Biggest first-half storylines (cont.)
Clearly, the Red Sox are among the teams most affected by injuries this year. Given their disappointing performances last year, one could spin the absences of Crawford and Lackey as positives, but the fact remains that Boston's outfield has been decimated by injuries, with not only Crawford and Ellsbury, but the intended rightfield platoon of Ryan Sweeney (concussion, broken toe) and Cody Ross (broken foot), and backups Darnell McDonald (oblique strain) and Scott Podsednik (groin strain) hitting the disabled list at one point or another.
The Sox also lost Kevin Youkilis for 22 games due to a back injury before trading him to the White Sox, have yet to see the debut of offseason closer acquisition Bailey following a late-March thumb injury, were without Daisuke Matsuzaka until late May due to his rehabilitation from June 2011 Tommy John surgery (though one could also spin that positively), have seen Dustin Pedroia struggle following a late-May thumb strain (.216/.283/.314 since returning to action on June 5), and just lost Clay Buchholz to esophagitis.
Mix in a lousy first-half from Adrian Gonzalez (.272/.322/.405), disappointing showings from Jon Lester (5-5, 4.53 ERA) and Josh Beckett (4-7, 4.06 ERA) and the failure of Daniel Bard's conversion to the rotation (he went 5-6 with a 5.24 ERA, 1.62 WHIP, and more walks than strikeouts before being sent down to the minors), and it's no surprise that Boston had a losing record as late as June 15, when it was 31-33 and in last place in the AL East, 7 1/2 games out of first place. Since then, however, the Red Sox have gone 11-5 and are just one-half game out of the second Wild Card spot in the AL.
It remains to be seen if Boston can stay in the race, but there have been bright spots. Chief among them are a big season from David Ortiz (.301/.388/.602, 21 HR, 54 RBIs), strong work from 29-year-old sophomore leftfielder Daniel Nava (.293/.408/.463) -- an on-base machine in the leadoff spot -- power from catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia (second to Ortiz on the team in home runs with 15), the fine play of third baseman Will Middlebrooks and the return of the uncharacteristically productive Ross to help stabilize the lineup.
A far more convincing turnaround has been that of the Angels, who due largely to the struggles of their offense, "led" by Albert Pujols' uncharacteristic early-season slump, were just 18-25 on May 21 and eight games behind the first-place Rangers in the AL West. Pujols was hitting just .212/.256/.318 at that point in the season, but has gone .348/.424/.630 since with nine home runs and 30 RBIs in 36 games. Meanwhile, the release of Bobby Abreu (who went to the Dodgers) and a thumb injury suffered Vernon Wells cleared room in the outfield for rookie sensation Mike Trout and sophomore Mark Trumbo, the latter of whom was pushed off first base by Pujols' arrival and lacked a clear role on the team for most of April. Both have played at an MVP level since early May. The Angels scored 3.6 runs per game through May 21. They have scored 5.3 runs per game since.
On the mound, the Halos are getting Cy Young-quality seasons from Weaver, now back from a brief back injury, and C.J. Wilson, and have established a dominant end-game due in set-up man Scott Downs and closer Ernesto Frieri, who hasn't allowed a run to score on his watch in 24 1/3 innings since being acquired from the Padres in early May. The Angels are 27-10 (.730) since May 21 and are comfortably in the lead for the first Wild Card spot, right where many expected them to be.
Impressive as the Angels' turnaround has been, the vast majority of the attention in Anaheim has been focused on the 20-year-old Trout, who, along with the Nationals' 19-year-old rookie phenom Bryce Harper, may actually be the biggest story of the first half. Both centerfielders were called up on April 28 and are having once-in-a-generation seasons for players their age. Trout is a legitimate MVP candidate at the age of 20, hitting .339/.395/.542 with nine home runs, 51 runs scored (in barely more than two months!), and leading the league in batting and stolen bases (22 at an 88 percent success rate) while playing a spectacular centerfield. Trout is having the kind of season that only Hall of Famers are capable of at the age of 20 and is actually within range of having the greatest season ever by a 20 year old in the major leagues.
For his part, Harper, who enters Tuesday's action hitting .274/.348/.471 with eight homers, 22 RBIs and eight stolen bases, is having the best season by a teenage hitter since Tony Conigliaro in 1964 and could well finish the year as the best 19-year-old hitter in major league history.
Trout and Harper have been so good that they are overshadowing the thrilling seasons their teams are having (the Nationals, oh by the way, have the best record in the National League, thanks largely to the major leagues' stingiest pitching staff). They're also overshadowing the (admittedly less thrilling) rookie seasons of arguably the best Japanese pitcher and Cuban hitter ever to jump to the major leagues, the Rangers' Yu Darvish and the A's Yoenis Cespedes, respectively. They've been so good that they're drawing comparisons to Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays, a pair of legendary centerfielders who debuted in the same season in opposite leagues at the ages of 19 and 20, respectively, 61 years ago. That comparison may be unfair, as such comparisons always are, but it's hard to argue that it's not apt.
There have been five no-hitters in the first half of the 2012 season, two of which were perfect games. The last of the five, Matt Cain's perfect game, came on June 13. Only once in major league history were five no-hitters thrown by an earlier date, that being way back in 1917, when the fifth no-hitter of that season was thrown on May 6 (there were six total that season, the last coming on June 23). Since then, the closest such season was 1990, when there were three no hitters through June 11 and two more thrown on June 29. There were seven total no-hitters that season, the modern record, tied the following year. The all-time record for most no-hitters in a season is eight, set in 1884.
None of the seasons mentioned above included a perfect game. This is just the third season in major league history in which there have been two perfect games, joining 1880 and 2010. In 2010, there were four no-hitters, including both perfect games, by June 25 and six total no-hit games on the season, but the fifth didn't come until July 26. There have never been three perfect games in a single season.
Frequency isn't the only thing that makes this year's no-hitters special however. Included in those five no-hit games were the first in the 51-year history of the New York Mets, thrown by Johan Santana, a former two-time Cy Young winner who missed all of last season due to injury, one of the most dominant nine-inning pitching performances in major league history, and a rare combined no-hitter by the Mariners in which they tied a record by using six pitchers. The latter was also the first combined no-hitter since 2003 and just the 10th in major league history, making it one of the rarest feats in baseball. It was even more rare than Josh Hamilton's four home run game, a feat he pulled off on May 8 during one of the best single-game hitting performances ever.
Then, in June, Aaron Hill did something more rare than any of the above: He hit for his second cycle of the season, becoming just the fourth player ever to do so, the first since Babe Herman in 1931, and just the second since 1887. He was also just the second man ever to cycle twice in a single calendar month, doing it for the second time 11 days after the first. That, alas, was not a record. Back in 1883, Cincinnati first baseman John Reilly cycled twice in eight days.
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