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Like a golfer at
the turn, a football team going back on the field at halftime or Ryan Seacrest
coming up for air between gigs, a baseball team coming out of the All-Star
break is rejuvenated by the possibilities of what seems a fresh start. Over the
past four years no team has played baseball's back nine better than the New
York Yankees, the only club to play .600 ball or better after the All-Star
break in each of those seasons. Their captain, shortstop Derek Jeter, did not
hesitate to reveal the formula for such second-half success. "You have to
have good pitching," he said last Friday before the Yankees, playing to
form, opened another second act by sweeping a three-game series from the
Chicago White Sox. "If you rely on offense, it's going to come and go. But
if you pitch well, you can find a way to win even when you don't
Fitness aside, Ponson's glorified tryout in the New York rotation--he replaced last July's potluck pickup, righthander Shawn Chacon--stood as a prime example of the strange, even desperate days of this second half. Thanks to the wild-card format and revenue sharing, pennant races are no longer exclusively for the elite. A record-tying 19 teams stood within five games of a playoff spot at the All-Star break, matching the total at that time in 2004. "Everybody's looking for the same thing," says Toronto Blue Jays general manger J.P. Ricciardi, referring to a picked-over pitching market, "and there's nothing out there."
Only the New York Mets, with a 12-game lead in the NL East at week's end, and the AL Central--leading Detroit Tigers, the 12th team ever to start a 162-game schedule 62--30 or better, looked like locks to be playing in October. So muddled was the rest of the playoff picture that two teams with losing records entering the first weekend of the second half, the Los Angeles Angels and the Colorado Rockies, still bore the look of second-half success stories waiting to happen. In addition to playing in forgiving divisions, the Angels and the Rockies were fortified by solid pitching, productive farm systems (which enable them to explore what limited trade possibilities do exist) and every-day lineups stocked with players in or entering their prime--all essential elements for second-half success. Says one AL executive, "The Angels are the one team that clearly underachieved in the first half and have all the pieces for a huge second half. Their pitching is scary good, and if they add one bat, look out."
Meanwhile, San Francisco Giants G.M. Brian Sabean identified last-place Colorado, which has been to the playoffs only once in its 14-year history, in 1995, as the most formidable challenger in the tightly packed NL West. And even as a bullpen collapse contributed to a seven-game losing streak last week, Rockies G.M. Dan O'Dowd wasn't inclined to disagree. "I think we're the team [in the division] that has the best chance to get better," he said. "We haven't come near our ceiling yet. The only thing we don't have is experience. We're still learning how to win at this level."
If the first half of a season offers hope to the mediocre, the second half demands excellence. From 2001 through last season 30 teams played .600 ball or better after the All-Star break, including seven of the past eight World Series teams. Of those seven clubs, each had a significantly higher winning percentage in the second half (.070 higher on average). Here, starting with Jeter's prerequisite, is what it will take for such a second-half surge.
Pitching, Pitching, Pitching
Of those 30 teams that were hot after the All-Star break, 21 finished among the top four in ERA in their respective leagues. That means the Milwaukee Brewers (16th in the NL through Sunday), Philadelphia Phillies (12th), Cincinnati Reds (11th), Blue Jays (10th in the AL) and Texas Rangers (eighth) appeared to be underfortified for a .600 run in the second half, despite their relative proximity to a playoff spot at the break. On the other hand, the Angels (second in the AL) and the Rockies (third in the NL) were contenders on more solid footing. Los Angeles boasted the league's best rotation this side of the scorching Tigers, with Bartolo Colon pitching well since returning from the disabled list, John Lackey ranking second in the league in ERA (2.69) while holding opponents to a .194 batting average, Ervin Santana (11--3) flourishing in his first full season in a big league rotation and Jered Weaver becoming the first rookie to win his first six starts since the Dodgers' Kaz Ishii in 2002.
" Toronto will be better in the second half if [A.J.] Burnett makes all his starts," Yankees G.M. Brian Cashman says of the righthander who recently came off a two-month stay on the DL. "But if the Angels play like they're supposed to--and they will if they keep getting that kind of pitching--I'm sure they'll be there in the end."
For the first time in his seven years as Colorado G.M., O'Dowd was not searching for starting pitching. His rotation's 4.32 ERA was nearly a full run better than the franchise record (5.19, in 1995), and the quartet of Jason Jennings, Aaron Cook, Jeff Francis and Josh Fogg had yet to miss a start. O'Dowd, however, was looking for an experienced relief pitcher to revive his slumping bullpen. Possibilities included LaTroy Hawkins of the Orioles, Roberto Hernandez of the Pittsburgh Pirates and Elmer Dessens of the Kansas City Royals.
Those pedestrian arms aren't likely to create a ripple throughout the division. So scarce is available pitching, however, that Cincinnati last week traded two productive every-day players, outfielder Austin Kearns and shortstop Felipe Lopez, to Washington to essentially obtain two setup men, Gary Majewski and Bill Bray. Unless the Phillies put Tom Gordon on the market, relievers traded this July may be as underwhelming as the batch moved a year ago, when Kyle Farnsworth, Ron Villone, Kevin Gryboski, Jay Witasick and Chad Bradford were dealt.