- Major League Baseball's first half is now in the books. So, while the All-Stars converge on Kansas City, let's take a look back at some of the top stories through the first part of the season.
In no particular order and without further ado:
The Pittsburgh Pirates were one of the best stories in baseball at last year's All-Star break, but things went horribly wrong for them after that and the team stumbled to a North American sports-record 19th consecutive losing season. This year, the Bucs find themselves 11 games over .500 and hold a one-game lead over the Cincinnati Reds in the National League Central. Andrew McCutchen is blossoming into one of the best players in the game and A.J. Burnett is pitching like the right-hander the New York Yankees gave $80-plus million to before the 2009 season. I'm not sure if the Pirates have enough to make the postseason, but they will be fun to watch, as they take aim at their first winning season since 1992.
NEW YORK METS
Speaking of first-half surprises, how about the New York Mets. An offseason punch line in most circles, some people thought the Mets were going to lose well over 100 games. Not only are the Mets six games over .500, but they are right in the thick of things in the NL East. When you look at their lineup, it's actually amazing the Mets are in this position. That is a credit to manager Terry Collins. R.A. Dickey's story has been amazing and Johan Santana's comeback from shoulder surgery was complete when he tossed the first no-hitter in team history on June 1. How Santana holds up for them down the stretch may go a long way in deciding their postseason fate.
As good as New York and Pittsburgh have been, the biggest disappointment in baseball has to be the Philadelphia Phillies. The five-time defending NL East champions had to deal with injuries to Roy Halladay, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, while Cliff Lee just picked up his first win of the season on July 4. The bullpen has been abysmal and the Phils seem to be headed toward a 90-loss season. Still, they could be the team to watch in the second half. Why? Well they have perhaps the biggest trade commodity on the market in lefty Cole Hamels, who can become a free agent at season's end.
Before the start of the season, New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera said he had already known if this was going to be his last year or not. Well, that all changed on May 3 in Kansas City when the future Hall of Famer tore his ACL shagging fly balls before a game. Rivera has already stated that he will be back next year, but coming off knee surgery and the fact that he'll be 43 in November, you have to wonder if we've seen the last of the great Rivera.
OZZIE GUILLEN COMMENTS
Well, it didn't take Ozzie Guillen long to leave his mark on South Beach, although I think he'd have preferred to do it a different way. Guillen created a firestorm in Miami with his comments in Time Magazine, praising Cuban leader Fidel Castro. The Marlins suspended him five games, but there are still some who think he should have been fired. The Marlins can have 20 straight losing seasons and nobody cares. But say something like that in Miami of all places and there is going to be trouble. Compounding the situation is the fact the Marlins are among the league's biggest underachievers following an offseason that saw owner Jeffrey Loria dole out close to $200 million.
Perhaps the most baffling story of the first half is what has become of Tim Lincecum. The two-time NL Cy Young winner fell to 3-10 on Sunday and saw his ERA rise to 6.42. His WHIP is at 1.58 and he has been one of the worst pitchers in baseball all season. So what's wrong? Everyone says there is no injury, but his fastball isn't popping anymore and that devastating change-up isn't fooling anyone. I know this, though: If Lincecum somehow gets it together in the second half, the already impressive Giants may be tap dancing their way to a second title in three years. That seems like a big if at the moment.
When he is firing on all cylinders, is there a better player in baseball than Josh Hamilton? Following an offseason that saw him slip up with alcohol, Hamilton has been magnificent for the American League West-leading Rangers, hitting .308 with 27 home runs and 75 RBI. Injuries always seem to rear their ugly head with him, but he is a legitimate Triple Crown talent when healthy.
YOUKILIS SAYS GOODBYE TO RED SOX
Kevin Youkilis' time with the Red Sox essentially ended in April when new manager Bobby Valentine questioned his commitment to the team. You can probably say a lot of things about Youkilis, but questioning his desire to play? The damage was done. Then to make matters worse, rookie Wil Middlebrooks emerged while Youkilis was hurt and the trade talk really started to heat up. Youk was finally shipped to the Chicago White Sox, but not before getting a proper sendoff from the Fenway crowd following a triple in his final at-bat with the team. Youkilis was removed after the hit, signaling a trade was near and he left to a standing ovation. For anyone wondering, Youkilis is hitting .347 since the trade and his three home runs in 13 games for the Pale Hose are one less than he hit in 42 games for the BoSox.
ANGELS SLOW START
The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim were clearly the winners of the offseason. With the free agent signings of slugger Albert Pujols and left-hander C.J. Wilson, most predictions had them reclaiming the AL West from the two-time defending champion Rangers. But the Angels stumbled badly out of the gates and were 6-14 after 20 games. And Pujols was a big reason why. Maybe he was trying to hard to live up to his $254 million contract, but he hit .217 in April and didn't homer until May 6. The Angels, though, have turned it around and now head into the break 48-38 and four games back of the Rangers. So what brought on this turnaround?
THE EMERGENCE OF MIKE TROUT
Well, if you want to try and put your finger on what exactly got the Angels going, look no further than April 28, or the season debut of outfielder Mike Trout. The 20-year-old phenom has come up and has been the AL MVP through the first half. In 64 games, he has 12 home runs, 15 doubles and 40 RBI to go along with 26 stolen bases. He has also played Gold Glove-caliber defense. And, oh yes, he leads the AL with a .343 batting average.
BRYCE HARPER ARRIVES
Trout wasn't the only rookie who stole headlines in the first half. Bryce Harper made his long-awaited debut for Washington. It's hard to believe Harper is only 19 because it seems we have been hearing about him forever. But, the kid came up and has produced for the NL East-leading Nationals. Washington is in first place because of their pitching, but Harper has played well above his age and is an integral part of that lineup.