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3 to Watch: The 'First at the break' edition

By Danny Knobler | Baseball Insider
The Rays have never been in first place at the All-Star break. (US Presswire)

The Nationals are already guaranteed to spend the All-Star break in first place.

The Pirates could get there, as well.

Nice accomplishment, for two organizations that haven't done much winning. Nice accomplishment, but what does it mean?

Not nearly as much as you might think.

Do you know the two teams that have gone the longest without being in first place at the All-Star break?

It's not the Nationals, who were in first at the break in 2005, their first year in Washington. It's not the Pirates, who were last on top in 1997 (which was also the last year the Orioles were there).

No, it's two teams that have each been to the World Series within the past 10 years.

It's also something of a trick question. Because the two teams are the Rays and the Marlins, and neither of them has ever been in first place at the All-Star break.

Perhaps that shouldn't be surprising for the Marlins, who have never won a division title. They won the 1997 and the 2003 World Series' after qualifying as the wild card.

But the Rays? They've won the American League East two of the past four years. They've been in the playoffs three times in the past four years.

They've never been in first place at the All-Star break. They missed by a half-game in 2008, when they ended the first half with a seven-game losing streak. They were two games behind the Yankees at the break in 2010, then overtook them in September to win the division.

The Rays won't be in first place at the break this year. Neither will the Marlins.

Does it matter?

No, not really. The Tigers have been in first place at the break four times in the past six years, yet won the division only once. And in the American League East, the All-Star break leader has gone on to win the division once in the past seven years (the Red Sox in 2007).

On to 3 to Watch:

1. Stephen Strasburg is far from the only reason that the Nationals are in first place, but it is worth noting that they're 12-4 in his starts (which means they're 35-28 when he doesn't start). It's also worth noting that Strasburg could pass the 100-inning mark in the Rockies at Nationals, Friday night (7:05 ET) at Nationals Park, in the Nationals' 81st game of the season. How many of the 81 remaining games will the Nats allow him to start? Will it be enough to help them remain in first place? We'll just have to wait and see, won't we?

2. The Orioles won't end the first half in first place, but they could well end it in playoff position (where they haven't been at the midway point of a season since 1997). General manager Dan Duquette is searching for pitching to help keep them there, but he'll also need Jason Hammel to repeat his strong first half. Hammel finishes his first half with the challenge of facing Jered Weaver in Orioles at Angels, Saturday night (10:05 ET) at Angel Stadium.

3. The Pirates were a game out of first place at the break a year ago. They look to have a somewhat better chance to stay in contention this year, if only because of how the trade for A.J. Burnett has worked out. The Pirates have been a .500 team in games Burnett hasn't started, but they're 12-2 with him on the mound. He starts again in Giants at Pirates, Sunday afternoon (1:35 ET) at PNC Park, facing Tim Lincecum, who will no doubt be happy to see this first half end.

 

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