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by Larry Ness - 07/14/2005
The 'key' to successfully handicapping MLB is simple. Shortly after arriving in Las Vegas back in 1982, I was given a short but sweet lesson in baseball handicapping. "Just play the streaks" I was told, by a man wise beyond his years. The fact that he was missing a few teeth and needed to borrow $5 for a buffet did not diminish the confidence he exuded explaining his foolproof system. "Just play the streaks" he insisted.
Watching the end of Tuesday night's All Star Game, my thoughts drifted to my one-time mentor. The AL's 7-5 win over the NL made it eight consecutive wins by the junior circuit, ignoring Bud Selig's infamous 7-7 tie in 2002. Streaks have been the rule in the midsummer classic, as the NL won nine straight from 1962 through 1970 and after a win by the AL in 1971, won the next 11 games, making it 20 wins in 21 seasons by the National Leaguers!
I couldn't help but think of how much money my "old friend" could have made, just playing the streaks!
Anyway, back to reality and MLB's second-half! Change is the rule rather than the exception in 2005. Just look at the All Star Game. There were 22 first-timers at the game, including 11 starters. A check of the mid-season statistics shows that AL pitchers have a lower ERA than their NL counterparts this late in a season, for the first time since 1990!
Check out MLB's three 13-game winners. Jon Garland of the White Sox entered this year 46-52 in his first five seasons but enters the second half 13-4, already posting a career-high for wins in a season! Dontrelle Willis of Florida made a splash in his rookie year (2003) going 14-6 but after a 10-11 4.02 season in 2004, who could have predicted his 13-4 2.39 first half? Chris Carpenter of the Cardinals rounds out the cast of 13-game winners. Carpenter went 49-50 in six years with Toronto but found a home with last year's NL champs, going 15-5 before arm troubles sidelined him. Clearly, at 13-4 2.51 so far, his arm problems are behind him.
There are also more than a few unfamiliar names leading the league in the triple crown stats! Andruw Jones of the Braves has topped 30 HRs in five of his last seven seasons (a high of 36 in 2003) but has already hit 27 HRs in 88 games this year, to enter the second half tied with Chicago's Derrek Lee (who had a career-high 32 HRs last year) for the NL lead. Over in the AL, Texas' Mark Teixeira leads the way with 25 HRs. Teixeira is in just his third year, having hit 26 HRs in 2003 and 38 in 2004.
Derrek Lee of the Cubs, a career .266 hitter in eight seasons prior to this year (hit a career-high .282 in 2001), leads the NL with a .378 average, 41 points better than runner-up, Albert Pujols! In the AL, Baltimore's Brian Roberts leads the way with a .345 average at the break. Roberts entered this, fifth major league season, with a career average of .264!
While Red Sox teammates Manny Ramirez (80) and David Ortiz (75) are fighting over the RBI lead in the AL, the NL race features a battle between Carlos (Brewers) and Derrek (Cubs) Lee. Carlos has 76 RBI and could become the first Brewer to lead the league in that category since Cecil Cooper tied Jim Rice for the AL RBI title in 1983!
As for Derrek Lee, his 72 RBI places him second in the league and considering he is tied with Jones for the HR lead plus has a virtual 'lock' on the batting title (a 41-point lead at the break), talk of MLB's first Triple Crown since 1968 is not out of the question.
A quick look at the standings shows that if the playoffs were to begin at the break, three of last year's postseason participants would be absent from this year's 'party', including George's Yankees. Out from last year would not only be the Yankees (won AL East) but the Dodgers (won NL West) and the Astros (NL wild card) as well. The newcomers would be the Nationals, the Padres and White Sox.
The Nationals are a terrific story. The Expos entered the league back in 1969 and in 36 seasons while playing in Montreal (including a few pit stops in Puerto Rico the last few years), made just ONE postseason appearance! In 1981, the Expos were second half champions of the NL East during that year's "split season" and beat the Phillies before losing to the Dodgers in the NLCS! Now, in the team's first season in Washington, the Nationals lead the NL East with league's second-best overall record plus own MLB's best home record at 30-13!
The Padres entered this year's All Star break at 48-41, just a half-game better than last year's 47-41 mark, that was good enough for only third place. However, because of the collapse of both the Dodgers and Giants, the Padres are in first place in 2005, 5 1/2 games up. Like the Nationals, the Padres have been around since the 1969 season and while they haven't made many postseason appearances (just three), they tend to make them count!
San Diego first made the postseason in 1984 and beat the Cubs in the NLCS before losing to the Tigers in the World Series. San Diego didn't make it into the postseason again until 1996, losing in the NLDS to the Cardinals. However, just two years later, San Diego won the NL West and made a second trip to the World Series, losing this time to the Yankees. Three postseason appearances in 36 years but TWO World Series trips, is a pretty good percentage.
Last but surely not least, are the Chicago White Sox. The White Sox have owned MLB's best record from almost Opening Day and despite a four-game sweep at home by the red-hot A's right before the break, start the second half with MLB's best overall record (57-29). The White Sox joined the AL in 1901, two years before the first World Series. The White Sox took the AL pennant that first year and won the franchise's lone World Series in 1906, beating the hated Cubs (who set a still-standing record with 116 regular season wins that year)!
The White Sox next made the World Series in 1917, beating the NY Giants in six games. Believe it or not, that was the franchise's LAST World Series win! Two years later, the infamous "Black Sox", 'lost' the 1919 World Series to the Reds and Chicago's lone World Series appearance since then came in 1959 (a six-game loss to the Dodgers)!
The White Sox have made postseason appearances in 1983, 1993 and 2000 but have lost each time (in '83 and '93 in the ALCS plus in '00 in the ALDS). Much was made last year regarding Boston's 'drought' (last WS win prior to 2004 came in 1918) but Chicago's World Series drought goes back to 1917 with just five postseason appearances since, including ZERO postseason series wins! In comparison, prior to winning last year's World Series, Boston had participated in 10 postseasons and four World Series, where they lost each time in seven games!
Chicago's playoff exploits haven't been nearly as tragic or dramatic as Boston's but in relation to time, White Sox fans have suffered longer! Of course the White Sox play in the shadow of the long-suffering Cubs in Chicago, as the Cubs last World Series win came in 1908! Since that win over Ty Cobb and the Tigers, the Cubs have advanced to seven World Series, losing each time.
Recently, the Cubs have qualified for MLB's expanded playoff structure in 1984, 1989, 1998 and 2003, falling short of a World Series appearance each time, most memorably in 2003 (it WASN'T Steve Bartman's fault!). It was bad enough for Cub fans last year with the Red Sox winning. There is no telling how bad things would be if the White Sox were to win it all in 2005!
One last thought. Don't overlook the wild card qualifiers either. The last three World Series winners have been non-division winners. In 2002, it was the Angels, in '03 the Marlins and last year the Red Sox. Wild card qualifiers ALL!