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Baseball's second half likely to be as wild as its first

By Jon Krawczynski
Associated Press

POSTED:
LAST UPDATED: 01:51 a.m. HST, Jul 12, 2012


There was a public outcry when R.A. Dickey did not start the All-Star Game, a journeyman for the Chicago White Sox threw a perfect game and the Pittsburgh Pirates of all teams were in first place as the first half of the baseball season drew to a close.

What's next, postseason baseball in the nation's capital? It sure looks that way.

An eventful and unexpected first half that included Dickey knuckling his way to stardom with the Mets, Phil Humber's out-of-nowhere perfecto for the White Sox and the Yankees muzzling former slugger Reggie Jackson after some disparaging comments about Alex Rodriguez is only expected to get more intriguing as the season rounds second and heads for third.

The non-waiver trade deadline is looming at the end of the month, and the Baltimore Orioles and White Sox got ahead of the curve by acquiring Jim Thome and Kevin Youkilis, respectively, to bolster their offenses. Milwaukee's Zack Greinke, Philadelphia's Cole Hamels and Arizona's Justin Upton could be headed elsewhere as the contenders and pretenders separate themselves.

"There's several teams involved in races right now," said Detroit manager Jim Leyland, whose Tigers joined the Phillies and Red Sox on the list of big-spending underachievers in the first half of the season. "There's probably going to be a lot of teams that would like to go out and get somebody. But the more teams that want to get something, the tougher it is to get it."

And there's even more motivation for deals to be made in the first year of baseball's expanded postseason. The Fall Classic will be a little wilder this time around. A new format kicks in this year that adds an extra wild card team to each league. That means 10 teams will have a chance to get in and go for it all.

The Orioles, who trail the Yankees by seven games in the AL East, haven't been to the postseason since 1997, the Pirates haven't been there since 1992 and the nation's capital hasn't hosted a playoff baseball game since 1933, when Mel Ott homered in Game 5 of the World Series to help the New York Giants beat the Senators for the championship.

That was long before Natitude, long before "that's a clown question, bro" and certainly way before the All-Star Game decided home-field advantage in the World Series. It's a new day, and if Bryce Harper and the Nationals or Andrew McCutchen and the Pirates somehow Buc the odds and make it to the Series, they'll be hosting the party after the National League beat the AL 8-0.

With so much on the line from here on out, the game in Kansas City could be one of the last nights of baseball without any juice for quite a while.

"We're playing for a lot more here," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "We're playing for a city, the goal being to re-bond the city with its ballclub."

HOT RACES

The Yankees hold a seven-game lead over Baltimore in the AL East, but it's still early and every division is up for grabs. Here's a few of the races that are expected to remain tight until the final days.

» NL Central: The Pirates are just one game ahead of the Reds and only 21/2 games ahead of the defending champs in St. Louis.

» NL West: The Dodgers looked like the class of the league at the start of the season, but injuries to stars Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier have brought them back to the pack. And the Giants, just half a game back, are brimming with confidence after Pablo Sandoval, Melky Cabrera and Matt Cain led the NL to an 8-0 win in the All-Star game.

» AL West: The Rangers might be the best team in baseball, but the Los Angeles Angels have rebounded from a slow start to show that this will be no runaway. The Rangers lead by 4 games in search of their third straight AL crown.

TRADE BAIT

Several big names figure to be trading places by the end of the month as teams look for that extra edge to push them into the postseason.

» Felix Hernandez, RHP, Mariners: Seattle has been adamant that it is not considering moving King Felix. But if they ever would, now might be the time. The 26-year-old is 6-5 with a 3.13 ERA and is signed through 2014. He's already topped 1,500 innings pitched in his young career and the Mariners appear nowhere close to contending.

» Francisco Liriano, LHP, Twins: Got off to a horrendous start to the season and was moved to the bullpen. But it's what have you done for me lately, and the lefty who will be a free agent this winter is 3-2 with a 2.74 ERA and .175 opponents' batting average since rejoining the rotation. Last-place Twins need young assets, and Liriano might be best trade chip.

» Cole Hamels, LHP, and Shane Victorino, OF, Phillies: The Phils already moved Charlie Manuel favorite Jim Thome. Now these two mainstays, who are eligible for free agency at the end of the season, could be available for the right price.

» Carlos Quentin, OF, Padres: Any team looking for some proven power should consider Quentin, who topped 20 homers in each of the past four years for the White Sox. In his first season in spacious Petco Park, Quentin has just seven homers and could benefit from a change of scenery.

KEY INJURIES

These guys better get healthy if their teams expect to have a chance to play into October.

» CC Sabathia, LHP, Yankees: On the disabled list with a strained left groin, the Yankees desperately need their horse back at the top of the rotation. With Andy Pettitte out until late August at the earliest with a fractured left ankle, big No. 52 is more important than ever in New York.

» Evan Longoria, 3B, Rays: Longoria is on the shelf with a torn left hamstring that could keep him out awhile. In the meantime, the Rays will try to stay within shouting distance of the Yankees and the wild card without their leader.

» Kemp, OF, Dodgers: He has emerged as perhaps the best player in the game, a "five-tool guy" who has given the Dodgers their swagger. But he's played in just two games since May 14 because of a strained left hamstring, the kind of injury that can linger.

» Stephen Strasburg, RHP, Nationals: He has shown no ill effects coming off Tommy John surgery, which will make the second half all the more intriguing for the Nationals and their young flamethrower. GM Mike Rizzo has said that the team intends to hold Strasburg to an innings limit and will shut him down once he reaches that point to try to avoid another major arm injury. But if the Nats are in contention for a title, will they be able to hold true to that?





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