MLB series to watch: Twins-Yankees, Brewers-Cubs clashes loom large as races stay hot

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The final two weeks of September figured to be crucial for teams like the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs in their attempts to solidify division leads. The Minnesota Twins and Milwaukee Brewers, on the other hand, seemed more likely to be taking a look at their prospects at this time of year.

The standings tell a different story. The Twins are stubbornly holding on to a wild-card spot in the American League, while the Brewers refuse to go away despite losing top starter Jimmy Nelson to a shoulder injury.

Both clubs play fellow contenders this week. Here’s a look at those series and two others that may have the most impact on the playoff races:

Twins at New York Yankees: These teams have barely seen each other all season, meeting only three times before Monday’s opener of a three-game set. All the games will be televised nationally, and Monday’s holds special interest because Yankees starter Jaime Garcia was a Twin for all of one start in July – a winning effort – before they shipped him to New York in a move that appeared to indicate Minnesota was not serious about contending.

Yet here the Twins are, facing a difficult path to the playoffs with only three home games in the final 13, but very much in the middle of the action. Minnesota hopes to get third baseman Miguel Sano back from a stress reaction in his left shin by the end of its 10-game trip, but it won’t be in time to face the Yankees.

New York hasn’t given up on catching the Red Sox in the AL East, but at the very least the club is positioned to host the wild-card game, as it holds a four-game edge over Minnesota. With shortstop Didi Gregorius on fire at the plate and Aaron Judge hitting tape-measure homers again, the Yankees have won seven of their last nine to keep the heat on Boston. CC Sabathia and Masahiro Tanaka will follow Garcia on the rotation.

Cubs at Brewers: After a two-game visit to Tampa Bay, where Cubs manager Joe Maddon spent nine seasons at the helm of the Rays, the Cubs face their two closest NL Central pursuers for eight games, all on the road. The challenging stretch begins Thursday with the first of four games at Milwaukee’s Miller Park before Chicago concludes the trip in St. Louis.

The Cubs were outscored 20-3 while getting swept in a three-game series the last time these teams met 10 days ago, but bounced back to rip off six consecutive wins, extending the streak with Sunday’s 4-3 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals. Jake Arrieta, who has been out since straining his right hamstring Sept. 4, could return to face the Brewers.

Nelson’s absence and Matt Garza’s ineffectiveness have forced the Brewers into scramble mode. On Friday, Jeremy Jeffress started for the first time in his career after 263 relief appearances as part of Milwaukee’s attempt to fill some rotation spots with “bullpen games.’’

“The season is not a long-term season right now. It’s a two-week season,’’ said manager Craig Counsell, whose club is three games back in the wild card and four in the division. “Guys are going to have to do a little more over the next two weeks, and that’s how we’re going to treat it.’’

Cleveland Indians at Los Angeles Angels: The Indians were so torn up over the end of their 22-game winning streak Friday, they took the next two games against the Kansas City Royals – so they’re on a 24-1 run – and claimed their second AL Central crown in a row.

So there’s little for them to worry about the rest of the way other than making a push for the best record in the league and home-field advantage throughout the AL playoffs – they’re neck-and-neck with the Houston Astros – and setting their postseason rotation.

For the Angels, though, the next two weeks represent a chance to send Mike Trout to the playoffs for just the second time in his decorated seven-year career. Trout is trying to mount a case for a repeat MVP award despite missing 39 games with a thumb injury. His 1.090 on-base plus slugging percentage would lead the league if he had enough plate appearances to qualify.

Trout is getting some help from August acquisition Justin Upton, who homered twice Saturday.

Angels at Astros: Like the Indians, Houston took care of business at home over the weekend, clinching its first division title as a member of the AL West, which it joined in 2013. The Astros’ first-round opponent in October could be the Angels, adding intrigue to their weekend matchup. Houston has already won the season series 10-6.

The Angels, who trail the Twins by two games for the second wild card, have gotten a recent boost from their rotation, with Tyler Skaggs, Parker Bridwell and Garrett Richards delivering strong performances in their last outings. Richards and Skaggs are scheduled to start at Minute Maid Park.

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