Weekly Column: Baseball at the Half
pblackwell, Mon, July 6th, 2009
Three months have passed in the 2009 baseball season, and three months remain. So it’s a good time to peruse the scene, see where we are – and whether it lined up with what was expected back in April.
AL East – Well, the sock is on the other foot now. It’s Boston dominating the Yankees, winning every meeting so far, which is the difference between the two megapowers atop the standings. That, plus a Red Sox bullpen that trumps the Yanks’ taking full advantage of its Little League dimensions at its rather expensive new stadium. What’s more, after its slow start Tampa Bay has caught fire, the Rays zooming past a Toronto squad that started with so much promise but regressed after Roy Halladay served a stint on the DL. Only Baltimore has struggled, but even the Orioles have a new look that, in lieu of a quick fix, should pay long-term dividends.
AL Central – What was supposed to be the American League’s strong point has fizzled. Only Detroit has consistently stayed above .500, the Tigers regaining enough of its mound presence to ably complement the strong lineup. It’s fun to see Joe Mauer chase .400 for a while, but he and Justin Morneau need help if Minnesota wants to stay close. The White Sox are too erratic to trust at this point, while Kansas City has reverted to its same old form, wasting Zach Greinke’s Cy Young bid. But hey, at least the Royals are ahead of Cleveland, whose abysmal play is likely to produce a Tribe fire sale where any star not named Grady Sizemore could get dealt.
AL West – For a while, the Angels reeled in the wake of Nick Adenhart’s death in a car crash. But with Mike Scioscia doing yet another great managing job, the denizens of Anaheim have climbed back to the top, poised to run away again if Texas doesn’t provide an answer. The Rangers hang in there, waiting for Josh Hamilton to return, while there is a slight pitching pulse for the first time in a decade. Seattle is the league’s most improved team thanks to the great work of new skipper Don Wakamatsu, but Oakland has seen the magic disappear and is inching closer to the small-market oblivion Billy Beane avoided for so long.
NL East – This was never supposed to be baseball’s worst division. Philadelphia is leading by default, the champs having no business in first place with a terrible home record, Jimmy Rollins in a profound slump and Brad Lidge far from the perfect closer he was in ’08. The Phillies’ lone saving grace is that the Mets have been worse, decimated by injuries and plagued by horrible defense at rather inopportune times. Maybe Florida (who started real fast, then crashed in May) is gearing itself for a run. Or maybe Atlanta can put together something. But the real attraction in this division is the car wreck known as the Washington Nationals, who are doing their level best to descend to 1962 Mets territory. They’re on a pace for 116 losses. Ouch.
NL Central – Top to bottom, this is the most competitive division. Milwaukee and St. Louis have traded first place all spring, the Brewers having gained plenty of confidence from last year’s playoff run. As for the Cardinals, well, you expect Albert Pujols to be amazing, but the comeback of Chris Carpenter is quite heartening, too. By contrast, the heavily favored Cubs have tanked, with both Lou Piniella and his players on the brink of meltdown. Both Cincinnati and Houston are one hot streak from entering contention (which is way more than Astros fans expected), but every time you think Pittsburgh is ready to reach .500, they trade someone. Will the Pirates’ penchant for self-inflicted wounds ever dissipate?
NL West – To show how strong it got here, Colorado and San Francisco would be leading the other NL divisions. Here, though, they might never catch the Dodgers, who have been baseball’s best from the start, with and without the soon-to-return Manny Ramirez. We’ll sure see now if Manny was illegally fueled all those years. The Rockies turned around, going 21-7 in June after Jim Tracy replaced the fired Clint Hurdle, while the Giants have been reborn behind great young pitchers like Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain. Contrast that with San Diego, where Jake Peavy’s injury trouble symbolizes the Padres’ continual struggles, and Arizona, whose promise has evaporated in the desert despite Dan Haren’s 10 wins.
We also had some individual milestones in the season’s first half, from Gary Sheffield getting 500 home runs to Pudge Rodriguez setting the mark for games played at catcher. The biggest, though, was Randy Johnson getting to 300 wins, for no one might ever do that again, and Mariano Rivera, arguably the greatest closer the game has seen, earning his 500th save.
So what happens in the end? Actually the road map appears quite clear. While nothing is guaranteed in a short series come October, the Red Sox and Dodgers appear to be on direct paths to a World Series collision.
Everyone in the American League that could get in Boston’s way has issues. The Yanks can’t beat them, and neither have the Angels in recent playoff series. No one in the Central is too scary, either. Out in Los Angeles, the Dodgers have weathered a major crisis with the Manny suspension, something other National League teams can’t claim at this point.
Due to the calendar and Fox’s stubborn insistence on unnecessary off days, this World Series is guaranteed to end in November. And when it does, it would be quite a surprise if anyone other than the Red Sox and Dodgers were involved.