The All-Star break is here, signaling the figurative mid-point of the baseball season, and the second half promises to be as entertaining and interesting as the first. The new unbalanced schedule and strike zone have conspired to deliver some real surprises in the first half, like the Twins and Cubs. Both teams figure to stay in the hunt throughout the rest of the season due to solid pitching and increased divisional play. But some other big stories have begun to surface that should play a huge part in the second half, including Mark McGwire’s struggles and how it will affect a very competitive division race, as well as what looks to be the beginning of a terrific race in the American League East between the game’s two biggest rivals.
Before the season began, most pundits thought the Cardinals and Astros would battle for the Central Division lead in the National League, but the Cubs came out of nowhere to jump in front, thanks to Sammy Sosa and a pitching staff with one of the hardest throwing bullpens in the game. Houston didn’t look like a championship contender early, but with youngsters like Wade Miller and Roy Oswalt pitching like veteran stars, the Astros have been able to make up for the shaky performance of Scott Elarton, who was the team’s best pitcher last year. Of course, hitters like Moises Alou, Lance Berkman, Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell have helped Houston get back to within four games of the Cubs going into Friday’s game against the Royals. The Astros have even more good, young pitching on the horizon in Tony McKnight and Tim Redding, and both could be helpful to the team if they aren’t able to acquire a veteran pitcher like Pedro Astacio.
The Cardinals looked good early, but have struggled recently for a number of reasons, not the least of which is McGwire’s problems. St. Louis has a fine one-two punch at the top of the rotation, with All-Star Matt Morris and Darryl Kile, but Dustin Hermanson has been inconsistent, Andy Benes has been bad and Rick Ankiel is working his way back to the majors in the low minors. With a strong lineup that includes the likes of Jim Edmonds, McGwire, Albert Pujols and J.D. Drew, manager Tony LaRussa planned on having more than enough offense to get through the regular season. Drew broke his hand in the middle of June. That loss hurt the team more than anyone could have expected, especially with McGwire back and seemingly ready to contribute. McGwire has been awful so far this season. Heading into Friday night’s game against the Indians, McGwire was mired in an 0-29 slump and was hitting just .183 with seven home runs and 17 RBI.
Things have been so bad for Big Mac that reports have him contemplating retirement at the end of the season. The Cardinals should get Drew back before the end of July, but one wonders how long it will take him to recapture the form he showed early while trying to get his timing back. Still, with Morris and Kile at the head of the rotation, the Cardinals shouldn’t experience too many long losing streaks and have the star players to be a serious contender in September.
In the American League East, the Yankees are playing their best baseball of the season, winners of eight in a row and nine of their last 10, going into the weekend. The recent additions to their bullpen, Jay Witasick and Mark Wohlers, have given Joe Torre more than enough toys to play with late in close games. More importantly, New York is beginning to hit.
Tino Martinez has rebounded after a couple of poor seasons, including just 16 home runs last year. Martinez leads AL first basemen in RBI, and already has 16 bombs this season. He’s been a different hitter since meeting with Don Mattingly before the beginning of June. Bernie Williams fought through his father’s death and has been ripping the cover off the ball. The Yankees are still looking to get the top of their lineup going, although Chuck Knoblauch has been a bit better since the trade rumors had him moving to Seattle. There may have been a lot of controversy when Joe Torre selected seven Yankees to the All-Star team, but, aside from Jeter, who could’ve been passed over for Oakland’s Miguel Tejeda, the rest clearly deserved to make the squad.
What is disturbing about all of those Yankees going to Seattle was that no Red Sox players made Torre’s cuts. Boston and New York have played evenly throughout the season, despite the Red Sox missing Nomar Garciaparra, Pedro Martinez, Jason Varitek and Carl Everett for long periods of time. For Tim Wakefield, who is second in the league in ERA and pitching anytime Jimy Williams needs him, not to make the team is a travesty.
Boston is a very deep team, as they’ve been proving all season. Most think they have a skeleton crew competing for the top spot in the AL East, and, to a certain extent, that’s true. However, there are still many healthy quality players on the Olde Towne Team. Jose Offerman is a solid, professional hitter, as is Dante Bichette. Trot Nixon is a fine outfielder and hard worker. Brian Daubach is solid at first base and, of course, Manny Ramirez is, arguably, the most dangerous hitter in all the game. Boston also has a great bullpen with more depth on their staff than any other team in the league. Derek Lowe is pitching better after a bad start to the season, while Rod Beck and Rolando Arrojo have each had success closing out games this season. Boston will stick around because of depth, and a great coaching staff. Williams is raked over the coals consistently in Boston, but he’s done an incredible job at mixing and matching talents, both in the lineup and on the mound. Pitching coach Joe Kerrigan also has to receive much of the acclaim. Kerrigan has rescued so many pitchers off the scrap heap, like David Cone, who have become solid major leagues arms once again.
Both races have a long way to go, and many more things could happen to alter both divisions, and, in turn, the respective Wild Card races. Trades and injuries will play a big part, and one of the best things about baseball is the game’s unpredictability. Who could’ve predicted McGwire would be having the problems he’s experienced, and the Red Sox would be contending while missing so many quality players.