One half down, one to go

Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 16, 2005

After getting my midsummer fill of glorified batting practice (Home Run Derby), Tim McCarver and Joe Buck attempting to out-pop-culture each other for three and a half hours, and Scooter, FOX’s answer to SpongeBob, telling me that a fastball is fast, a change-up is slow, and a curveball, well, curves, it’s thankfully time to get on with the second half of the Major League Baseball season.

Pennant races are a definite. A triple crown is a legitimate possibility. A probable Cy Young for 42-year-old Roger Clemens would be his seventh, and excitement in unexpected cities such as Washington and Baltimore await between now and October.

Here’s my unassuming outlook, division by division.

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The AL East is a three-team race, with Baltimore currently two games in back of Boston.

New York, even after all of George Steinbrenner’s meetings, threats, warnings, and media releases, is only two and a half behind.

If any of the three is going to run away, it will be Boston. If Curt Schilling can return successfully, either as a starter or reliever, and with a remaining schedule that has 11 more home than away games, saying the Red Sox are the clear favorites is not a stretch.

The O’s and Yanks will make a fascinating wild card race along with the Twins.

If Brian Roberts keeps on hitting .344, Sammy Sosa heats up, and Randy Johnson remembers why he’s getting $15 million, it will be a fascinating AL East race.

The AL Central holds the second biggest surprise so far in the White Sox.

It’s not that strange they lead the division, but the Southsiders having the best record in baseball pales only to the NL East-leading Nationals in shock value.

Chicago’s success is via the arms of Mark Buehrle, Jon Garland, Freddy Garcia, and Orlando Hernandez and their combined 38-12 record.

Chicago’s possible downfall is also its starting pitching.

Recent injury problems for Hernandez

may have been a precursor to future problems.

The Sox have no depth behind their five starters, and the only answer to a season-ending injury to any of their starters would be an emergency trade.

Minnesota, known for having outstanding Augusts and Septembers, is nine games back of Chicago, but still in solid shape for the wild card spot.

With four years of successful pennant race experience, three top starting pitchers, and All-Star closer Joe Nathan, the Twins might not be able to fully close the gap on Chicago, but they will be somewhere in the AL playoff picture come September, and my guess is, October too.

The Angels are the clear class of the AL West. Vladimir Guerrero (16 HRs despite missing three weeks to injury) and Garrett Anderson (65 RBI) provide large doses of power to a well-balanced lineup that normally has Bengie Molina (.311 BA) and Adam Kennedy (.347 BA) in the bottom third of the batting order.

In the NL East, the Nats crowd’s jumping and making the RFK stands shake is the best idea out of Washington in recent memory.

I’m pulling for the Nats; they are a great story, especially against such wasteful franchises like Philadelphia and the Mets, but I look behind them in the standings and only a few games out is Atlanta and their 13 straight division titles.

Atlanta is my pick to win the division, but the Nats are still a good enough team to win the wild card.

In the Central is the best team in the majors right now.

They don’t have the best record, and they might end up being bested by an AL side in the series, but the Cardinals are the best in the majors at the moment, and the best in the NL for the remainder of this season.

The Cubs and Astros have the most intriguing individual stories of the season even though their teams have been disappointing.

Derrek Lee leads the NL in average by nearly 40 points, is tied for the homer lead with Andruw Jones (27), and trails Carlos Lee by only four RBI.

Roger Clemens, barring a Steinbrenner intrusion, currently has a better than 50-50 shot at the Cy Young.

And finally, and it deserves to be last, the NL West, in which only the Padres are over .500.

Yet, Arizona, the Dodgers, and San Fran are still within reach.

Out of those four I’ll go with Arizona. They are the one team of the bunch that should be happy with where they are right now; they have six guys on pace for 20 or more homers, and Brandon Lyon and Lance Cormier have been quietly dominant in the late innings out of the pen.

Andrew Giermak is a staff writer for the News-Herald. He can be reached at 934-9617. E-mail at