches in a rehab outing Saturday, but still… it's Clayton Freaking Kershaw.
For the Giants, perhaps the nightmare is just beginning. They've already coughed up their NL West lead with an MLB-worst 17-33 record since the break, and now Kershaw is lined up to face them at least once and possibly twice before year's end.
San Francisco's offense is its chief issue, but a fundamental difference between the 2016 team and the eventual champions of even years past rests in a bullpen that has lost its signature stability. The Giants' winning percentage in one-run games this year (.521) is actually better than in '14 (.450), but none of the World Series teams had this many blown saves (23).
So while the Dodgers are counting on Kershaw to restore order to the top of their rotation, the Giants are hoping 41-year-old Joe Nathan can deliver in the late innings after a second Tommy John surgery and brief stint with the Cubs. Nathan's return to the Giants, who sent him to the Twins in a famously lopsided pre-2004 trade, is an interesting late-season storyline.
But like so many other storylines, it pales in comparison to Kershaw's long-awaited return.
[Edit note: This post has been updated since Monday to reflect changes in stats and standings.]
Anthony Castrovince is a Sports on Earth contributor, MLB.com columnist and MLB Network contributor. Follow him on Twitter @Castrovince.