July 13, 2012
With Tuesday’s 8-0 demolition by the National League over the American League in Major League Baseball’s All Star Game, the excitement and festivities of showcasing the sport’s best and brightest has faded away, to be replaced by the second half of the season. There is no shortage of exciting moments that have come and gone, and with the trade deadline two and a half weeks away, it is almost a certainty that a flurry of activity that could change the playoff picture as we see it today looms on the horizon.
As the second half looks to get underway Friday afternoon, let’s take a look at some of the more compelling storylines that have carried us through the first half of the 2012 season and a look at what we may see in the second half. The addition of the second wild card in each league has teams that normally would be forgotten about by this time of the year still very much alive and well in the postseason chase.
The Pirates: Raise your hand if you had the Pittsburgh Pirates projected to lead the National League Central at the All-Star break. Now, all of you that have your hands up, put them down, because you’re lying and you know it.
The Pirates haven’t had a winning season since 1992, the year that Francisco Cabrera’s pinch-hit single in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game Seven plated two runs and gave Atlanta a 3-2 victory and the National League pennant. To pour salt in an open wound, ex-Pirate Sid Bream scored the winning run, sliding to beat the throw of Barry Bonds. Their 19 year run of futility in regards to posting a winning campaign is a record for the four major professional sports leagues in North America.
Pittsburgh showed signs of life last season, with a winning record at the All-Star break for the first time since that fateful 1992 season. They were in first place as late as July 18, but a questionable safe call at home plate in the 19th inning of a game against Atlanta sent Pittsburgh in a tailspin and they finished 72-90, including a dismal 25-47 in the second half of the season.
With the acquisition of A.J. Burnett and the emergence of James MacDonald, the Pirates have a solid front of the rotation this season. The offense is still amazingly inconsistent and seemingly impotent on some nights but Andrew McCutchen leads the National League in hitting and has hit 18 home runs for the Pirates. The Pirates are hitting just .246 as a team and have the second lowest on base percentage in the National League at .300 at the break. Neither are good numbers to have if you’re hoping to be a playoff contender. It will be interesting to see what the Pirates do before the deadline; their farm system is stocked with talent thanks to so many high draft picks in recent years. Might they package a few prospects for veteran talent that could push them on to the playoffs for the first time in two decades?
The Nationals: The franchise formerly known as the Montreal Expos isn’t known for being the pinnacle of success in major league baseball. The team has never won a division title and they have just one playoff appearance to their credit. In fact, the best season in franchise history resulted in no playoff appearance: the Expos had the best mark in the major leagues in 1994 when the strike occurred. The season was never resumed, leaving a bitter taste in the mouths of Montreal fans.
This year, the Nationals look for real. They boast a terrific starting rotation headlined by Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez, while the rest of the rotation has no slouches either. All five starters have an earned run average under four, with Edwin Jackson’s 3.73 mark the highest of the group. Jordan Zimmerman has been a tough luck pitcher; he boasts a 2.61 earned run average in 17 starts but just a 5-6 record so far this season. Four of Washington’s top relievers have earned run averages below two; the team’s collective earned run average of 3.21 is tops in the National League.
Washington has benefitted from the impressive performance of phenom prospect Bryce Harper, who has lived up to the hype so far. In 63 big league games, Harper is hitting .282 with 8 home runs and 25 runs batted in along with 10 steals. He was named to the All Star Game as an injury replacement and has a bright future ahead of him. The two biggest questions ahead of the Nationals are whether they can continue to pitch well enough to win games despite a middling offense, and what the team does with Strasburg. He’s on a 160 innings limit according to team management; the inning he threw in the All Star game was his 100th of the season.
Mike Trout: It’s hard to project what a rookie will do once they make the transition to the big leagues. For every superstar that busts out and makes an impact from day one, there are a slew of players that fail to measure up to the expectations. Trout has done more than meet expectations, he has continued to exceed even the loftiest goals set by the biggest of homer fans in Anaheim.
After hitting a paltry .220 in 40 games last season after being called up by the Angels, Trout began this season in the minors once again. He was called up in late April with the Angels floundering and with his appearance on the scene, the team became relevant in the American League standings. He helped carry the team during the time that Albert Pujols was floundering and the team was getting little production from hitters like Vernon Wells and Torii Hunter.
