Welcome back to The Rotation! Here's a starting five of topics worth bantering about in Major League Baseball this week.
1. Cardinals rule
The St. Louis Cardinals will play the Pittsburgh Pirates on Sunday in Williamsport, Pa., in the MLB Little League Classic, and for a while it seemed that scheduled special just up the road from Lamade Stadium, where the Little League World Series is held, would be as close as the Cards would come to any World Series in 2017.
But that was before an eight-game winning streak and the "Rally Cat" clout contained therein. When a city that already has so much good mojo in its baseball background gets a boost from a friendly feline (one who will be the toast of Rally Cat Appreciation Day on Sept. 10 at Busch Stadium), it makes you wonder if some higher power is at play and if, perhaps, we are collectively wasting our time wondering how this 2017 season plays out.
Ah, but first things first: The Cards have a division to win. Stunningly, they are in prime position to win it, entering the week just a game behind the Cubs after losing to the Atlanta Braves on Sunday, 6-3.
Maybe this rise isn't quite as dramatic as what we witnessed in 2011, when the Cards were 10 1/2 games back of the (then-solo) NL Wild Card after play concluded on Aug. 24, but rose up to win that and then win it all. But it's still a surge that looked unlikely as recently as a week ago, simply because the Cards had spent the better part of the season's first four months looking lost. Aledmys Diaz, Stephen Piscotty and Randal Grichuk had all been demoted, Adam Wainwright had an unsightly ERA and Matt Carpenter an unflattering average, Dexter Fowler was either hurt or not hitting and Yadi Molina was lashing out at Mike Matheny on Instagram.
But as the Cubs struggle to pull away from the pack, none of the above has been a deal-breaker for the Cards, who have gotten great starting pitching all year (John Mozeliak's decision not to take advantage of Lance Lynn's trade value is looking strong) and whose middle of the order surprisingly gained esteem from Tommy Pham (134 OPS+), Paul DeJong (125) and Jose Martinez (123).
Baseball can always surprise, so the Cards' current placement isn't some eye-opening outlier. It's merely a quirky, cat-aided reminder that the game will always find way to disobey your assumptions and projections -- especially when you assume something as crazy as the Cards missing the playoffs in consecutive years.
2. August madness
It seems silly to even bother analyzing the AL Wild Card race at this point. It looks pretty certain to come down to the final days of the season, and the fact that there are 12(!) AL teams within 3 1/2 games of a playoff spot right now means that, even in the third week of August, it's darn near impossible to tell what's real and what's not.
But for now, let's just give big ups to the Twins and Angels for being the hottest clubs in this competition.
You might remember that the Twins acquired Jaime Garcia just before the Trade Deadline … then traded him away. They also dealt away their best reliever, Brandon Kintzler. Twins players weren't happy with the late-July punts, and lately they've been playing with an edge. Led by a homer binge from Brian Dozier, Eddie Rosario and Max Kepler (those three have combined for 15 homers in the last 10 days), they've averaged 6.8 runs over their last 10 games, and on Sunday they equaled their 2016 total with their 59th win.
The Twins will get tested this week against the AL Central-leading Indians and the NL Wild Card-holding D-backs.
You might know the Angels as the team supposedly wasting Mike Trout. But the Halos hung tough when Trout was out, playing a game below .500 in his absence. And with Trout posting a very Trout-like .347/.480/.602 slash since his return from the DL, they've risen to relevance. The Angels have won 12 of their last 16, averaging 5.8 runs along the way. They are three games over .500 for the first time since April 12, and they're getting healthier in their rotation, with Tyler Skaggs back from Tommy John, Andrew Heaney nearing his return from TJ and Garrett Richards tossing bullpen sessions in his bid to return from a biceps strain.
This week, a trip to the Beltways awaits the Angels, as they'll take on the Nationals and Orioles.
Anyway, give it a few days, and we'll have some other flavor of the moment to address in the AL. It's wild out there.
3. Back to bases
Bryce Harper slipped on the first-base bag Saturday night, and his left knee buckled. The Nationals announced Sunday that Harper has a significant bone bruise but not, thankfully, a torn ligament, which means they don't expect the injury to affect his late-season/October availability.
Harper was on track to figure prominently in the Esurance MLB Awards for Best Major Leaguer and Best Hitter and, of course, the BBWAA National League MVP honor, which he won in 2015. Harper, who is in his age-24 season, is/was in position to possibly join this brief, elite list of players to win the MVP twice before their age-25 year:
Jimmie Foxx (1932, '33) Stan Musial (1943, '46) Mickey Mantle (1956, '57) Johnny Bench (1970, '72) Mike Trout (2014, '16)
The Nats have not announced a specific timetable for Harper's return, but the NL MVP Award race is heated enough that any absence affects a candidacy. This could be the year Paul Goldschmidt's overall awesomeness rightly gets recognized (he entered the week just behind Harper in homers, doubles and OPS but a full win ahead of him in Baseball Reference's Wins Above Replacement count). If Harper is indeed out a while, that could also amplify the position of his teammate Anthony Rendon (.963 OPS, 4.9 WAR).
If Derek Jeter's group does complete the purchase of the Miami Marlins, one of the biggest decisions ahead would be what to do with the player with the largest contract in American professional sports.
Giancarlo Stanton still has 10 full years and $295 million remaining on that contract after this year, unless he opts out after 2020. It's an absolutely staggering sum for a player who has struggled to stay on the field and live up to his potential in his big league career.
But Stanton's recent hot stretch in what has been a healthy and productive 2017 reinforce the allure that earned him that gargantuan contract in the first place.
Stanton hit his 42nd homer of the season, and the 250th of his career, on Sunday. Because Cody Bellinger was late to the 2017 party and Aaron Judge has slumped, Stanton looks pretty likely to run away with the home run title. He's also on pace to have his highest on-base percentage outside of 2014, when he finished second in the NL MVP race.
So Stanton appears to be at the peak of his powers, which could conceivably extend an opportunity for the Marlins to unload his contract this offseason (the Phillies have often been cited as a club capable of absorbing such a sum) before it becomes particularly punitive on the Fish's future payrolls (his salary leaps from $14.5 million to $25 million next year).
Having said that, a Jeter-led ownership team might feel leery about what such a move would signal to a fan base it is trying to win over. Stanton is the Marlins' signature star -- and lately he's been playing like it.
5. Glad for Chad
There is no better story in baseball this week than Chad Bettis' return to the Rockies' rotation on Monday against the Braves.
Bettis was diagnosed with testicular cancer in late November and underwent surgery. Just when it appeared he was cancer-free and ready to impact the Rox in 2017, he had a recurrence of the disease in Spring Training, just before the birth of his daughter. After months of chemo and a handful of rehab assignments, the senior member of the Rox rotation takes the ball in what is sure to be an emotional scene at Coors Field, and his return comes at a time when Colorado is embroiled in an increasingly interesting NL Wild Card race.
Every player in the big leagues has beaten the odds to get to this level. But for some, the odds grow even longer when the unexpected intervenes. Here's wishing Bettis a rousing return and, more importantly, a long and healthy life.
Anthony Castrovince is a Sports on Earth contributor, MLB.com columnist and MLB Network contributor. Follow him on Twitter @Castrovince.