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Key to Baseball's 2nd Half

   by Al McMordie - 06/25/2006

You'll notice that in baseball the Wild Card entry has won three of the last four World Series. That's the Angels, Marlins and Red Sox from 2002-04. None of those teams impressed in the first half of the season, and in fact the Marlins were poor. All three had to play like gangbusters down the stretch to squeeze into the playoffs. All those teams had players that said something similar: "It’s good to be pressed to make the playoffs, because it helps in October." They felt it was better to have to win late in the season, rather than have a big lead in September and coast into the postseason.
The point is, just because a manager can rest players in September doesn't mean that team has an edge in the postseason. And just because a team has to go down to the wire to clinch doesn't mean they might be burned out in October. We are starting the second half of the baseball season. A year ago at this juncture the Houston Astros were 38-42, in third place in the NL Central. They certainly didn't look like World Series material at that point, did they? But Houston got hot in the second half of the season, riding its outstanding pitching troika of Clemens, Oswalt and Pettitte, all the way to the pennant.
Two years ago the Oakland A's were 46-34 and primed to either win the division or secure a Wild Card spot, just like the previous season. They went 45-37 after that, which isn't bad, but 91 wins didn’t cut it, either, losing out to the red-hot Angels and Red Sox. One of the interesting stories of this baseball season has been the surprising start of the Cincinnati Reds. It might surprise you to know that two years ago the Reds also had a strong first half of the season with a 44-37 record. But they fell apart in the second half.
Pitching was their downfall in 2004, a problem they upgraded this year with the addition of starter Bronson Arroyo. Adding one pitcher isn't a cure-all, but it can help. Certainly the Astros hope adding ace Roger Clemens is going to be a huge plus that gives them the same kind of second half run they had a year ago. That's the key, really, regarding consistent play in the second half of the season: pitching. The A's won 91 games two years ago because they had terrific starting pitching, while the Reds flopped miserably with little in the way of quality arms in 2004. And with the trading deadline approaching soon, teams will be scrambling for pitching first.
If you examine the teams that are in contention now, take a look at their pitching depth, both starting and relieving. Do they have more than one consistent starter? Or at the very least a deep, versatile bullpen? That was the key to the Angels success in 2002. As for having more than one strong starter, only a handful of teams can claim this, such as the White Sox, Red Sox, Astros, Cardinals and Tigers.
In 2004, the eventual NL Champion Cardinals had brilliant defense, a monster offensive lineup and a deep pen. The one thing they lacked was strong starting pitching. Tony LaRussa was able to mask that deficiency because of a deep pen and the team's terrific defense in the field. The loss of Chris Carpenter in the 2004 postseason was a big blow, too, as he was their ace. There have been several surprise teams in baseball this season, and it’s going to be interesting to see if they have strong second half finishes, or folds. If you want to get a jump on predicting which teams might rise and which might fall, your first step should be to check out starting pitching. Good luck, as always...Al McMordie.

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