10 second-half storylines to watch
The second half should feature tight division races and shots at pitching history
The Nationals and Pirates could finish above .500 and reach franchise milestones
Several stars returning from the DL could help lead their clubs to the postseason
The All-Star Game may be thought of as baseball's midway point, but the Midsummer Classic is still almost two weeks away and several teams will actually be making the turn into the second half of play this week. On Wednesday six teams -- the Braves, Reds, Angels, Diamondbacks, Dodgers and Padres -- will become the first clubs to play their 82nd games, and by the weekend all 30 teams will officially officially have completed the first half of their schedules.
With that in mind, here's a look at the top 10 storylines to watch in the season's second half:
With the exception of the Phillies' 4˝-game lead on the Braves in the National League East, baseball's all five other divisions are separated by fewer than three games, the first time that many divisions have been so close through play on June 28 since 1994. We don't know how that year would have played out because of the strike, but it seems baseball is gearing for a close playoff chase, as 18 of the 30 clubs are either in the lead for a postseason berth or within six games of one.
In the new century division leads are slowly inching tighter through this late-June date. In the last six years the average lead at this juncture has been 2˝ games, down from an average of four games from 2001-2005.
In this, the bigger and better sequel to 2010's Year of the Pitcher, Philadelphia and Atlanta stand above the rest. The Phillies have a staff ERA of 3.01 and the Braves clock in at 3.07, putting both clubs on the verge of being the first teams with a sub-3.00 ERA since the 1989 Dodgers had a 2.95.
No team has accomplished the feat in the past 21 seasons, and only 10 teams in either league have done it since the AL implemented the designated hitter in 1973. During that time, only two of the 10 teams were AL teams (1981 Yankees and 1974 Athletics), who have an inherent disadvantage of facing more potent lineups. This year's Oakland staff ranks third in the majors with a 3.13 ERA and have a chance of reaching that benchmark.
Since 1990 there have been only seven seasons in which a starter has finished the year with a sub-2.00 ERA. Those seven were accomplished by four men -- Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux and Pedro Martinez twice apiece and Kevin Brown once -- but now the Angels' Weaver (1.97), the Braves' Jurrjens (2.07), the Giants' Ryan Vogelsong (2.09) and the Red Sox' Beckett (2.20) are currently within striking distance of joining that elite list. (Vogelsong hasn't yet thrown enough innings to qualify for the ERA title but likely will by year's end.)
They aren't the only standout starters. There are also 20 other starters whose ERA is 3.00 or lower (and another 15 at 3.20 or lower). There haven't been 20 or more such pitchers since 1992, with an average of six from 1993 through 2007, when just one, then-Padre Jake Peavy, did so. But the number has been escalating rapidly to eight in '08, 11 in '09, 15 in '10 and now 23 so far this season.
The Nationals/Expos franchise hasn't had a winning record for a season since leaving Montreal for Washington in 2005. The Pirates haven't had a winning season since 1992. Both streaks of futility could be snapped in 2011.
If the Nationals are to do so, they'll be the rare team to make significant forward progress under the leadership of three managers. Jim Riggleman guided the team to a 38-37 mark before abruptly resigning on June 23 with Washington in the midst of a stretch in which it won 11 of 12. John McLaren took over for the weekend, and the Nats took two of three games from the White Sox, before Davey Johnson was appointed interim manager for the rest of the season. The Nationals are now 40-40 and have generally been trending in the right direction with 82 games to play.
It'd be particularly surprising for the Nationals to break through in 2011, when Stephen Strasburg has been on the DL all year, Bryce Harper remains in the low levels of the minors, Jayson Werth is only having an average season and Ryan Zimmerman missed 58 games earlier this year after having abdominal surgery.
The Pirates, meanwhile, just took two of three games from the Red Sox and are two games over .500 at 40-38 with 84 games to play. Third-year centerfielder Andrew McCutchen is taking the leap to stardom under new manager Clint Hurdle, and the starting pitching staff -- panned in the preseason as one of baseball's worst -- has excelled under the tutelage of new pitching coach Ray Searage, ranking fifth in the NL with a 3.68 ERA.
If the Brewers' winning percentage at home (.725) and road (.375) were prorated over the course of 162-game slate, their record would be 117-45 in a full schedule at Miller Park and 61-101 outside of Milwaukee. That is to say, the Brewers are two very different teams depending on where they sleep at night.
Milwaukee holds a three-game lead in the NL Central with 83 games to play (41 at home, 43 on the road) and with very exaggerated offensive splits home and away. At Miller Park the Brewers are batting .282/.355/.475 with 5.4 runs and 1.4 homers per game; on the road they hit .233/.290/.370 with 3.5 runs and 0.9 homers per game. The pitching discrepancy is also sizable: 3.60 ERA, .244 average against and 3.4 K/BB at home; 4.23 ERA, .254 and 2.3 K/BB on the road.
The Brewers, who have made one playoff appearance (as a wild card) in the last 29 seasons, have never won the NL Central and last won a division as a member of the AL East in 1982. Beginning Tuesday, they entered a critical stretch on the schedule. Of their next 24 games, 21 are against clubs with a winning record and 17 of the 24 are on the road with series at the Yankees, Twins, Rockies, Diamondbacks and Giants, with home series against the Diamondbacks and Reds.