Welcome back to The Rotation! Here's a starting five of topics worth bantering about in Major League Baseball this week.
1. Rocky finish?
On the morning after MLB's July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline, there were seven teams within 5 1/2 games of the AL's second Wild Card spot and only one team exactly 5 1/2 games back of the Rockies in the race for the NL's second Wild Card. So, naturally, as we enter the final week of the regular season, the strength of the respective league races has totally been flipped on its head.
Because that's baseball.
The Twins, who were 4 1/2 games back of the Royals in the Wild Card hunt on Aug. 1, have -- both because of their continued (and unexpected) fortitude and the substandard play of their Wild Card rivals -- whittled their magic number down to three. Barring an epic collapse, it's going to be Twins at Yankees in the AL Wild Card Game on Oct. 3, and anybody who cites the Yankees' 89-33 record (including the postseason) against the Twins going back to 2002 as somehow meaningful in the result of that game ought to keep that above reminder about baseball's unpredictability in mind.
As for the NL, the Rockies have been in some sort of playoff position literally every day of this 2017 season. Now things have gotten tight. Their offense has scored just eight runs in their seven losses in an 11-game stretch, including four shutouts. But Sunday's 8-4 win over the Padres was huge for them, and they're home all week, which helps.
Colorado holds a two-game lead on the Brewers and a 2 1/2-game lead on the Cardinals. Here's what's ahead for these three clubs:
Rockies: vs. Marlins on Monday through Wednesday; vs. Dodgers on Friday through Sunday
Brewers: vs. Reds on Tuesday through Thursday; at Cardinals on Friday through Sunday
Cardinals: vs. Cubs on Monday through Thursday; vs. Brewers on Friday through Sunday
Just in case, MLB.com recently laid out tiebreaker scenarios here.
2. Price points
In this space last week we touched on the possibility of David Price as an October X-factor for the Red Sox in his new bullpen role. Weight was added to that conversation when Price pitched another 2 2/3 scoreless innings of long relief in a 5-4 win in Cincinnati on Friday.
That night, an early hook of Rick Porcello in favor of putting Price in against a lefty-heavy lineup served as a potential preview of Price's postseason usage. He's a big weapon for John Farrell to turn lineups over while getting length, which is all the rage among contending clubs. Last year, postseason starters averaged just five innings, meaning bullpens had more prominence than ever before. Price has the potential to give the Red Sox a variation of what the Indians have in Andrew Miller (five appearances of two or more innings), what the Astros have in Chris Devenski (15), what the Yankees have in Chad Green (16), what the Cubs have in Mike Montgomery (16), what the Rockies have in Chris Rusin (17) and what the D-backs had in Archie Bradley (8 such appearances, though he's since evolved into a more traditional setup role).
But the problem with pegging Price to such a role if the iffy elbow that landed him in the 'pen in the first place. He made Friday's appearance on the traditional (for starters) four days' rest. Even with October's expanded off days, it remains to be seen how much Price can handle physically.
"We have to find out recovery time, how durable he's going to be, how often we can use him," pitching coach Carl Willis said. "It could evolve to [back-to-backs], but it's nothing we can commit to just yet."
3. Judge-ment call
Aaron Judge was the clear American League MVP Award favorite at the season's midway mark. Then, within a few weeks of the All-Star break, as the rookie regression set in, it was 5-foot-6 Jose Altuve seemingly standing tall. (Speaking of awards, don't forget to make your selections for the 2017 Esurance MLB Awards. Every vote counts!)
As tends to be the case with these types of things, great cases have been made by and for other candidates -- primarily, the Indians' Jose Ramirez (who might ultimately be hurt and not helped by the Tribe's second-half surge, if only because it has demonstrated the club's overall depth) and, of course, perennial MVP candidate Mike Trout (whose candidacy is affected by injury absence and his own pedestrian September during the Angels' recent slide out of the playoff picture).
Still, this one still likely comes down to Altuve and Judge. And the narrative that Judge had let the race slip away from him has been upended by his awesome dash to the finish line (he went 8-for-21 with six extra-base hits last week and has continued to scorch the ball).
Judge homered twice more on Monday, surpassing Mark McGwire's rookie record (49, in 1987) and led the Majors in weighted runs created plus (166) entering play this week. He is absolutely worthy of the award -- something that has been won by a rookie just twice in MVP Award history (Fred Lynn in 1975 and Ichiro Suzuki in 2001).
Of course, Altuve's very deserving, as well. He's been the most consistent (and consistently healthy) member of that awesome Astros squad. To the extent storylines matter, Altuve perpetuated the perception that the Astros were ready to rock in 2017, whereas Judge completely changed the conversation about a Yankees club that was seemingly in transition.
It's a tough call, but one beautiful thing about baseball is that two players with such drastically different sizes and skillsets can be great enough to spark such a debate. And it's a lot of fun watching Judge make a late push toward prominence.
4. Start me up
In the midst of the Rockies' playoff pursuit, leadoff man Charlie Blackmon is chasing a bit of history more obscure than what Judge is after but still interesting. Blackmon's just five RBIs shy of tying Darin Erstad's 2000 record for the most single-season RBIs out of the leadoff spot (100).
But this is a situation that extends beyond Blackmon, because MLB, as a whole, is on pace to set a new record for fewest at-bats per RBI (9.6, entering the week) from that spot in the order.
"I don't think [the role of the leadoff hitter] has changed," Blackmon said. "I just think the people hitting in that spot have changed. I think there's fewer [traditional] leadoff hitters in the game, and that's leading other players to have to hit there."
Four teams -- the Rockies, Astros, Indians and Twins (contenders all) -- entered the week with north of 90 RBIs from their leadoff men.
"I think putting a dangerous hitter at the top is starting to become more appealing than a table-setter," said Astros manager A.J. Hinch, who bats George Springer in his leadoff spot. "You're only a leadoff hitter the first at-bat of the game. [With a] runner on first, runner on first and third, second and third, bases loaded, it sure is nice to have a middle-of-the-order bat come up, even though it's No. 1 on the lineup card. He's only leading off once guaranteed."
5. The Big 60
Giancarlo Stanton's future with the Fish will be decided in due time -- likely by the Derek Jeter-Bruce Sherman ownership group, assuming the deal goes down as planned. But the only Stanton Watch that matters this week is the Search for 60. Stanton enters the final week three shy of a mark reached just eight times by just five men in Major League history, most recently by Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa in 2001.
Even in home run-laden times such as these, 60 would be something to be celebrated because, even in home run-laden times such as these, nobody is doing what Stanton is doing. He is the mashiest masher among mashers, a man who has finally lived up to the billing of a body built to bash. Stanton even has three games at Coors Field to work with. Let's do this, dude!
Anthony Castrovince is a Sports on Earth contributor, MLB.com columnist and MLB Network contributor. Follow him on Twitter @Castrovince.