Welcome back to The Rotation! Here's a look at five topics shaping the week ahead in Major League Baseball.
1. How the Cookie crumbles
If there was some thought that the sporting gods who long used the city of Cleveland as their chief source of smite had suddenly reversed course with the Cavaliers' mesmerizing climb out of a 3-1 hole against the Warriors in the NBA Finals, well, let's just say that is being tested here in the home stretch of the MLB season.
Carlos "Cookie" Carrasco is done for the year with a broken hand, Danny Salazar is iffy, at best, for October with a flexor strain and a Tribe rotation that once profiled as the best in the American League -- and a legitimate October weapon -- is a shell of its former self as the Indians try to wrap up the division title this week.
But those feeling particularly pessimistic about the Indians' chances are not just earning the ire of the team (as one longtime Tribe scribe learned in this Twitter tussle…), but they are, perhaps, selling October history short. It is but a one-month sample that can bring about the unexpected. That's why guys like Al Weis and Brian Doyle and Francisco Cabrera and Aaron Boone and Cody Ross are legends in their own weird way. Sometimes, in the October environment, X feels like an important factor, only for Y to emerge as the decisive one.
The Indians can't possibly be feeling good about their rotation alignment, with Cy Young candidate Corey Kluber followed by wild card Trevor Bauer (who was really wild Sunday), homer-prone Josh Tomlin and long-haired rookie Mike Clevinger. But, then again, who's to say Clevinger doesn't go all '97 Jaret Wright on us? Or that the Tribe's bullpen, which has been among the most dependable in the game since the acquisition of Andrew Miller, can't cover them with the help of October's added off days? Or that Mike Napoli, who to the best of our knowledge became the first human to hit a ground-rule double that bounced over the 19-foot wall in left at Progressive Field over the weekend, doesn't go on a Daniel Murphy-like homer binge?
"I think our guys feel like, as a team collectively, we can figure some things out that maybe people don't think we can," said Terry Francona.
For now, all that matters is that the Indians are about to nail down a division title that would have been impossible to predict had you known Michael Brantley would play just 11 ineffective games, that Yan Gomes would hit .198 and play only 71 games and that the great-on-paper rotation would endure these injury issues.
"Losing Cookie sucks," Napoli said. "But it ain't over yet. We'll find a way."
2. Tiger troubles
The Indians' march to the top of the Central has come largely at the expense of the Tigers team they've beaten in 12 of 14 meetings -- including, amazingly, the extra-inning affair over the weekend in which the Tribe bullpen had to cover all 30 outs after Carrasco suffered his injury on the second pitch of the night.
In other words, the Indians had the Tigers' number, and that has decided the division, much like an AL West race in which the Rangers took 15 of 19 vs. the Astros to claim their second consecutive crown.
"I can't really explain it this year," Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said. "Even if they were set up well to play against us, you wouldn't figure it would be like this."
The trouble for Detroit is that even a Wild Card spot is now an iffy proposition. A short time ago, it seemed the Tigers would benefit from the cannibalization taking place in the AL East, but Detroit dropped two of three to the Orioles in a hugely important home series, then dropped two of four to the Twins before losing the weekend series in Cleveland. The Tigers' offense has had a roughshod September, and the hope of a late boost in both the starting rotation and lineup via the returns of Jordan Zimmermann and Nick Castellanos has instead seen Zimmermann struggle so much with his mechanics that he's throwing side sessions and Castellanos suffer a setback in his recovery from a broken hand.
Now, the Tigers head to Minnesota with a two-game deficit in the AL Wild Card standings. They also have four more games remaining against their Central nemesis next week.
"Unless everyone else in the Wild Card race starts losing all their games," said Ausmus, "we're going to have to beat the Indians."
3. Giant week
Do we have a legitimate race in the NL West? Well, we're about to find out.
The Giants visit the Dodgers for three at Chavez Ravine this week, beginning with Monday's Madison Bumgarner-Clayton Kershaw matchup. While the Giants have won five of the previous nine meetings featuring those two pitching titans, it's pretty clear the onus is on a San Francisco club that has dropped five of its last seven and is barely clinging to an NL Wild Card spot. They got swept by the Padres last week, which is not exactly a positive in a playoff push.
If the Giants blow a division in which they once had an eight-game lead and blow a Wild Card opportunity, it would, frustratingly, fall in line with a theme of their season. We've mentioned this in this space before, but San Francisco's bullpen is a fundamental reason why this has been such an odd even year. Santiago Casilla coughed it up to the Cardinals on Saturday, giving the Giants their franchise-record-tying 28th blown save this season, the second-most in the Majors.
It should go without saying that they're going to need better 'pen performance this week. But some runs would help, too. The only offense more anemic than the Giants' in MLB in this final month, in terms of OPS, has been that of the aforementioned Padres.
Obviously, facing Kershaw, on the heels of what was a vintage (albeit pitch-count-restricted) performance in the Bronx last week, is not ideal. But Rich Hill, their Tuesday opponent, finally looked vulnerable against the D-backs his last time out, and Kenta Maeda, who will start Wednesday's series finale opposite Matt Moore, is pitching on regular rest for just the fourth time this season (and is 1-2 in the previous three). If these sound like small silver linings, it's because they are, but the Giants need all the help they can get at this moment if they're going to keep L.A. honest.
4. Give him a Han
Among the monster second halves to this season -- Brian Dozier's power explosion, Joey Votto's on-base awesomeness and Gary Sanchez's rousing run at Rookie of the Year -- the guy who has arguably had the biggest impact on the races is none other than Hanley Ramirez.
That's the same Hanley who profiled as an $88 million bust last season. The same Hanley who, despite improved work ethic and whatnot, had a pretty pedestrian season going until mid-to-late June.
But like Apple released a new iOS with bug fixes, Ramirez made a tweak to his stance and swing, holding his hands higher, and the result is that he's been elevating the ball. With two more home runs in Boston's 5-4 win on Sunday night to secure a series sweep over the Yankees, Hanley has nine homers and a 1.276 OPS in September.
This is what makes the Red Sox such a dangerous October team, should they nail down this edge in the East. Their lineup runs devastatingly deep, and David Ortiz, Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr., Andrew Benintendi and Dustin Pedroia have all taken their turns as the Hot Hitter Du Jour (or month or week). But Hanley's tear has been particularly timely. The Red Sox entered the month with a 36.7-percent shot at the division title, per our MLB.com projections. They're now north of 80, and they've got a hot-hitting Hanley to thank.
5. Turn, Turn, Turn
Speaking of sizzling second halves ...
If your name isn't Corey Seager, this was a bad year to be a good NL rookie. Seager has run away with the league's Rookie of the Year honor, even putting himself on the fringes of the NL MVP conversation. And that means a guy like the Nationals' Trea Turner, who was promoted for good around the All-Star break, has no shot at the honor.
What Turner does have is a shot at the World Series, because he's added needed speed and reliability to the top of Dusty Baker's lineup. In the second half, Turner has a .963 OPS. He's tied for the Major League lead in hits (88), he's first in triples (seven), he's second in steals (27), he's third in runs created (55) and he's second in total bases (147) over that time.
Oh, and he's done all of this while making the move from shortstop to center field.
Interesting to note that the Nats, who famously have not advanced out of the first round in two previous October tries, got just a .175/.250/.275 slash from their leadoff men in the 2012 and '14 Division Series. Perhaps Turner the Burner can change that.
Anthony Castrovince is a Sports on Earth contributor, MLB.com columnist and MLB Network contributor. Follow him on Twitter @Castrovince.