Sunday Slate: Halladay vs Lester, Yankees Old-Timer's Day, Young Guns in Cincy

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Quick peek at the best pitching match-ups on Sunday:

Red Sox at Blue Jays: Could it be Roy Halladay’s
final start as a Blue Jay? Guessing that if he gets traded, it’ll be
closer to the deadline, so probably not. He’s struggled (all relative)
lately, going 0-2 with a 4.50 since a DL stint, and had a rough time in
the All-Star Game. It’s his first start against Boston this year, after
dominating them in 2008 (2.56 in 5 starts). Meanwhile, Jon Lester
has found it in a big way, rocking a silly 1.48 ERA in his last 8
outings, including 69 Ks in 54 2/3 innings. He’s also 2-0 against the
Jays this year, giving up a total of 2 runs.

Brewers at Reds: The Battle of Red Hot But Now Struggling Youngsters. Both Yovani Gallardo and Johnny Cueto
were dealing for the first 3 months of the year before opponents
started soiling their All-Star credentials in July. Gallardo has given
up 9 runs in his last 10 innings. Cueto didn’t make it out of the 1st
inning against the Phillies (very embarrassing), and then got lit up by
the Mets (even more embarassing). Interesting albeit useless fact: they
were born 12 days apart in February, 1986.

Giants at Pirates: Zach Duke and Matt Cain
are linked because the former took the latter’s place on the All-Star
roster because of an injury. Duke faces a terrorizing G-Men lineup that
has scored 1 run in 23 innings this series. To be fair, the Pirates
have only scored 4. If Cain doesn’t come through today, you can bank on
Chris “Mad Dog” Russo’s Monday radio show to be even more animated than his rant from a couple weeks ago when he “fired” his whole staff. Go Buccos.

Tigers at Yankees: Sure, the two starters are intriguing (Edwin Jackson vs Joba “5 and a third” Chamberlain). But I gotta think everyone headed to the Stadium today for Old-Timer’s Day is just itching to see Pat Kelly put on the pinstripes again. I guess Alvaro Espinoza wasn’t available?

Angels at A’s: Be sure to tune in as John Lackey helps out his ERA in healthy doses against the woeful Oakland offense. At least the A’s have Brett Anderson on the hill, who is only 138 outs shy of Orel Hershiser’s consecutive scoreless innings record.

You can follow me on Twitter at mattcasey9.

Video: Nelson Cruz hits second-longest home run of 2016

ANAHEIM, CA - SEPTEMBER 14:  Nelson Cruz #23 of the Seattle Mariners celebrates his solo homerun with Daniel Vogelbach #20 of the Seattle Mariners to take a 2-1 lead over the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim during the seventh inning at Angel Stadium of Anaheim on September 14, 2016 in Anaheim, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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There’s certainly never a bad time to hit a home run, but when you get the opportunity to crush a triple-deck, 493-foot shot off of Tyler Duffey, you should take it. With the Mariners down 2-0 to the Twins in the fourth inning, Cruz hammered a fastball to deep left field for his 39th long ball of the season — and the second-longest home run hit in 2016, to boot.

It doesn’t hurt that the Mariners are 1.5 games back of a playoff spot, although they’ll have to oust the Blue Jays, Orioles, or Tigers to get a wild card. They’ve gone 3-3 in the last week, dropping two consecutive series to the Astros and Blue Jays and taking their series opener against Minnesota 10-1 on Friday night.

Cruz, for his part, entered Saturday’s game with a .299/.337/.610 batting line and six home runs in September. According to ESPN.com’s Home Run Tracker, Cruz sits behind Edwin Encarnacion and Mike Napoli with 13 “no-doubt” home runs in 2016, third-most among major league sluggers. It’s safe to say he can add Saturday’s moonshot to that list.

Marlins’ outfielder and undisputed home run king Giancarlo Stanton remains untouched at the top of the Statcast leaderboard with a 504-ft. home run, and it’s difficult to envision any slugger reaching beyond that before the end of the season. Even so, Cruz won’t need to clear 500 feet to extend an impressive hitting record. One more home run will put the 36-year-old at 40 on the year, making 2016 his third consecutive season with at least 40 homers, and his second such season doing so in Seattle.

Report: John Farrell won’t rule out a postseason return for Pablo Sandoval

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - APRIL 11:  Pablo Sandoval #48 of the Boston Red Sox looks on from the dugout before the Red Sox home opener against the Baltimore Orioles at Fenway Park on April 11, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts. The Orioles defeat the Red Sox 9-7.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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It’s been a strange season for Red Sox’ third baseman Pablo Sandoval, who lost his starting role in spring training, went 0-for-6 in three regular season appearances, and underwent season-ending surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder in May. That was the last the Red Sox were supposed to hear about Sandoval until spring 2017, when he was expected to rejoin the team after a lengthy rehab stint in Florida.

On Saturday, manager John Farrell was telling a different story. Per MLB.com’s Sam Blum, Farrell hinted that Sandoval could return to the team as soon as October, albeit in a very limited capacity.

At the time of the surgery, it was all looking at the start of next Spring Training,” Farrell said. “We’re not getting too far ahead of ourselves here, but at the same time, we compliment him for the work he’s put in, the way he’s responded to the rehab, the way he’s worked himself into better condition. We’re staying open-minded.

If the 30-year-old does return in 2016, don’t expect him to look like the three-home run hitter of the 2012 World Series. Should the Red Sox lose another player to injury, Sandoval might be called on as a backup option, but he’s unlikely to see substantial playing time under any other circumstances. Despite making two appearances at DH in the instructional league, Sandoval has not started at third base since undergoing surgery, though Farrell noted that a return to third base would be the next logical step in his recovery process.

Sandoval has yet to hit his stride within the Red Sox’ organization after hitting career-worst numbers in 2015. According to FanGraphs, his Offensive Runs Above Average (Off) plummeted to -20.2, contributing approximately two wins fewer than the average offensive player in 2015. (The Diamondbacks’ Chris Owings held the lowest Off mark in 2015, with -26.3 runs below average.) Sandoval has not appeared in a postseason race since the Giants’ championship run in 2014.

Heading into Saturday evening, the Red Sox could clinch their spot in the postseason with a win over the Rays and an Orioles’ loss.