Assessing second-half chances of Nationals, Pirates and Orioles
Washington leads the NL East at the break and shows no signs of falling back
Pittsburgh has gotten better offense but has fattened up on weak teams
A rough closing schedule will hurt Baltimore's chances of reaching the playoffs
So here we stand on the first day of the second half of the baseball season, Friday the 13th, and the Washington Nationals, Pittsburgh Pirates and Baltimore Orioles -- franchises that have zero playoff appearances and 39 losing seasons out 42 combined seasons since 1998 -- hold playoff spots that are theirs to lose. Talk about spooky. It's the baseball equivalent of triple witching hour. But can it last?
There are no bigger stories to the second half than the possibility of playoff baseball in Washington (last witnessed in 1933), Pittsburgh (1992) and Baltimore (1997). Here, in order of October baseball being most likely to least likely, are the prospects for those three teams in the second half.
Record: 49-34, four-game lead in NL East
How They Got Here: Pitching. The Nats' five starters, all of whom range in age from 23-28, allow fewer hits than innings pitched. No pitching staff has allowed fewer runs, hits or homers than the Nationals staff -- and that's with 94 percent of the innings covered by pitchers between ages 23-29. Manager Davey Johnson handled a similar kind of staff with the mid-1980s Mets -- young pitchers with plus stuff -- and did such an outstanding job that almost all of those pitchers went on to lengthy careers (Dwight Gooden, Ron Darling, Sid Fernandez, Rick Aguilera, Roger McDowell, Jesse Orosco, etc.)
How They Hold Up: The offense should be much improved. Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman has exhibited signs this month (.750 slugging) that his power is returning after not slugging better than .357 in any previous month. Outfielder Jayson Werth is expected back the first week of August from a broken wrist, allowing Johnson to use Steve Lombardozzi and Danny Espinosa in a no-brainer platoon at second base.
How They Collapse: I don't see it. Even with a limit of about 160 innings on Stephen Strasburg (if the Nats are smart, and they are, they will give him extra days of rest to get him through the season around that number), Washington's pitching is too deep not to get this team into the postseason.
Trade need: Nothing major, not with erstwhile closer Drew Storen three appearances into his minor league injury rehab.
Key Stretch: Washington plays a virtual intra-divisional tournament coming out of the break: 21 of 25 games against the Braves, Mets, Marlins and Phillies.
Key Stat: The Nationals are 38-20 against teams .500 or better; only the Yankees are better.
Most Likely Outcome: They win the NL East by five games or more.
Record: 48-37, one-game lead in NL Central
How They Got Here: The bullpen has been terrific, withstanding a razor-thin margin of error for this team. The Pittsburgh bullpen is 14-6 with a major-league best 2.63 ERA. No team has won more games by one run than the Pirates (19). The bullpen is especially important because the rotation (34-31, 3.94 ERA) ranks next to last in innings and 14th in strikeout rate.
How They Hold Up: The offense, which was atrocious early, has turned a corner and can take some heat off the staff. Here are the team batting averages by month: .228 in April, .210 in May, .268 in June, .329 in July. They key player is Pedro Alvarez. The third baseman was hitting .196 on June 16. In 20 games since then, he has a slash line of .333/.429/.682, finally giving support for MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen, who has been one of the best players in baseball.
How They Collapse: The bullpen is likely to regress. Look at it this way: the Pirates' bullpen is almost half a run better than was the best 'pen in the league last year (Atlanta, 3.03).
Also, the one-run wins are likely to go the other way more often. The Pirates are on a pace for 36 one-run wins -- that would be more one-run wins than for any team in the 19-season history of the six-division format.
Trade Need: A leftfielder. The seven players Pittsburgh has used in leftfield have hit .204 with seven home runs. The Pirates could put a monster package together for Justin Upton (likely costing them top pitching prospects Gerritt Cole or Jameson Taillon) or decide that outfield stud Starling Marte, 23, is ready to make the jump from Triple-A, where he has put up an .842 OPS, stolen 18 bases and wowed people with his physical skills.
Key Stretch: The Pirates have 13 games in September against the Cubs and Astros, against whom they are 9-1.
Key Stat: Pittsburgh has fattened up on losing teams (25-9). It has the worst record of any division leader against teams at .500 or better (23-28).
Most Likely Outcome: The Pirates go 38-39 in the second half -- good enough for a real pennant race in which they finish 86-76 for their first winning record since 1992 and just four games out of the second wild card.
Record: 45-40, one-half-game lead for AL second wild card
How They Got Here: Like Pittsburgh, Baltimore has cobbled together a bullpen that is better than anybody had a right to expect: 17-6 with a 2.75 ERA. It has more wins and lower ERA than any bullpen in the league. The Orioles' blueprint is to hold the game close and wait for somebody to hit the ball out of the park late.
How They Hold Up: The Orioles need Zach Britton, who joins the rotation Tuesday, to be a difference maker -- and even then they may need another starting pitcher to emerge, possibly through a trade. Baltimore's rotation is 28-34 with a 4.77 ERA -- 11th in the league. That's not the sign of a playoff team. The return of outfielder Nick Markakis this weekend is a must have for a team with too few quality at-bats.
How They Collapse: It has begun already. The Orioles are 18-26 since May 19 as the cracks in the rotation have caught up to them. You just can't survive against AL East lineups with mediocre starting pitching; the Red Sox, Yankees and Blue Jays rank 2-3-4 in the AL in runs per game.
And asking the bullpen to pitch to a 2.75 ERA all year is asking for too much. It's been 22 years since an AL bullpen threw that well over a full season -- since the pennant-winning Athletics of 1990 put up a 2.35 mark. (No wonder the rest of baseball copied Tony La Russa's invention of the specialized bullpen.)
Trade need: At least one top-flight starting pitcher from among Cole Hamels, Zach Greinke and Ryan Dempster.
Key Stretch: The Orioles play their final 31 games against the AL East (New York, Tampa Bay, Boston or Toronto) or on the West Coast (Oakland, Seattle). Good luck with that.
Key Stat: The home-run dependent offense isn't very versatile. The Orioles don't run (dead last in steals, and with an awful 60 percent success rate), don't get on base much (12th in OBP) and don't score all that much (11th in runs).
Most Likely Outcome: For a second straight year, the baseball season comes down to Game 162 in St. Petersburg: only this time it's not about a playoff spot but the long awaited 82nd victory for a Baltimore Orioles team that hasn't had a winning season since 1997.