PHOENIX -- Wow, it is smoking hot here in the desert.
How smoking hot is it?!
Glad you asked.
It is so hot, it would melt all that tension between players, managers and umpires of which Tigers manager Jim Leyland spoke.
So hot, Jose Reyes' feet would have blistered had he played in the All-Star Game and popped another of his patented triples.
So hot, there is a mirage up ahead that Pittsburgh and Cleveland could actually meet in the World Series.
That Pirates-Indians thing is not a mirage?
Before they shout "Play ball!" again on Thursday, a first-half rewind, starting now. ...
Bautista is having a sensational season and pulled into the All-Star break leading the AL in slugging and on-base percentages and home runs. Gonzalez leads in batting average, RBI, total bases and hits. It's close. They're both great. But the nod here goes to Gonzalez in no small part because his Red Sox are in first place despite major pitching injuries, largely because of what Gonzalez is doing. Which is exactly what Boston envisioned when the Sox acquired him from San Diego last winter. Careful, though, this baby could flip by season's end. Verlander is ahead of Cabrera because in a season in which the Tigers fired pitching coach Rick Knapp, Verlander has propped them up again and again. Granderson and Cano make the Yanks go.
About that Carl Crawford money: Reyes is putting together a season that will demand it on the free-agent market this winter. Yet his current hamstring injury practically demands that the Mets not get fooled again by his sexy skills ... and breakable body. But given his complete game -- he leads the NL in batting average, triples, thrills-per-minute, second in runs -- Reyes gets the midseason MVP nod. Fielder is a close second, with every chance he could power his way into the top slot by season's end. Kemp is a great, great player on a bad, bad team in a miserable, miserable situation. Berkman not only is producing a great comeback season, his value in St. Louis' clubhouse is immeasurable.
A no-hitter waiting to happen every five days, Verlander is must-watch TV. To even debate that he might be the best pitcher in the game today -- and it is a legitimate argument -- with Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee working over there in Philadelphia is a staggering prospect.
That enough Phillies for ya? Halladay remains an incredible workhorse who produces staggering results. Though his ERA is a tick behind that of Hamels (2.44 against Hamels' 2.32), he leads the NL in innings pitched (11 1/3 more than Hamels), ranks second in strikeouts and tied for second in wins. For all that, he's the guy. Jurrjens leads the NL in ERA and wins and also has a hot hand.
Admit it, you never, ever expected Cleveland to be anywhere near first place at the break, did you (yes, even you, Indians fans)? Admit it, when the Indians nosedived in June, you wrote them off, didn't you? Uh-huh. Acta has been terrific throughout. Maddon, though his Rays are in third place, is doing another marvelous job. Yes, Tampa Bay's rotation is great, but the Rays rebuilt their bullpen, lost Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena, traded Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett ... and they're still hanging tough with the Yankees and Red Sox. Girardi has done a nice job, especially with an up-and-down pitching staff.
Anytime the Pirates are above .500 at this point, the skipper has got to be Manager of the Year by unanimous proclamation. Hurdle has done an outstanding job not only strategically, but in changing the mindset of an organization accustomed to rainy days and finding ways to lose. As for La Russa, how he has navigated St. Louis through injuries to Adam Wainwright and Albert Pujols, the implosion of closer Ryan Franklin, Matt Holliday's appendicitis and quad injuries ... the fact that the Cardinals are tied for first at the break is ridiculous. In Philadelphia, it has been a pleasure to watch Manuel prove how skilled he is at the end of games as the Phillies have ripped through four closers. Bochy has his Giants in first place again despite the fact that they're scoring something like half-a-run a game without Buster Posey.
Though it's tempting to go with Arencibia, Pineda has been nails for Seattle and pitched himself into the All-Star Game. Though the Mariners quickly lost traction in the week leading up to the break -- like, losing five games in the standings in five days -- Pineda's first half was stellar. Meantime, not only is Arencibia among the rookie league leaders in homers, RBI and walks, he has done a terrific job handling Toronto's pitchers. Jays manager John Farrell is giving Arencibia more playing time than he thought he would coming out of spring training, and the kid is handling it. Trumbo doesn't make up for the absence of Kendrys Morales, but he has helped the Angels with his steady bat.
With the glove, with the bat, Espinosa rocks. With 16 homers, he has more by the All-Star break than any rookie second baseman in history. Kimbrel cruised into an All-Star spot with 28 saves, a 2.35 ERA and 70 strikeouts. Freeman is getting better every day.
AL Biggest Overachiever: Indians. Raise your hand if you expected the hometown team of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to be in the thick of the AL Central race in mid-July, just half-game behind the Tigers. The Mariners were a close second, but reality is setting in.
NL Biggest Overachiever: Diamondbacks. With a bullpen softer than fondue cheese last year, the Diamondbacks had no right to expect to be 49-43 and just three games behind the Giants at the break. GM Kevin Towers and manager Kirk Gibson are quite the team. Runner-up: The Pirates. But there was talent there. At least, they were further along in 2010 than Arizona.
AL Biggest Underachiever: White Sox. If they don't make a second-half run, this is what finally will force them to fire manager Ozzie Guillen. There is no excuse for this.
NL Biggest Underachiever: Rockies. Two springs running, every scout who passed through the Cactus League has fingered Colorado as having the most talent. How a team with Troy Tulowitzki, Carlos Gonzalez and Ubaldo Jimenez can be five games under .500 (43-48) and eight games behind the Giants is the mystery of the year.
Honesty is refreshing: Three top manager moments from the first half, for sheer frankness and entertainment value:
1. Detroit's Jim Leyland on umpires: "The tension level is much more than it should be, between managers, players, coaches and umpires. I know Joe [Torre, now an executive vice-president for on-field operations] is trying to get it resolved. But right now, the tension seems like it's almost worse."
Reaction: Especially when you're talking the crew involving Joe West and Angel Hernandez. Absolutely brutal. Too many umpires have chips on their shoulders and are ready to rumble instead of looking to defuse situations.
2. Philadelphia's Charlie Manuel on Jose Contreras after the pitcher was placed on the DL after throwing 72 pitches over five days in April -- and after some folks wondered whether Manuel overworked him:
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"I don't think he had been used a lot. Really. What's today? April 25? It's April 25 and I already hear our guys need days off. Guys need this. Guys need that. I've been listening to that for about four or five years now.
"The object of it is, like I tell our guys in the meetings, the brass, the object is for us to win the game. Every day we come to the ballpark, that's the object, to win the game. Now do you want to win or do you want to lose? To me, I want to win so I'll put the best team I possibly can on the field that day. I'll give you days off when I think so. That's part of my job, too.
"If I'm going to be accountable for my job, then you let me do the whole thing. You basically let me do my whole job. I don't need nobody to tell me what to do and how to do it."
Reaction: You go, Charlie!
3. Pittsburgh's Clint Hurdle defending Andrew McCutchen and third-base coach Nick Leyva when the outfielder was thrown out attempting to tag up and score on a fly ball against Washington in April, a not-by-the-book play that ended the game with the Pirates down three that drew criticism because McCutchen's run essentially was meaningless:
"That book that everybody reads. Show me a copy, I'll read it with you. ... That book, if you look at the foreword, it says, 'This is a manager's cover-his-backside book. If you stick to this book, you can never be second-guessed. Merry Christmas.' That more or less, is what it's for. My opinion."
Reaction: Merry Christmas, indeed. Hurdle may wind up being Manager of the Year. He can write his own book.