Second-half story lines: races, deals and healthy returns

Ubaldo Jimenez is halfway to 30 wins. Miguel Cabrera is poised to make a serious run at the Triple Crown. No-hitters are being pitched at a near-record pace.

But the No. 1 reason to look forward to baseball’s second half, which begins with seven games Thursday, has nothing to do with individual glory. It is all about the pennant races, which are as plentiful as they are tight. For the first time since the dawn of the six-division alignment, no division leader will take more than a 4 1/2-game lead into the second half.

Even more surprising are the teams on top, where only one club pegged for first place — who else, the Yankees — resides there. In the N.L., the Braves have zoomed past the Phillies in the East, the Reds have overtaken the Cardinals in the Central and the Padres continue to surprise in the West. In the American League, the White Sox have come from 9 1/2 games back to lead the Central in just more than a month, and the Rangers sit 4 1/2 games ahead of the perennial-favorite Angels.

Three factors that will impact the races long before the September stretch.

SCHEDULE MATTERS
Because 17 clubs have a legitimate chance of reaching the postseason, contenders will face off regularly from now until October. Just look at this weekend, for example:

David Price says the Rays just need to get either their offense or pitching on track and the other will follow.
David Price says the Rays just need to get either their offense or pitching on track and the other will follow.

Rays at Yankees. The Rays led the Yankees until their June swoon. A 9-2 July has pushed them in front of the Red Sox and within two games of the Yankees. "We struggled offensively and pitching two or three weeks ago but came out of it," A.L. All-Star starter David Price said. "That’s what good teams do. If we get our one or the other — our offense or our pitching — back on track, we’ll be fine."

The Yankees will finish the season without two fallen franchise icons, though they will be remembered on the teams’ uniforms. New York will have a prominent black patch on the front of its uniforms in honor of owner George Steinbrenner and another — featuring a microphone — on its left sleeves in memory of long-time public address announcer Bob Sheppard.

White Sox at Twins. MVP candidate Justin Morneau skipped the All-Star Game in hopes that he will be ready to return Thursday from a concussion suffered last week. Minnesota needs all the help it can get to slow the White Sox, who closed the first half with an eight-game winning streak and a 25-5 run.

Rangers at Red Sox. No club faces a tougher second-half schedule than the Red Sox, who still have 10 games remaining against the Yankees and six against the Rays. Oh yeah, they also have two series against the first-place White Sox, another with the Rangers and an upcoming 10-game trip to the West Coast. Boston will face Rangers newcomer Cliff Lee on Saturday.

Rockies at Reds. Cincinnati catches a break because the Rockies have pushed back Jimenez’s next start to next week.

Dodgers at Cardinals. Asked to make a second-half prediction, Cardinals righthander Adam Wainwright said: "You’ll see a better brand of baseball from the Cardinals." The club has underachieved but is just one game back. "Treading water, that’s exactly what we’ve been doing," Wainwright said.

DEADLINE DEALS
With last week’s acquisition of Lee, Texas likely wrapped up the title of "biggest winner" before the nonwaiver trading deadline. But that doesn’t mean there will be a lack of moves by contenders before July 31.

The Padres need a slugger, and the Brewers’ Corey Hart remains a possibility. The Twins and Mets might have to settle for a back-of-the-rotation type such as Kevin Millwood or Jake Westbrook to bolster their rotations if, as is likely, the Diamondbacks keep Dan Haren and the Astros don’t move Roy Oswalt. Orioles All-Star Ty Wigginton could be a valuable utility player for a banged-up club such as the Phillies, but he refused to consider the possibility of being traded when he was in Anaheim.

HEALTHY RETURNS
The Mets and Reds won’t have to make a deal to add potential impact players to their rosters. Center fielder Carlos Beltran, out all season after right knee surgery, already has been penciled into the Mets’ cleanup spot for this weekend’s series at San Francisco. How manager Jerry Manuel juggles his four-man outfield remains to be seen.

Reds righthander Edinson Volquez has been sharp in his rehab starts and could make his debut as soon as this weekend, in part because he was able to serve his 50-game suspension for performance enhancers while on the disabled list recovering from Tommy John surgery.

The Red Sox can only hope for good news about their long injury list. Starters Josh Beckett and Clay Buchholz are in the rehab-start stages and, barring setbacks, should be back by the end of the month. The returns of second baseman Dustin Pedroia (broken left foot), catchers Victor Martinez (left thumb) and Jason Varitek (broken left foot) and outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury (ribs) are less certain.

The Red Sox could use those players sooner than later because, as Mets third baseman David Wright said at the All-Star Game, "September is just around the corner."

Stan McNeal is a writer for Sporting News. E-mail him at smcneal@sportingnews.com.

