Welcome back to The Rotation! Here's a starting five of topics worth bantering about in Major League Baseball this week.
1. Here come the Cubbies
When Addison Russell was sent to the plate as an eighth-inning pinch-hitter in his first appearance for the Cubs in 40 games on Saturday against the Cardinals, the Wrigley Field crowd gave him a stirring salute and then serenaded him all the more when he smacked a ball onto Waveland Avenue.
It was a moment that sent a timely reminder: Remember a year ago when we all simply assumed the Cubs would be in the World Series because of their dizzying depth? Well, they're still pretty darn deep. And just because they've had a harder slog through the NL Central title than expected doesn't mean that depth won't serve them well come another October.
The Cubs put a serious dent in the Cards' postseason hopes by sweeping them at Wrigley over the weekend, and they've got a big four-game series looming against the second-place Brewers (four games back), beginning Thursday. But in outscoring their opponents 55-20 in the midst of a six-game winning streak, the Cubs have put themselves on the precipice of the division title prescribed for them.
Joe Maddon, who will make his return to Tampa on Tuesday in a brief Interleague series that precedes the date with Milwaukee, has that too-many-guys-for-not-enough-spots thing going on right now. The return of Russell from plantar fasciitis, the emergence of the versatile Ian Happ and the improvement of Albert Almora Jr. complicates the lineup construction but gives the Cubs a good chance of building off their recent run production.
"The guys are definitely totally engaged right now," Maddon told reporters.
The Cubs have so far risen to the late-season challenge presented by the Cards and Brew Crew, and they could have Jake Arrieta soon. Don't be forget: They're deep enough to go deep again.
2. Wild Card preview?
The Twins, who take a two-game edge into a big series against the Yankees in New York, are looking to become the first team in 143 tries to lose 100 games one year and reach the postseason the next. Obviously, the vast majority of those teams didn't have the second Wild Card spot (or even a first Wild Card spot) available to them, but that would still be a pretty impressive accomplishment for a club some counted out when the front office punted at the Trade Deadline.
While the Angels advancement would be less historically significant (they are two games behind Minnesota), it would get Mike Trout to October, which is significant in and of itself. The irony is that Trout himself is hitting an un-Trout-like .229 this month.
This Wild Card race could double as a race for Manager of the Year, an award always tied to storylines as much as standings. The AL's three likely division winners were all favorites going into the season. But the Yankees seemed to be entering a bridge year and their all-but-certain October entry reflects well on Joe Girardi. Meanwhile, Paul Molitor and Mike Scioscia have guided clubs that both exceeded expectations.
3. O-'pen to change
David Price looked good in a relief role at Tropicana Field on Sunday, and, no, you have not suddenly been transported to an article written in 2008. The Red Sox activated Price off the DL last week and announced that he'll pitch out of the bullpen for the rest of the season, and Price delivered two perfect innings in Tampa Bay.
"That was even more than personally anticipated," manager John Farrell said of Price's outing. "From the power to the touch and feel, I'm amazed that someone who hasn't pitched in a game in nearly [eight] weeks can come out with that kind of command and throw three, four pitches for strikes."
Obviously, the Sox didn't give Price a $217 million contract with the intent of temporarily making him a reliever in Year 2. But a strong bullpen stint would make the best of the bad situation presented in 2017 by his iffy elbow.
Andrew Miller's impact on the Indians last year seemed to be the "A-ha!" moment for what has been brewing in baseball a long while -- the increasing necessity of having a high-leverage reliever capable of delivering multiple innings. Not that Price is about to go all Andrew Miller on us, but at the very least he profiles as the reliable left-on-left option Boston has lacked in the back end this year (lefties are just 11-for-56 with one extra-base hit off Price this season).
In these last two weeks of the regular season, with the Red Sox fending off the Yanks in the AL East race, it will be interesting to see how Farrell utilizes Price in the relief role Price thrived in -- against the Red Sox -- when the Rays advanced to the World Series nine years ago.
4. "Look at me, I can be ... "
Now that The Streak is over and the AL Central is clinched, you might think the Indians could simply coast to the finish line with everything aligned exactly the way they want it. But this club still has a serious personnel issue to address in the wake of the broken hand that has yanked speed-and-defense weapon Bradley Zimmer from the October equation in center field, and the Indians are hoping the answer presents itself over the next two weeks in the form of Jason Kipnis.
Kipnis is the Tribe's two-time All-Star second basemen who has been a non-factor (78 OPS+) in an injury riddled 2017. His absence allowed for MVP candidate Jose Ramirez to shift to second, and youngsters Yandy Diaz and Giovanny Urshela have held their own at the hot corner. Between the improved glovework in the infield and the sudden need in center (to say nothing of the bumps and bruises currently affecting Lonnie Chisenhall and Brandon Guyer and the increasing doubt that Michael Brantley will be back again after his August ankle injury), it suddenly made sense to ask Kipnis to play the position he hadn't played since his days at Arizona State, aside from a handful of games in rookie ball.
Though up to the challenge, Kipnis didn't have a ball hit his way in his five-inning center-field debut Sunday. But the Indians will keep giving him opportunity out there in Anaheim and Seattle this week.
"I've seen him a bunch of times take fly balls in the outfield and he's really comfortable," team president Chris Antonetti said. "And you see it when he goes back for balls on popups toward the line. He's super comfortable."
5. Harping on Harper
Another club that's clinched is trying to shore up a healthy superstar for the stretch run. Bryce Harper, who has been out a little over a month after suffering a bone bruise on his left knee on an awkward land on a wet first-base bag, took BP on the field for the first time since the injury Sunday.
"I felt a little off, still," he told reporters. "Not my knee, per se, but more just myself."
That's understandable. However, time is running out to get meaningful big league at-bats before October is here. Harper admitted that facing, say, Jon Lester in Game 1 of the Division Series for his first at-bat in six weeks, is a less-than-ideal scenario, but, for all we know at this point, that might be a best-case scenario.
Harper aside, the Nats have gotten healthier in the stretch run. And sometimes the impact of one player can be drastically overstated in this game. Still, it's emotionally hard not to feel the Nats' fate is intrinsically tied to Harper's timetable and timing, as evidenced by these team production trends:
Pre-Harper injury: .811 OPS, 5.44 runs per game
Post-Harper injury: .684 OPS, 4.03 runs per game
Anthony Castrovince is a Sports on Earth contributor, MLB.com columnist and MLB Network contributor. Follow him on Twitter @Castrovince.