July 19, 2013

Major League Baseball: So many tales heading down the stretch

Baseball is ready to begin its second half with close division races and huge individual exploits.

By HOWIE RUMBERG The Associated Press

Much of the focus as baseball heads into the second half is on the possible suspensions of Alex Rodriguez, Ryan Braun and a handful of All-Stars implicated in the Biogenesis performance- enhancing drug scandal.

Puigmania, a Pirates revival and an impressive power show in Baltimore may shift the gaze back to the field, where there will be a lot to watch going down the regular-season stretch.

Fans who celebrated Mariano Rivera at every stop of a farewell tour should get to watch returning stars Derek Jeter, Chris Carpenter, A-Rod and even Manny Ramirez after a first half dominated by 20-somethings.

The American League won the All-Star game Tuesday night, getting home-field advantage in the World Series back after three years of NL dominance. Now the race is on to get there, and some underachieving preseason favorites are looking to make their moves.

Every playoff spot is legitimately up for grabs, with no team leading a division by more than six games. And the NL East, where Atlanta is up six on Washington, is the only place where the division leader is ahead by three games or more.

What to look for in the second half that begins Friday:

CLOCK IS TICKING

The Washington Nationals need a healthy Bryce Harper to help them chase down Atlanta.

The big-spending Dodgers are surging, 17-5 since June 22, thanks to the youthful exuberance of Yasiel Puig, with a smile to match that of the owner, Magic Johnson.

The Blue Jays made the biggest offseason moves but NL Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey's knuckleball has been mostly off-target and Toronto finds itself in last place in the AL East. But don't count anyone out in what's widely considered the toughest division in the majors.

Pedro Alvarez and the Pittsburgh Pirates appear poised to put 20 years of misery behind, after two years of teasing fans by being in the hunt heading into the break only to fade down. With the Houston Astros now in the AL, the NL Central is one of the most competitive divisions.

Reds Manager Dusty Baker knew it would be a stiffer challenge this year.

"I figured it would be close, closer, because none of us have the Astros in our division that we were counting on -- not to malign them -- but they were in our division last year and every team kind of counted on beating them," he said. "Now you've got to beat each other."

So far it's only been California dreamin' for Josh Hamilton in his first year in Los Angeles, even with Houston in the division. He'll have to improve on his .224 average and .413 slugging percentage for the Angels to have a shot to overtake Yoenis Cespedes and the pesky Oakland A's. Albert Pujols' ballclub is 11 games back in the AL West and nine games behind for the wild card.

HOMER CRUSH

Baltimore's big bopper Chris Davis is off on a race of his own. With 37 homers before the break, tying Reggie Jackson (1969) for best ever in the AL, talk of the single-season home run record is bubbling again.

But Davis doesn't have his sights set on Barry Bonds' 73 homers; he wants to top Roger Maris' 61, the number he thinks is a legitimate, untainted mark.

"After everything came out, I assumed 61 was the record," Davis said. "I think it's what a lot of fans would agree on."

Davis, whose previous career high for homers was last year's 33, needs 25 homers in 66 games to reach 62. Of course, most of the rest of baseball goes with Bonds' number, including Davis' teammate, Adam Jones.

(Continued on page 2)

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