Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Casting a wary eye on the diamond for the second half

Now that the Major League Baseball All-Star Game has come and gone, it's time to consider what could happen during the second half of the season and in the push toward the post-season.

National League: No one expected Washington to still be in first place at the break, but here they are. Given that Davey Johnson is the manager, there have to be parallels to his Mets teams of the 80's. The Nationals have two young phenoms in pitcher Stephen Strasburg and outfielder Bryce Harper (think back to Dwight Gooden & Darryl Strawberry). They have a fan base hungry for a championship (when the Mets won in 1986, it'd been 17 years since their first title). They play all 27 outs, and while they've had their share of injuries, like everyone else, the Nationals have continued to defy the experts.

Will they hang on? That remains to be seen. Atlanta & the Mets are on their tails. Philadelphia has gotten their two big bats, Chase Utley & Ryan Howard, back in the lineup, but they're now waiting for ace Roy Halladay to come off the DL. Miami, after all the money that was spent by owner Jeff Loria, needs a second half surge just as big as Philadelphia's to reverse a poor start. I just don't see it.

Over in the Central, it's been 20 years since the Pittsburgh Pirates were in the playoffs. Back then, they had a then-rising superstar in Barry Bonds. Now, like the Nationals, the Pirates have defied expectations, and moved past Cincinnati into first place before the break. Aside from Mets pitcher RA Dickey, this is the feel-good story of the year, a storied franchise emerging from two decades of decline. Yes, they have to hold off the Reds & Cardinals to get back to the playoffs, but I wouldn't count the Bucs out just yet. Out west, the Dodgers have had to get by without All-Star Matt Kemp for a good chunk of the first half with hamstring issues, and it didn't help that he was eliminated in the first round of Monday's Home Run Derby. For 2nd year manager Don Mattingly, it's about validating management's faith in him to lead the team. How fitting would it be, then, if the Dodgers were to renew old post-season hostilities with Mattingly's old team, the Yankees, come October? That would be a story all by itself.

American League: For all the hype surrounding Bobby Valentine taking over in Boston, the Red Sox have been beset by injuries to some of their key players, not unlike the Phillies. And it just keeps getting worse, with former MVP Dustin Pedroia the latest to be disabled. Meanwhile, the Yankees have asserted themselves as the beasts of the East, but they'd have to have a collapse on the level of the Red Sox & Braves from last year not to advance. As long as the White Sox remain in contention at least, first-year manager Robin Ventura will get votes for Manager of the Year in the AL (it'll be between Mattingly, Johnson, & Terry Collins in the NL). I believe they are assured of at least a wild card, provided they're not overtaken by any combination of Detroit, Cleveland, or even Minnesota, and you know the Twins will make a run. They always do. In Kansas City, the fans there are in need of sensitivity training after the break. 'Nuff said there.

Out west, it's down to, as expected, the Rangers & Angels. It took Albert Pujols more time than expected to adjust to the American League's snail's pace level of play and pitching. Meanwhile, the media is going gaga over rookie Mike Trout. The Rangers haven't missed a beat. After all, all they did was replace CJ Wilson (now with the Angels) with Japanese star Yu Darvish, and it's as if nothing's really changed.

As far as the Mets go, they too can't seem to shake the injury bug. Dillon Gee is the latest victim, having used the break to have a blood clot removed from his pitching shoulder on Tuesday. Miguel Batista goes back into the starting rotation until Gee comes back, but Batista's been shaky. The Mets got pitcher Chris Schwinden back last week after he'd been claimed first by Cleveland, then Toronto, and finally, the Yankees, before returning to the Mets, who sent him back to Buffalo. The Indians, oh, by the way, also claimed utilityman Vinny Rottino last month on waivers. The Mets sit in 3rd place in the East, chasing Washington & Atlanta, but they have to watch out for Miami & Philadelphia and avoid another collapse.

Back at home, no one thought the Tri-City Valleycats would be this good this quickly in Stubby Clapp's second season, but the 'Cats sit atop the Stedler division, thanks to an 11 game win streak that ended when the 'Cats were swept by State College last week at home. Tri-City is on the road for the rest of the week, with three games in the hub of Little League, Williamsport, Pennsylvania, tonight through Friday. The way I look at it is, it's an even numbered year. The 'Cats have won all their division titles and the league title in even numbered years, winning it all in 2010 (also won the division in 2004 and 2006). If the pattern holds, fans can plan on some extra baseball in Troy in September.

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