ST. LOUIS -- Burning questions, second half:
1. Is a Boston-Los Angeles Dodgers World Series inevitable?
Don't look now, but Manny Ramirez sure appears on target for an encore performance in Fenway Park this October wearing Dodgers blue. How do you think that will go? Red Sox fans would just ignore the whole steroids suspension thing and offer a muted reaction, right?
Seriously, the Dodgers and Red Sox clearly have been the best two teams in the season's first half. Boston's 54-34 mark is the best in the American League; the Dodgers' 56-32 leads in the National. And in the NL, it's not even close. It's the Dodgers and everybody else.
But all we have to do is look back at the standings a year ago to reinforce that it might not matter. Last July, the Los Angeles Angels and Chicago Cubs (each at 57-38) owned the best records in each league at the break. And as you might recall, each was bounced from the playoffs in the first round.
Look out for the Yankees, Tampa Bay and Detroit. And while the Angels clearly aren't what they were a year ago, Mike Scioscia has maneuvered them back into first even with Torii Hunter and Vladimir Guerrero ailing.
Philadelphia is the ranking World Series champ, but here's a news flash: Pedro Martinez is not the pitching answer the Phils need. We'd like them a whole lot better if they were adding Roy Halladay -- which still could happen. St. Louis is capable of anything with Albert Pujols and Chris Carpenter, the Cubs think they've got a second-half run in them with a healthy Aramis Ramirez and, after that, wow, is the NL mediocre.
2. Is Texas for real?
So this is what the Rangers look like with pitching (Kevin Millwood, Scott Feldman and the end-game duo of Frank Francisco and C.J. Wilson) and defense (rookie shortstop Elvis Andrus is the real deal). Mix in Josh Hamilton and the usual thumpers and, yes, the Rangers can be for real. Especially with the Angels owning one of the worst bullpens in the game so far.
Two keys in the second half: The Rangers need to beat up on teams outside their division (they're 18-8 vs. AL West clubs, but just 8-10 vs. the Central and 13-12 vs. the East) and, as ever, the Texas summer heat could wilt them.
The difference between this and manager Ron Washington's other Texas teams?
|Joe Mauer enters the second half with a .373 batting average. (Getty Images)|
"Those are the differences now. We've still got a long way to go. We've still got to improve our defense. We've still got to improve our offense. We've still got to improve our pitching. We've still got to improve on the base paths. There are still some times where we can take extra bases and we don't, tag up and we don't, times we can challenge somebody and we don't."
3. Can Joe Mauer hit .400?
He's at .373 rounding second and heading for July, August and September. He's a career .323 hitter, and he's only the catcher in American League history to win a batting title (Ernie Lombardi and Bubbles Hargrave won in the NL). Joe Mauer has two titles.
No player has hit .400 since Ted Williams in 1941. It'd be so cool.
Can Mauer do it?
"Naw, no way," says Angels outfielder -- and ex-Twin -- Torii Hunter.
As good a question might be, can Ichiro?
"Where's Ichiro, around .360?" Hunter asks (answer: .362). "I don't know how he does it. It's crazy. And he doesn't walk as much as Mauer. It's amazing what Mauer is doing. But Ichiro is at .360, he gets 200 hits every year and he still doesn't get to .400. And Ichiro gets all those infield hits. Mauer doesn't have the speed Ichiro does. He's a catcher.
"Nobody's going to do it."
4. What will be the most frantic second-half scramble?
If your answer is, "NL wild card", you're close. But the correct answer is the arms race in the AL East.
Boston is loaded, the Yankees are peaking even though CC Sabathia has yet to be brilliant and Tampa Bay is the defending AL champion. What we know for sure is that one of those clubs is going to be home in October. There's only room in October for two, assuming the AL wild card emerges from this division in the fall (and we'd be willing to wager our flat-screen television that it will).
Difference so far? The Red Sox are cleaning up facing AL East teams, going 22-9 (including 8-0 vs. the Yankees). New York is 15-17 against the East. Meantime, Tampa Bay's problem, as manager Joe Maddon quickly points out, is away from Tropicana Field, where the Rays are 18-26.
5. Is there a Triple Crown winner in the crowd?
Nobody has won the Triple Crown since Boston's Carl Yastrzemski in 1967, but Pujols and, to a lesser extent, Minnesota's Justin Morneau are in position.
|Pitchers beware: Cards slugger Albert Pujols is on a mission for the Triple Crown. (Getty Images)|
The thing that makes Pujols such a great hitter, aside from his hand-eye coordination, skill and reflexes, is his strike-zone discipline. Right now, it's easier to find a wolf that would pass on a steak than it is to catch Pujols swinging at a pitch out of the strike zone.
The longer the Cardinals stay in the race, the more Pujols figures to walk, which, while helping his batting average (it's more realistic to attain a high average with fewer at-bats), may help deflate his power numbers.
