Reds, TB, Brewers, Rangers face fade

Jul 13, 2004 2:19 AM

The Fourth of July is now behind us but we still have half a season of baseball fireworks to go. There were the unexpected first half surprises and there will be similar surprises as the season progresses. Who would have believed that the Rangers and Devil Rays would be the surprise teams of the AL and the Reds and Brewers would keep pace in the NL Central.

It’s time to take a look at where the best bets have been as teams turn their attention to what needs to be done to solidify their pennant chances.

Just when the Boston Red Sox were thinking the Yankees weren’t all they were supposed to be, BAM, the Bombers grabbed a comfortable lead in the AL East. Nomar Garciaparra has returned to the lineup for Boston but he’s not nearly 100 percent and it has showed. But, he’s a gamer and will no doubt start to produce before long.

Fortunately for the Sox, Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz have more than picked up the slack, as both are putting up MVP-type numbers. However, Boston’s pitching needs to settle down. The big two (Schilling and Martinez) have been putting up numbers (19-7 combined) but only Schilling is making money. Tim Wakefield, Bronson Arroyo and Derek Lowe have combined for just 12 wins so far and are negatives in the money making process. But, there’s still plenty of time for the Sox if the pitching steps up.

After a slow start to their season, the Yankees are back on track and have seven All-Stars in the midseason classic. Led by Gary Sheffield and Alex Rodriguez who are putting up typically big numbers the New Yorkers let the Bosox know that the wild card should be their goal in the second half after the three game sweep.

The Bombers are living up to their name, once again, as they are on top of the home run leader board with seven players in double digits. Interestingly, the Yanks are closely followed in the power department by the surprising Detroit Tigers who also lead the majors in hitting.

Unfortunately for Detroit, while their hitting has been great, the pitching hasn’t been quite so good. Unless they make some changes, they’ll still be looking to reach the .500 in the second half. The Yanks pitching staff has fared well but the Boss (George Steinbrenner) is still on the prowl for another starter behind newcomer Javier Vazquez, Kevin Brown and Mike Mussina. The Big Unit (Randy Johnson) was in his sights but that deal didn’t happened. Hopefully, now that Jose Contreras has his family at his side, he’ll have a big second half.

In the West, Texas and Oakland are running neck and neck and showcase the two best pitchers in the junior circuit. Kenny Rogers (12-2, 3.65 ERA) and Mark Mulder are in the hunt for the Cy Young award. Currently, Oakland has the best team ERA in the league plus they’re playing well.

Texas is the second best hitting team in the AL behind Detroit and is led by Hank Blalock, who has been following up on last year’s breakout season with another strong performance. Oakland’s Erubiel Durazo, Jermaine Dye and Scott Hatteberg aren’t among the league leaders in any category but they do provide the A’s with a solid lineup with the potential to keep playing after the regular season schedule, as long as the pitching holds up.

In Anaheim, Bartolo Colon, who won 15 games a year ago, has been a big disappointment with a 6.57 ERA and allowing more than 25 home runs in the first half season. In addition, the Angels suffered another tough loss with the shoulder injury to Troy Glaus but there is an "Angel in the outfield" in Vladimir Guerrero who has been a sensational addition and is tearing up the league. Guerrero even led the AL in fan votes for the All Star game. The Angels are also in the market for another pitcher but, fortunately, their relief pitching has been clutch.

In the AL Central, the Minnesota Twins head into the break with the White Sox on their heels. Starting pitchers Johan Santana, newcomer Carlos Silva and Brad Radke aren’t really household names outside the Twin Cities but they have done the job. Paul Konerko and Frank Thomas have supplied the power and runs for the White Sox who have gotten some solid starts from Mark Buehrle, Esteban Loaiza and now, Freddie Garcia. Garcia, who was just acquired from Seattle, can be dominant, and with that in mind, Chicago could make a big run in the second half.

In the National League, the St. Louis Cardinals, San Francisco Giants and Philadelphia Phillies appear to be the front runners in their respective divisions.

In the East, in their new ballpark, the Phillies appear to have the tools necessary to win the division title but it won’t come easy as the Mets have been making a serious run after sweeping the Yankees last week. The Florida Marlins and Atlanta Braves are still in the hunt as well. Philly’s Jim Thome is leading the league in four baggers with Bobby Abreu, Jimmy Rollins and Pat Burrell keeping opposing pitchers up at night. The best thing that can be said about the Phils pitching is that it’s solid from top to bottom with Eric Milton, who missed nearly all of last season, and Brett Myers the chief money makers.

Mike Piazza and newcomer Richard Hidalgo are supplying a Mets power surge which moved them up the standings over the last month. Tom Glavine, Al Leiter and Steve Trachsel are chalking up wins in what is becoming a formidable starting rotation. With the additions of Kaz Matsui at short and the return of Jose Reyes to second and Jason Phillips to catcher, the Mets’ defense is showing significant improvement.

In Atlanta, the Braves aren’t dead yet despite the anemic mid-year numbers of Chipper Jones and Andruw Jones. J.D. Drew has emerged as a power threat and with catcher Johnny Estrada, the two have added new life into a batting order which ranks in the botton third of the NL. The starting rotation (Russ Ortiz, Mike Hampton, John Thomson and Jaret Wright) has shown flashes but with the diminishing run support, it could be a very tough second half.

The NL West trio of the Padres, Dodgers and Giants are headed to the wire in a good old fashioned pennant race. Only a couple of games separate the three teams. The Giants still have plenty of hitting, particularly with Barry Bonds defying old age on a daily basis. Bonds is crushing the ball when opposing pitchers actually pitch to him. Jason Schmidt, despite off-season elbow surgery, picked up where he left off last season and appears ready to rumble along after posting 11 wins and a pair of shutouts in the first half.

The Padres and Dodgers have stepped up in the past two weeks to create a lot of interest as both had winning streaks going last week. Dodger stopper, Eric Gagne lost his 84-game consecutive save streak before beginning another one against the Diamondbacks last Tuesday. Kaz Ishii has been the primary money maker for the ”˜Boys of Summer’. The Pads big winner has been Brian Lawrence, who appears headed towards a reversal of last year’s 10-15 record.

There’s not much question that the Cardinals will more than just threaten the Cubs in the Central Division. Scott Rolen, Albert Pujols and company are a team on a mission. The fearsome twosome plus six are leading the NL in hitting and RBI while Chris Carpenter and Jeff Suppan have been the money winners in the rotation.

In Chicago, Cubs fans are looking for a long healthy streak from a rotation that can be second to none if healthy. The middle of the lineup gives cause for optimism as well. Aramis Ramirez is playing at a higher level while, Moises Alou, Derreck Lee and Sammy Sosa (who has slipped a bit) make up the second most prolific home run lineup and the NL’s fourth best hitting team.

Carlos Zambrano and Glendon Rusch have been the Cubs money makers so far but expect that to change when Wood returns from the 15-day DL. Also expect Mark Prior and Matt Clement to get in the grove. If the Cubs can get clicking, the Central could change fast. Even Cincinnati and the Astros, who’ve added Carlos Beltran, could be factors.