The Washington Times - July 12, 2008, 01:08AM

By JAY LeBLANC
July 12, 2008

With the All-Star break just around the corner, it’s time to peer into the crystal ball and make my predictions for how the rest of the season will play out. Though baseball is an unpredictable game, I’m putting it all out there now in hopes of looking really smart when it’s all said and done. So without further ado, here’s what to expect the rest of the way:

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THE PENNANT RACES

A.L. EAST

As someone who enjoys baseball’s organizational structure and player development process, I’m unabashedly smitten with the Tampa Bay Rays. Like many others, I’m getting a kick out of watching this small-market franchise get the job done against its large-market divisional foes in Boston and New York mainly on the strength of its willpower and homegrown talent. Make no mistake about it - Tampa Bay is for real, and will hang around until the very end with its intriguing mixture of young power arms and multi-tool positional studs. However, even with an injury-diminished David Ortiz, battle-tested Boston will ride its stacked lineup and strong top-to-bottom pitching staff to overcome the upstart Rays and capture the A.L. East crown by roughly five games. Expect the Yankees to get hot in the dog days of August but ultimately be failed by their starting staff, which is headed by a pair of soft-tossers in their late-30s and rounded out by several talented youngsters who just haven’t quite put it together yet and won’t until 2009.

A.L. CENTRAL

The Detroit Tigers are the anti-Rays - a group of high-priced stars tossed together at the expense of owner Mike Ilitch’s wallet and what had been a pretty solid farm system. While the Tigers make up a pretty solid fantasy squad, the team’s results haven’t measured up to its preseason expectations. They got off to a slow start and are still hovering around .500 as we near the break. Under the leadership of Jim Leyland, the Tigers will jell in the second half and engage in a heated three-way race with the White Sox and Twins. While they’ll overtake the Twins - whose youthful pitching staff will fail them down the stretch - the White Sox will prove too strong and hold them off to take the division. With a solid starting staff backed up by closer Bobby Jenks and a strong top-to-bottom lineup, the White Sox have won more than 70 percent of their home games and are close to .500 on the road, and there’s no reason to believe they won’t be able to keep it up.

A.L. WEST

The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim haven’t really even hit their stride yet and nonetheless hold a sizable lead over their nearest competition - the Oakland A’s, who just dealt ace Rich Harden to the Cubs for a relatively disappointing package of players. The A’s have overachieved just to hang in there thus far, while the Rangers fearsome lineup can’t make up for the team’s glaring weaknesses on the pitching side. The Angels will ride their outstanding starting staff - all five starters will end up with 12 or more wins, barring injuries - and Francisco Rodriguez-led bullpen to the division title, while their offense will prove just good enough to get the job done. Preseason sleeper pick Seattle will continue to wallow in its own misery all season long, making the Erik Bedard for All-Star closer George Sherrill, up-and-comer Adam Jones and three pitching prospects deal look that much more regrettable.

A.L. WILD CARD

After Minnesota fades in late August and early September, the Wild Card race will come down to the Rays and the anti-Rays - Detroit, for those of you who haven’t been paying attention. Tampa Bay, which has won more than 70 percent of its home games thus far, will fall off slightly in the second half while playing six more games on the road than at home and dealing with tough competition from its A.L. East rivals. Detroit, meanwhile, will finally come together and begin to play up to its potential. However, the Tigers will find that they dug themselves too deep a hole in the early going, both in the A.L. Central and the Wild Card race. Detroit will be one of the better teams in the second half, but won’t be able to make up the necessary ground to catch the White Sox - or the Rays. Tampa Bay takes the Wild Card to reach the postseason for the first time in franchise history.

N.L. EAST

You heard it here first - the New York Mets will get their act together in the second half and put last season’s collapse in the rear-view mirror by capturing the N.L. East crown. With traditional second-half studs Johan Santana and David Wright leading the way, the Mets will finally play to their potential under interim skipper Jerry Manuel. You can’t blame all the Mets’ early-season troubles on Willie Randolph, but the truth is Randolph isn’t a great tactical manager and he never regained the team’s confidence after last September’s debacle. They’ve turned over a new leaf and reeled off a string of victories over the past week or so, and that momentum will carry over into the second half and they’ll be on their way. Meanwhile, both the Philadelphia Phillies and Florida Marlins will find that no matter how much your hitters mash the ball, it’s all for naught without a solid pitching staff. With Brett Myers pitching like a shell of his former self this season, the Phils lack a complement to Cole Hamels in their starting staff, and while the Marlins’ young staff shows great promise, it will likely wilt in the South Florida heat in August and September.

N.L. CENTRAL

I’m going to get the St. Louis Cardinals out of the way before they do so themselves. No team does a better job of patching a starting rotation together out of reclaimation projects and the Cards deserve credit for their first-half success, but the simple fact is that the clock is going to strike midnight on Kyle Lohse, Braden Looper, Joel Pineiro, Todd Wellemeyer and the rest of the St. Louis staff sooner rather than later. At that point, it’s game-on between the Chicago Cubs and Milwaukee Brewers, who have already engaged in the season’s most intriguing arms race as the Cubbies answered the Brewers acquisition of CC Sabathia by stealing Rich Harden from the A’s. Both teams have great rotations and stacked lineups, and this one goes down to the wire. In the end, the Brewers will be let down by their shaky bullpen a couple times late in the season and come up just short in the divisional race.

