|Story of second half could be surprise contenders|
|Written by Admin|
|Wednesday, 11 July 2007 13:19|
With baseball still buzzing about Ichiro Suzuki's sprint around the All-Star bases, the talk turned to the dash to October.
``Now the fun starts,'' San Diego outfielder Brian Giles said.
Can Alfonso Soriano and Lou Piniella lead the Chicago Cubs into the playoffs? Will Jake Peavy and the Padres emerge from the packed NL West? Are David Ortiz and the Boston Red Sox going to breeze the rest of the way?
Some things are fairly certain. Surely some trades are on deck before the July 31 deadline - Ken Griffey Jr., anyone?
The second half opens Thursday with Bonds just five homers shy of breaking Hank Aaron's career record of 755. The only question seems to be whether commissioner Bud Selig will be there to see it.
Tom Glavine will start this week going for win No. 298. Alex Rodriguez is six home runs short of joining the 500 club - Frank Thomas already made it this year. And the Philadelphia Phillies will reach a much bigger and more dubious mark: Their next loss will make them the first team in major league history to drop 10,000 games.
The race for records will soon give way to the chase for playoff spots. Almost half the teams are within 5 1/2 games of a postseason berth, including clubs in two hard-luck cities.
There is joy in Seattle, where the Mariners are just 2 1/2 games behind the Los Angeles Angels after finishing last in the AL West for three straight seasons. Fans there may get some other good news, too: Suzuki, MVP of the AL's 5-4 win Tuesday night, is close to signing a long-term contract extension.
The summer also is a lot brighter in Milwaukee, where Prince Fielder and the Brewers lead the NL Central by 4 1/2 games over the Chicago Cubs - buoyed by their major league-best 30-13 home mark.
Milwaukee has not finished a season over .500 since 1992 - when it played in the American League.
``They all have a lot of confidence in their abilities and they all are extremely talented,'' Brewers manager Ned Yost said. ``I'll take my chances with them.''
Even for teams like Texas, Cincinnati and Kansas City that seem to be out of contention, the trading deadline could bring hope for the future.
The Rangers, with slugger Mark Teixeira and relievers Eric Gagne and Akinori Otsuka, could be major players. And the Reds are bound to get a few calls, with Adam Dunn among those available for contenders looking for a boost.
The Yankees could be buyers or sellers with their string of nine straight division titles in trouble.
Despite the considerable efforts of Rodriguez - the major league leader with 30 homers and 86 RBIs - New York (42-43) was 10 games back of AL East-leading Boston and under .500 at the break for the first time since 1995.
The Yankees haven't missed the playoffs since 1994 - when the postseason was wiped out by a strike.
``We've got a long way to go,'' shortstop Derek Jeter said.
Consistency has eluded the Cardinals, 7 1/2 games behind the Brewers in the Central. They dealt with the alcohol-related death of pitcher Josh Hancock in late April and skipper Tony La Russa's drunken driving arrest during spring training, and now have something else to overcome.
Star Albert Pujols was upset that La Russa, the NL manager, didn't use him in the All-Star game. Instead, the 2005 MVP merely watched when Aaron Rowand flied out with the bases loaded to end the game.
Pujols and the Cardinals beat Detroit last year in the World Series, and the Tigers are back again.
Detroit leads the AL Central, regarded by many as the best division in the majors, and second-place Cleveland is in front for the wild card. Minnesota, which charged to the division title last year, is eight back of the Tigers.
Aces C.C. Sabathia of Cleveland, Justin Verlander of Detroit and Johan Santana of Minnesota also are strong contenders for the Cy Young Award.
``We treaded water pretty good,'' said Tigers manager Jim Leyland, whose team could get a boost when injured relievers Fernando Rodney and Joel Zumaya return. ``We need to get some things ironed out in the second half. They went through a lot in the first half, but this stuff is just revving up now.''
Seattle won three of four at Oakland to close out the first half and is just 1 1/2 games behind Cleveland for the wild card. New manager John McLaren, promoted when Mike Hargrove abruptly retired July 1, doesn't see why his team can't be a factor late in the season.
``The second half you can smell it more,'' he said. ``September is coming up and it's toward the finish line. I look forward to going down the stretch, and doing what you have to do to get into the playoffs. Our goal is to make the playoffs and go from there.''
All three races in the NL are tight, with just 7 1/2 games total separating the first two teams in each division. The West features four teams all within 5 1/2 games of the top, with Giles and the Padres leading the Dodgers by one game.
``We've got a tough division. Everybody's beating up on everybody, so it's really tough for people to distance themselves. But it's nothing new, the past couple of years, so we'll be ready to go,'' Giles said.
The Mets, who ran away with the NL East last year, have weathered some early season struggles to take a slim two-game lead over Atlanta at the break. They could get a lift from the return of Pedro Martinez, who had rotator cuff surgery last fall and is just two strikeouts shy of 3,000 for his career.
Several hitters are eyeing big numbers, too.
Griffey will get to 600 homers with 14 in the second half. Jim Thome and Manny Ramirez also could get to 500 with big second halves.
And then there's Bonds, batting .295 with 17 homers and on the brink of baseball's most revered record.
``Look at his numbers and they're pretty impressive,'' Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. ``They're still walking him. What would his numbers be? It hasn't been a great first half for us, but Barry's done a nice job. His numbers at 42 are pretty impressive.''
AP Sports Writers Janie McCauley and Josh Dubow in San Francisco, Bernie Wilson in San Diego, Gregg Bell in Seattle, Larry Lage in Detroit and Baseball Writer Ronald Blum in San Francisco contributed to this report.