Ubaldo Jimenez is halfway to 30 wins. Miguel Cabrera is poised to make a serious run at the Triple Crown. No-hitters are being pitched at a near-record pace.

But the No. 1 reason to look forward to baseball’s second half, which begins with seven games Thursday, has nothing to do with individual glory. It is all about the pennant races, which are as plentiful as they are tight. For the first time since the dawn of the six-division alignment, no division leader will take more than a 4 1/2-game lead into the second half.

Even more surprising are the teams on top, where only one club pegged for first place — who else, the Yankees — resides there. In the N.L., the Braves have zoomed past the Phillies in the East, the Reds have overtaken the Cardinals in the Central and the Padres continue to surprise in the West. In the American League, the White Sox have come from 9 1/2 games back to lead the Central in just more than a month, and the Rangers sit 4 1/2 games ahead of the perennial-favorite Angels.

Three factors that will impact the races long before the September stretch.

SCHEDULE MATTERS
Because 17 clubs have a legitimate chance of reaching the postseason, contenders will face off regularly from now until October. Just look at this weekend, for example:

David Price says the Rays just need to get either their offense or pitching on track and the other will follow.
David Price says the Rays just need to get either their offense or pitching on track and the other will follow.

Rays at Yankees. The Rays led the Yankees until their June swoon. A 9-2 July has pushed them in front of the Red Sox and within two games of the Yankees. "We struggled offensively and pitching two or three weeks ago but came out of it," A.L. All-Star starter David Price said. "That’s what good teams do. If we get our one or the other — our offense or our pitching — back on track, we’ll be fine."

The Yankees will finish the season without two fallen franchise icons, though they will be remembered on the teams’ uniforms. New York will have a prominent black patch on the front of its uniforms in honor of owner George Steinbrenner and another — featuring a microphone — on its left sleeves in memory of long-time public address announcer Bob Sheppard.

White Sox at Twins. MVP candidate Justin Morneau skipped the All-Star Game in hopes that he will be ready to return Thursday from a concussion suffered last week. Minnesota needs all the help it can get to slow the White Sox, who closed the first half with an eight-game winning streak and a 25-5 run.

Rangers at Red Sox. No club faces a tougher second-half schedule than the Red Sox, who still have 10 games remaining against the Yankees and six against the Rays. Oh yeah, they also have two series against the first-place White Sox, another with the Rangers and an upcoming 10-game trip to the West Coast. Boston will face Rangers newcomer Cliff Lee on Saturday.

Rockies at Reds. Cincinnati catches a break because the Rockies have pushed back Jimenez’s next start to next week.

Dodgers at Cardinals. Asked to make a second-half prediction, Cardinals righthander Adam Wainwright said: "You’ll see a better brand of baseball from the Cardinals." The club has underachieved but is just one game back. "Treading water, that’s exactly what we’ve been doing," Wainwright said.

DEADLINE DEALS
With last week’s acquisition of Lee, Texas likely wrapped up the title of "biggest winner" before the nonwaiver trading deadline. But that doesn’t mean there will be a lack of moves by contenders before July 31.

The Padres need a slugger, and the Brewers’ Corey Hart remains a possibility. The Twins and Mets might have to settle for a back-of-the-rotation type such as Kevin Millwood or Jake Westbrook to bolster their rotations if, as is likely, the Diamondbacks keep Dan Haren and the Astros don’t move Roy Oswalt. Orioles All-Star Ty Wigginton could be a valuable utility player for a banged-up club such as the Phillies, but he refused to consider the possibility of being traded when he was in Anaheim.

HEALTHY RETURNS
The Mets and Reds won’t have to make a deal to add potential impact players to their rosters. Center fielder Carlos Beltran, out all season after right knee surgery, already has been penciled into the Mets’ cleanup spot for this weekend’s series at San Francisco. How manager Jerry Manuel juggles his four-man outfield remains to be seen.

Reds righthander Edinson Volquez has been sharp in his rehab starts and could make his debut as soon as this weekend, in part because he was able to serve his 50-game suspension for performance enhancers while on the disabled list recovering from Tommy John surgery.

The Red Sox can only hope for good news about their long injury list. Starters Josh Beckett and Clay Buchholz are in the rehab-start stages and, barring setbacks, should be back by the end of the month. The returns of second baseman Dustin Pedroia (broken left foot), catchers Victor Martinez (left thumb) and Jason Varitek (broken left foot) and outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury (ribs) are less certain.

The Red Sox could use those players sooner than later because, as Mets third baseman David Wright said at the All-Star Game, "September is just around the corner."

Stan McNeal is a writer for Sporting News. E-mail him at smcneal@sportingnews.com.

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