Toronto blue jay general manager Pat Gillick remembers his preseason prediction for the American League East race: "I figured it would be us and Milwaukee, and I gave Baltimore a shot." He figured wrong. But then most baseball prognosticators guessed wrong this season—about every division.
Who could have figured that the Chicago White Sox would be resurgent in their last season at Comiskey Park? Or that the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals would be fighting for last place in the National League East? Or that the Kansas City Royals would collapse after spending $19 million on free agents in the off-season? Or that the Cincinnati Reds would dominate the National League West? Or that the Boston Red Sox, never as many as five games above .500 last year, would be 10 games over at the All-Star break?
But if the first half was flabbergasting, the second half looks frighteningly predictable. Maybe.
This is a two-team race: the Blue Jays versus the Red Sox. At the break, Toronto had scored 79 more runs and hit 59 more homers than Boston, yet they trailed the Red Sox by a half game. Led by third baseman Kelly Gruber, arguably the league's first-half MVP, the Jays clearly have the most talent in the division. But, says Gillick, "if we're going to give Boston trouble, we can't blow hot and cold as we have." The Blue Jays need to find another starter if they are to become more consistent.
The Red Sox were last in the league in steals and next to last in home runs, and Mike Greenwell hasn't hit much at all. Still, Boston was in first place because of surprising performances from unheralded pitchers Greg Harris, Dana Kiecker and Wes Gardner.
Cy Young-in-waiting Roger Clemens (12-4) doesn't figure to falter. However, the Sox had better keep their fingers crossed with Mike Boddicker (11-4), who has a history of tiring in the second half. But the Red Sox will be in the race until the end. Boston is a good defensive team that rarely beats itself. And catcher Tony Pena's enthusiasm has helped turn a once surly clubhouse into what Harris calls "a real fun place to be."
It's a miracle that the Cleveland Indians were only six games out at the break. Pitchers Greg Swindell and John Farrell and free-agent first baseman Keith Hernandez have all been major disappointments. But the Indians are nonetheless in position to finish a full season within 10 games of first place for the first since 1959, largely because of performances of closer Doug Jones (4-2, with 23 saves); Comeback Player of the Year candidate Candy Maldonado (13 homers and 44 RBIs); and the Rookie of the Year favorite, catcher Sandy Alomar Jr. (.294).
The Baltimore Orioles have yet to reproduce the magic, emotion, pitching and defense that levitated them into first place at this time last year. "Last season we felt we were going to win most close games," says manager Frank Robinson. "Now, we hope to win." The Orioles also hope that their best pitcher, Jeff Ballard, rebounds from a 1-9 first half.
The Detroit Tigers had 10 more wins than at the same time last year, thanks to a full-sized Japanese import, Cecil Fielder (major league-leading 28 homers and 75 RBIs); a healthy Alan Trammell (.294); and a fine, though faceless, bullpen led by the revived Mike Henneman (17 saves). There's no reason they can't finish at .500, unless pitcher Jack Morris is traded to a contender down the stretch.