N.L. WEST

Last year’s Rocky Mountain Magic is nowhere to be found, most Little League squads have more offensive firepower than the San Diego Padres and Tim Lincecum can’t carry the San Francisco Giants all by himself, making for a ho-hum two-team race between the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Los Angeles Dodgers in the subpar N.L. West. Neither team is particularly adept on offense - both are in the lower half in the N.L. in runs scored - so it’s going to come down to pitching. The Dodgers have a pretty solid starting staff and have Takashi Saito to close the door, but Arizona has a pair of aces in Brandon Webb and Dan Haren and three solid complements in Micah Owings, Doug Davis and Randy Johnson. Brandon Lyon and Tony Pena have gotten the job done on the back end, and in one role or another, top prospect Max Scherzer will be a factor in the second half. The D-Backs win the west.

N.L. WILD CARD

I know the Wild Card was instituted to build some late-season excitement, but this year it’s only going to detract from the thrill of the N.L. Central pennant race. Unless the Phillies can add a solid No. 2 starter to back up Hamels, they’re not going to be able to keep up with the N.L. Central’s Cubs and Brewers. The Phillies have the farm system to get a deal done, and while they’d never admit it, my gut feeling is they privately realize how strong the Cubs, Brewers and Mets are and choose to hang on to their prospects and make a run at it next year. The Brewers will finish with the N.L.’s second-best record behind their divisional rivals in the Windy City and capture the Senior Circuit’s Wild Card berth.

 

DIVISIONAL SERIES

AMERICAN LEAGUE

The Angels’ second-half surge will give them the A.L.’s best record and the right to face the Wild Card winner in the first-round - in this case, a hungry, upstart Rays team. The Rays will be up to the challenge and will push the Angels to a Game 5 showdown, but postseason vet John Lackey will out-duel stud lefty Scott Kazmir - who’ll be forced out early due to a high pitch count - and Francisco Rodriguez will slam the door on the Rays’ season. In the other series, the Red Sox will use their home field advantage and blast the White Sox into a 2-0 hole by putting on an offensive show at Fenway while Josh Beckett and Daisuke Matsuzaka hold the ChiSox’ bats at bay. After heading to Chicago, the Red Sox will make it a clean sweep behind emerging stud Jon Lester in Game 3.

NATIONAL LEAGUE

After finishing with the league’s best record, the Cubs will face an overmatched Diamondbacks team in the first round - but as Lee Corso might say, not so fast! Brandon Webb will pitch Arizona to victory in Game 1, forcing Cubs fans to endure more painful SportsCenter clips about Steve Bartman and billy goats. Ted Lilly will out-duel Dan Haren in Game 2, and the Cubs and D-Backs will split Games 4 and 5 in the desert, setting up a Game 5 showdown at the friendly confines. Carlos Zambrano gets the best of Webb this time, punching the Cubs’ ticket to the NLCS. In the other matchup, the resurgent Mets will take on a fearsome Brewers team. Behind sluggers Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder and dominant performances from Sabathia and Ben Sheets, the Brew Crew will take a 2-0 lead against the stunned Mets at Shea Stadium. Pedro Martinez will make up for his regular-season shortcomings and extend the series with a gem in Game 3, but the Brewers will smack around Oliver Perez in Game 4 and move on to face the Cubs.

 

LEAGUE CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES

AMERICAN LEAGUE

Fresh off a sweep of the White Sox, the confident Red Sox will head to Anaheim to face an Angels team exhausted from its five-game ALDS showdown against the pesky Rays. With John Lackey unavailable after hurling Game 5 against Tampa Bay, a well-rested Josh Beckett will pitch the Red Sox to victory in Game 1. Lackey will be back for Game 2 and out-duel Daisuke Matsuzaka, sending the series back to Fenway Park tied at a game apiece. Back in the comforts of home, the Red Sox will bust out the whoopin’ sticks, taking three straight at Fenway while averaging nearly 10 runs per contest to advance to the World Series with designs on defending their title.

NATIONAL LEAGUE

It’s going to be a heated pennant race in the N.L. Central between the Cubs and Brewers, and by the time they meet in the NLCS, a barrier will have been erected on the Illinois-Wisconsin border to keep the peace. The Cubs will make full use of their home field advantage and take Games 1 and 2, beating Milwaukee’s one-two punch of Sabathia and Sheets. The Brewers are no slouches at home either, and will rebound to take two-of-three in Milwaukee, highlighted by a dominant performance by Sabathia in a must-win Game 5. The Brew Crew will stun the Cubs behind another gem from Sheets in Game 6, and the poor people of Chicago will be subjected to yet another heart-breaking disappointment in Game 7 as their Cubs will take an early lead only to crumble under the immeasurable pressure generated by 100 years of futility and squander it late.

 

WORLD SERIES

Much like the Rockies the year before, the Brewers will peak in the NLCS and find themselves completely out of gas in the World Series. Well-rested after beating the Angels in five games in the ALCS, Beckett and Matsuzaka will dominate in Games 1 and 2. The Brewers will bounce back with some offensive fireworks in Game 3 and lift the spirits of the good people of Milwaukee, but the excitement will be short-lived. Refocused after their Game 3 defeat, the Red Sox will take the next two and give the long-suffering but now spoiled Boston fans yet another title to celebrate. Manny Ramirez will go from a sure-fire Hall of Famer to a slam-dunk first-ballot inductee by slugging three home runs in the series to pick up his second World Series MVP Award, and the unpleasant image of Jonathan Papelbon river-dancing in spandex will haunt all of us throughout the long, cold, baseball-free winter.

Jay LeBlanc is an assistant news editor at The Washington Times and Mayor of the National Pastime web community. His Prospect Q&A column runs every Monday and Thursday throughout the season. He can be reached at jleblanc@washingtontimes.com.

Photos by The Associated Press