MLB Weekday Watch List: The September stretch drive begins

Jon Lester (left) and Felix Hernandez are getting ready for a key encounter this week. (USATSI)
Jon Lester and Felix Hernandez are getting ready for a key encounter this week. (USATSI)

The final month of the 2014 regular season is upon us, and that means it's time to talk stretch drive baseball. As the playoff races reach peak intensity, let's have a look at the best the weekdays ahead -- i.e., Monday through Thursday -- have to offer ... 

Felix Hernandez vs. Jon Lester : On Wednesday in Oakland, we have a pitching matchup to savor. The King, AL Cy Young frontrunner and MVP candidate, is coming of an uncharacteristically rough outing against the Nats (7 IP, 10 H, 5 R, 1 K), and at this time of year you always wonder about fatigue at the front of a contending rotation. At present, Hernandez's Seattle Mariners are just a half game behind the Detroit Tigers for the second wild-card spot in the AL. Obviously, this three-game set in Oakland is vitally important.

Speaking of "vitally important," we have the intertwined interests of Lester and the A's. The Oakland Athletics are of course spiralling of late (losers of four straight, 12-17 mark in August), and it falls to Lester to be the stopper. Since arriving in Oakland at the deadline, Lester hasn't missed a step (2.52 ERA and 4.66 K/BB for the Red Sox this season; 2.66 ERA and 4.63 K/BB since the trade to the A's).

Of note: The A's are now closer to the M's in the AL West standings than they are to the first-place Los Angeles Angels . Like we said, "vitally important."  

Washington Nationals at Los Angeles Dodgers (three games): Potential NLCS preview! The teams with the two best records in the NL get together at Chavez Ravine. Here's who will be on the mound ... 

Monday: Gio Gonzalez vs. Roberto Hernandez
Tuesday: Doug Fister vs. Clayton Kershaw
Wednesday: Jordan Zimmermann vs. Carlos Frias  

Obviously, consider Tuesday's Fister-Kershaw encounter to be appointment viewing. Otherwise, the Nats, when it comes to pitching draws, luck out about as much as you can while still having to face Kershaw. There are seeding implications in this series, but in terms of divisional races this one means more to the Dodgers, who at this writing are just 2½ games up on the Giants in the NL West. The Nats, meanwhile, hold a six-game lead over the Braves in the NL East.

Pittsburgh Pirates at St. Louis Cardinals (three games): As September begins, the Cardinals are tied with the Brewers atop the NL Central, and the Pirates are just two games back in the division (and in the wild-card fray). Needless to say, this an important series. Here's how the pitching matchups are scheduled to go ...

Monday: Gerrit Cole vs. Lance Lynn
Tuesday: Jeff Locke vs. Adam Wainwright
Wednesday: Edinson Volquez vs. Shelby Miller

Besides the obvious postseason implications of this series, the Cardinals will be (somewhat desperately) hoping that their ace Wainwright can return to form. He narrowly recorded a quality start last time out (against the Pirates, coincidentally), but he's coming off an August in which he logged a 5.17 ERA and a 2.55 K/BB ratio. Said struggles are at least partially attributable to a recent "dead arm" period. Maybe Wainwright's coming out of it.

This is the last time these two division rivals will meet in the 2014 regular season.  

David Price vs. Corey Kluber : Monday gets us started in fine fashion with this clash of aces. Price, of course, was the star of the non-waiver trade deadline and is essential to Detroit's hopes in the AL Central (that's especially the case given the struggles of Justin Verlander and the uncertain status of Anibal Sanchez ). Of note: He's coming off one of the worst starts of his career (eight runs on 12 hits in 2-plus innings of work against the Yankees on Aug. 27). Obviously, Price and the Tigers will be looking for more vintage results this time out.

On the other side, there's the woefully underappreciated Kluber. You don't hear his name bandied about as much as other contenders, but the 28-year-old right-hander is a certifiable Cy Young candidate this season. In 192 2/3 innings this season, he has pitched to a 2.52 ERA, and he has struck out 27.3 percent of opposing batters while walking just 5.7 percent of same. That's dominance.

Let's also keep in mind that the surging Cleveland Indians , who went 18-9 in August, are now just 3½ games back of the lead in the AL Central and just three games behind the Tigers for the second AL wild-card spot. So this four-game set at Progressive Field is about more than "just" a matchup of aces in the opener.

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