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The Great Races

   by Al McMordie - 07/01/2010

Unlike most years, there aren't any divisions in baseball lacking pennant race drama this season. Every division is up for grabs as we hit the halfway mark this week. Here's a peek at what is shaping up to be great pennant races all over.

AL Central: Three teams, the Twins, White Sox and Tigers, are thick in the race for the top spot. The Cubs aren't in any pennant race, but the other Chicago team is, coming out of nowhere, at one point, to win 11 in a row, their longest win streak since 1961, as well as 15 wins in 16 games.
The White Sox are not impressive in stats, ranking 10th in the AL in runs and on base percentage, and 8th in pitching. So what are they doing right, other than winning? Steals. Ozzie Guillen is playing some NL-style ball, second in the AL in steals with Alex Rios and Juan Pierre atop the order. They posted 3 shutouts during that win streak and allowed 2 runs or less in 9 of 13 games, part of a 7-1 run under the total. The White Sox are 15-8 in one run games.

NL West: The Giants, Dodgers and Rockies are all within striking distance of the surprising Padres, a team that simply won't go away. San Diego became the first team in nearly two months to score more than one run against Florida ace Josh Johnson, and the NL West-leading Padres also took advantage of two huge breaks in the fifth inning on their way to a 2-1 win. Adrian Gonzalez and David Eckstein each finished with two hits for the Padres in that game.
Still, you have to wonder how long it will be before the San Diego offense drags this team down. Can they win the division with an offense ranked 13th in the NL in runs, 14th in slugging and on-base percentage? Like the White Sox, the Padres are making up for it by being aggressive on the base paths, ranked second in steals in the NL.
The Dodgers have had a lousy month. One thing to keep an eye on is that the Dodgers have struggled against left-handers this season, not a good sign for a team in a division packed with quality left-handed starters. Of the Dodgers' regulars, only Casey Blake and Matt Kemp have a better batting average against left-handers than right-handers. Andre Ethier, who has struggled against left-handers in his career, is batting .341 off right-handers, .245 off left-handers. The most curious case is that of Manny Ramirez, a career .336 hitter off left-handers. Ramirez is batting .233 off left-handers this season and .329 off right-handers. The Dodgers posted a .564 winning percentage in games started by right-handers this season, .450 in games started by left-handers.

AL East: The defending champion Yankees are the team to beat, recently taking over first place. It's the other two teams, the Rays and Red Sox, that are the most interesting to watch. Tampa Bay has a great balance of pitching, speed, defense and power to be in the race all season. They still have the best road record in the majors.
The Red Sox had a terrible April, but have been on a tear since, despite a slew of key injuries to two starting pitchers, two starting outfielders, and this past weekend former MVP second baseman Dustin Pedroia went on the disabled list with a broken left foot, out 6 weeks, a huge blow. He's tied for the American League lead with 24 doubles, and is tied for fourth with 52 runs scored. In that same game, ace pitcher Clay Buchholz left his outing after only one inning with a hyperextended left knee.
That makes their 4-2 win at the Giants, over their top pitching prospect, even more impressive. That came on the heels of a wild 13-11 extra inning win at Colorado, showing great resiliency. Some good news is that pitcher Josh Beckett is expected back soon. The offense was supposed to have slipped in 2010, yet they are leading the majors in runs.

NL East: Who's on First? Who's IN First? One week the Phillies are in first place, the next week the surging Braves take over, now here comes the red hot Mets. The Mets have had a roller coaster season because of erratic starting pitching. 35-year old knuckleballer R.A. Dickey got thrown into the rotation last month out of necessity and has been a savior, throwing great after replacing walk-man Oliver Perez.
This past weekend, ace Johan Santana had another dud, with a 41-pitch, four-run first inning reminding everyone of his September surgery on his elbow. The offense is tops in the NL in steals and they are likely in the pennant race until the end, so don't be surprised if they make a pitch for Cliff Lee or Roy Oswalt soon. Sports bettors note that they were on a 14-7-1 run under the total.
The Phillies are currently in third place, but they are probably the team to beat in this division. After a month-long slump, the bats are back in working order, shortstop Jimmy Rollins is off the disabled list, and more reinforcements (starter J.A. Happ and reliever Ryan Madson) are close to returning. The Phillies had won six of eight games going into last weekend, and during that stretch the trio of Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, and Jason Werth batted a combined .384 with eight home runs and 26 RBIs. This is the same core group that in 2007 rallied from a seven-game deficit on Sept. 12 to win the N.L. East, and in 2008 overcame a 3 1/2-game deficit on Sept. 10 and won the World Series. Baseball is a 162-game grind -- a marathon, not a sprint, in the same way that successful, patient, disciplined sports bettors grind out a profit over the long haul. Good luck, as always...Al McMordie.

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