Baseballl, remember that sport? The one with the nine innings. It opens its second half today following the interminably long four-day All-Star break. Although we’ve already moved past the official half-way mark, it’s still the time to look ahead and guess what the next three months have in store.
Without any further adieu, let’s identify 11 things to watch in the second-half:
* This has to be the Pirates year, right? As of this morning Pittsburgh is 19 games over .500, but have the double-whammy of appearing on the cover of SI this week (which allowed the magazine to get in on the ‘Sharknado’ craze) along with the history of collapses in each of the last two seasons. The Pirates were 16-games over in early August last year, but closed the second half 31-46 and finished 79-83. Any time the current Pirates club loses a game or two, people will start talking about the recent second-half swoons. Until they snap their playoff-less streak that dates back to 1992 the Pirates will be looked at skeptically, even as Jeff Locke fever sweeps across Western Pennsylvania.
* Here come the Rays: The Rays finished the first-half on an eight-game winning streak and now have reigning Cy Young winner David Price dealing again. Since returning from the disabled list in early July, Price has allowed only three earned runs in 25 innings. Tampa starts the second-half with a 10-game trip to Toronto, Boston and New York. The Rays also have two West Coast swings left: a two-city stop with Diamondbacks and Dodgers and then an 11-game swing in Oakland, Anaheim and Seattle. Manager Joe Maddon is a master of getting the most out of his 25-man roster, so he’ll need to push all the right buttons again trying to catch the Red Sox and fend off the Orioles and Yankees in the tight American League East.
* Texas/Oakland Round II: Last year the Athletics rushed by the Rangers in the closing stages of the season to win the West. This year it’s been a back-and-forth tug of war, with Oakland slightly ahead. Texas, which has nearly an entire roster’s worth of pitchers on the disabled list, knows all too well downside of losing out on the division and playing in the one-off Wild Card game. Oakland, on the other hand, keeps on winning.
* Coming together at Chavez Ravine: About a month ago the Dodgers looked like a $200 million mess with the ax hovering over Don Mattingly’s head with each successive defeat, hence all the early-season brawls. The start of the second half? The Dodgers are at .500 and only 2.5 games behind the first-place Diamondbacks. The Power of (Yasiel) Puig played a part in this. Can the young Cuban carry out his outrageous power stats (.616 slugging percentage) into October or will the league catch up with him? A team that can trot out Hanley Ramirez, Matt Kemp and Adrian Gonzalez and toss Clayton Kershaw every fifth day should be a contender. You’d have to think MLB has its fingers crossed the Dodgers, with it’s star-studded roster, find a way into the playoffs.
* A-Rod to the rescue?: Alex Rodriguez says he’s playing Monday. Yankees fans collectively roll their eyes and keep their fingers cross MLB suspends him. Either way, the New York media smells blood in the water. If nothing else, the back pages of the tabloids will have some fun puns lined up. Realistically, the hobbled Yankees lineup, which is tied for 20th in runs scored and placed Derek Jeter on the disabled list (again) on Friday, could use a right-handed power threat. It might be a little much to expect at 37-year-old Rodriguez, off major hip surgery, is that guy. Buckle up.
* Chris Davis chasing 61: The way Davis is swatting homers, he’ll be at 40 well before July is over. That leaves him two months to hit an additional 22 to pass Roger Maris for baseball’s unofficial, “clean” single-season home run record. How much focus this chase garners comes down to whether you take Davis at his word that he’s clean. That lefty’s stroke does look pure.
* Indians for real?: Cleveland continues to push Detroit in the AL Central, trailing the Tigers by only 1.5 games. The Indians have a solid, young core with Jason Kipnis and Michael Brantley leading the offense (and drawing walks at a high rate). If they get Zach McAllister back from injury and Corey Kluber continues to improve, they might have the arms to make the Tigers sweat all the way to October. Conventional wisdom is having a veteran manager like Terry Francona will help the Indians avoid a second-half swoon. Francona isn’t pitching.
* Phillies really aren’t going to break it down, are they?: If they want to deal, the Phillies have plenty of pieces for contenders. GM Ruben Amaro always seems to take the opposite approach. If anything monumental happens before the trading deadline, it’ll be because the Phillies decided to (wisely) sell everything off that isn’t pinned down at Citizen’s Bank.
* Come back Clay: The Red Sox received bad news this week that Clay Buchholz sill has shoulder pain. He hasn’t pitched since June 8 after posting a 1.71 ERA in 12 starts this year. Boston is an American League-best 58-39, but it will be hard to fend off challenges from Tampa, Baltimore and New York without their best starting pitcher. If Buchholz is out for an extended period after the break, the Sox might have to make a deal or keep their fingers crossed John Lackey (2.76 ERA) doesn’t turn back into a pumpkin he was during his first few seasons at Fenway.
* Will Nationals underachieve all 162 games?: Everybody loved the Nationals in March. Love, love, looooooooved the team with rising superstars Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper. They were the trendy, if not consensus World Series pick. Only it hasn’t clicked for the Nationals. Their pitching has been good, yielding the No. 5 ERA in baseball. The Nat’s offensive numbers are putrid, where they’re 26th in runs scored. The Braves might run away with the National League East, even if Harper is fully healthy in the second-half.
* The other shoe drops for Biogenesis: Something is going to happen with MLB with the Biogenesis case … eventually. Suspensions will be meted out. Players will appeal. Bud Selig will hold a congratulatory press conference. It’ll be a gigantic mess one way or the other. Moralizing, saber ratting and all that jazz will be at an all-time high. Of course all the suspensions might be served until 2014, at the earliest. Ugh.
If you’ve made it this far and you’re a Cardinals fan, you’re probably thinking, what about us? St. Louis is 57-36 with an MLB-best +127 run differential. The Cards will be in the playoffs where their sterling regular season won’t mean anything in the five-game Division Series.