"Every year, it gets better," Pujols says of his strike-zone sharpness. "Every year you play the game, the more experience you get, the better at it you get. It's hard work. A lot of swings. A lot of preparation. A lot of video, making sure what you're doing right when you're going good and what you're doing wrong when you're going bad.
"Slumps, I don't believe in slumps. I believe it's something you put in your head. If you start thinking about where you're putting your hands and things like that when you're going bad, then you're putting those things in your head."
For the record, Pujols, a two-time NL Most Valuable Player, has won one batting title in his career (2003, when he hit .359) but never has won a home run or RBI title.
As for Morneau, his chances for a Triple Crown diminished greatly as soon as his teammate Mauer collected enough at-bats to qualify for the batting title. While Morneau is tied for fourth in the AL in homers (21) and second in RBI (70), he's tied for seventh with a .311 average -- 62 points behind Mauer's .373.
In a season so far devoid of major dramatic angles, Pujols sure could make things interesting if he's close enough to make sure we're talking about Yaz in September.
6. What's the one team that could benefit most with one smart July trade?
San Francisco. In Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Randy Johnson, Barry Zito and Jonathan "No-Hit" Sanchez, they have the pitching to win. What the Giants, NL wild-card leaders at the break, lack is a sure way to score. They rank 12th in the NL in runs scored at the break. If that continues, Colorado, Milwaukee, Florida and any number of other teams in the mediocre NL are going to have chances to blow past the Giants.
While catcher Bengie Molina has been doing yeoman's work in the cleanup role -- a spot for which he is ill-suited because of his lack of speed, among other things -- this lineup could benefit greatly by, say, adding a Matt Holliday or a Freddy Sanchez. Somebody to either drive the ball into the gaps or move runners along.
But while Lincecum says the Giants rotation definitely has the feel of something special, he also sticks up for his offensive mates by insisting that the Giants don't need no stinkin' bat.
"You can say that right now, but what if you get a power bat and he doesn't do well?" Lincecum philosophizes. "What do you say then? We're meshing real well right now. To get somebody else might mess up your chemistry."
Or, it could make life easier for the stellar pitchers.
7. What will Toronto do with Halladay?
We've been over and over this, and we expect to keep at it until the July 31 trade deadline passes. The more Roy Halladay talks, the more he seems to make it clear that, much as he loves Toronto, his preference now is to find a place where he can pitch for a team that has a snowball's chance in you-know-what to play in October. He's about at the end of the line with the Blue Jays.
|If the Blue Jays decide to trade ace Roy Halladay, there should be some contenders interested. (Getty Images)|
But we'll tell you this: If the Jays pull the trigger, Philadelphia and the Angels seem to be at the front of the line in having the proper resources it will take: A blue-chip package of players that Toronto will require and pockets deep enough to pay the $7 million Halladay is owed this year and the $15.75 million he's owed next.
8. Who are two unlikely but realistic playoff teams?
We'll go with the Marlins in the NL because of a young rotation that rivals that of any other club and MVP candidate Ramirez. Also, the Seattle Mariners in the AL because the Jarrod Washburn of old is back, Felix Hernandez is pitching like a Cy Young right now and the AL West just isn't that good.
Understand, this isn't a prediction that you'll see the Marlins and Mariners playing in October. But if you're looking for outside-the-box clubs lurking in the weeds who could make a charge, you can do worse than fingering these two.
9. Wither the Cubs?
Hey Chicago, whaddaya say ... time for the North Siders to put up or shut up. Are the happenings in Wrigley Field simply a first-half disaster? Or are they, gulp, a season-long disaster?
"I'm confident we're going to be competitive in the second half," Cubs All-Star Ted Lilly says. "The first thing you point to is the club getting a little healthier and jelling more."
Good news is the Cubs got rid of their beaten-up dugout Gatorade cooler, so maybe things will improve.
But they haven't dispatched Bradley, so maybe not.
10. How do the Stephen Strasburg sweepstakes end?
Deadline for Washington to sign the No. 1 pick is Aug. 17. Chances of the Nationals screwing this up: There is no deadline for that.
They essentially fired general manager Jim Bowden this spring, they fired pitching coach Randy St. Claire last month and they canned manager Manny Acta at the All-Star break. The Nats defense is wretched. Their pitching is spotty. Their baserunning and fundamentals are awful.
There is no public accountability whatsoever from the Lerner family, owners of this abomination and, right now, appearing wholly incompetent. Yet, as Commissioner Bud Selig insisted the other day, the Nationals "are on the right track."
Scarier words were never spoken. As for Strasberg, look for the Nats to get this done. And don't be surprised if he makes a start or two for them in September. They've gotta do something to keep their beleaguered fans, who do not think the club is "on the right track" or anywhere near "the right track", interested.