Trout has played in 64 games since his call up and has destroyed opposing pitchers. He’s leading the American League in hitting with a .341 average, has clubbed a dozen home runs and driven in 40 while also leading the league in steals with 26. He’s boasting a .397 on base percentage and a .959 OPS so far, scoring 57 runs in the process. He has the makings of being an elite player and his presence in the lineup has revitalized the Angels.
Year of the Pitcher, Part II: Baseball historians state that 1968 was the “Year of the Pitcher.” That year saw Bob Gibson put up a live ball era record 1.12 earned run average and 13 shutouts, while Detroit’s Denny McLain became the last pitcher to win 30 games in a season with 31. What was interesting about Gibson’s numbers is the fact that despite that gaudy earned run average, he still lost NINE games that season. McLain had just one more good year in his arm, winning 24 games in 1969; he then led the AL in losses with 22 in 1971 and was out of baseball a year later.
This season has had no shortage of stellar performances on the mound. The Mets saw the first no-hitter in franchise history when Johan Santana tossed one against the defending champions, the St. Louis Cardinals, on June 1. R.A. Dickey, the 37-year-old knuckleballer picked up off the scrap heap a couple seasons ago, threw the first back-to-back interleague one-hitters and has won a dozen games for the Mets.
Philip Humber of the White Sox tossed a perfect game against the Mariners on April 21. He’s struggled since and spent time on the disabled list but is expected back next week to take his turn in the rotation for the AL Central leading White Sox. Jered Weaver threw a no-hitter against the Twins for the Angels on May 2 and is the ace of the Angels’ rotation as they charge up the American League standings. On June 8, baseball saw a rarity, something that had been accomplished only once before in history.
There have been just 10 combined no-hitters in major league history and just one had used six pitchers, that coming in a Houston Astros no-hitter of the Yankees on June 11, 2003. Nine years later, again in an interleague contest, the Seattle Mariners used six pitchers to no hit and blank the Los Angeles Dodgers by a score of 1-0. Kevin Millwood started and went six innings, but didn’t get the win as he departed with the score still tied. He sustained a groin injury and was unable to continue, turning the game over to Charlie Furbush, who got two outs.
Stephen Pryor got the final out of the seventh and after Seattle scored in the bottom of the frame, he went out to start the top of the eighth inning with a lead. Pryor was not on the mound long: after a pair of walks in nine pitches, he was gone in favor of Lucas Luetge. Luetge recorded an out on a sacrifice bunt by James Loney that moved runners to second and third with one out, the tying run standing 90 feet away. Brandon League, the former Mariners’ closer, came in and retired A.J. Ellis on a line drive to left that Chone Figgins made a nice play on. His quick, accurate throw back in held the Dodgers’ runners at bay. League rallied to fan Tony Gwynn Jr. to end the eighth.
In the ninth, Tom Wilhelmsen, a guy that was out of baseball for five years and was bartending at a bar called the Tiki Hut in Tucson, Arizona, came on to try and close things out. He got Gordon on a slow roller to short that was a bang-bang play at first. The play was the closest that the Dodgers would come to a hit in the ninth, a soft liner to short and Andre Ethier’s ground ball to second closed the deal and put the Mariners’ six pack in elite company for baseball history.
Talking about pitching wouldn’t be complete without discussing Matt Cain’s perfect game on June 14 against the Astros. Cain struck out fourteen hitters that night, fanning more Astros hitters than were able to put the ball in play. The only other pitcher in history to accomplish that feat in a perfect game is Dodgers great and Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax.
There are plenty of other great stories to talk about so far: the resurgent Orioles, Chris Davis becoming the first AL position player to get the win on the mound since the advent of divisional play in 1969, Anthony Rizzo making a splash with the Cubs, Jamie Moyer becoming the oldest pitcher to record a major league victory…the list could go on for hours. Suffice it to say that baseball’s had a little something for everyone so far this season, whether your team is in first place or last.
At the end of the day, isn’t that all we can ask for? A glorious moment in the sun, no matter how fleeting, is far better than being rained out. Let’s hear about what you’ve liked the most about the first half of the season and what you think will unfold in the second half.