The Washington Times - July 7, 2008, 10:07PM

By SEAN RAPOSA
July 8, 2008


Welcome back to My Five. I would like to take a moment to thank all my friends and family and all the other brave men and women who have served or are currently serving this great country of ours - you are what makes the Fourth of July such a tremendous celebration. I hope everyone had an eventful and safe Independence Day, unlike my buddy Joe, who ate some pavement attempting to drunk dial while pedaling his beach cruiser. I’m glad he wasn’t driving. If you had a chance to catch it amidst all the food, readily available draft beer, bikinis and fireworks, the baseball gods blessed us with Red Sox vs. Yankees and Cubs vs. Cards series over the weekend. Throw in a fat guy and a tree and you’ve got Christmas.

In keeping with the holiday theme, I’m taking a break as well. I have devoted my first six My Five columns to ranking the best in baseball in a variety of categories. This literary journey will eventually culminate with my true contenders and final prediction for the season. This week, however, I’m taking a look back at what has been a thrilling first half and highlighting my favorite storylines. Enjoy.

No. 5: The stench

As in life, when it comes to baseball and this page I like to focus on the positive, so let’s get this one out of the way. By most accounts, 2008 is shaping up to be an incredible season, but in some places a port-a-john-esque putridity has arisen. Speaking of San Diego, this seems like a good time to thank you guys for all the e-mails, like this one from Justin from the world’s-greatest-city-according-to-Ron Burgandy: “You should rank the worst five offensive lineups in baseball and have the Padres be every one.” While I could never be so cruel, I do feel his pain. The Fathers are 35-54 and have only scored seven runs all year - well, not literally, but it sure seems that way. Um, maybe it’s time to move in the fences, guys?

The Pads aren’t alone. Their entire division is a big part of the tird in the punchbowl. There isn’t a single squad playing .500 ball in the embarrassing National League West - the same collection of teams that was considered by some to be the league’s best in 2007. What a difference a year makes.

The National League holds claim to the league’s worst division, but it’s the American League that houses the year’s most disappointing teams, the Seattle Mariners and the Cleveland Indians. The fact that both of these teams were picked almost unanimously to win competitive divisions seems laughable now. They are a respective 18 and 14 games behind the Angels and White Sox, and 2008 seems to be a lost cause for both clubs. Thoughts of titles and great glory have been replaced by talks about what they can get for their left-handed aces; the Tribe officially threw in the towel yesterday by dealing lifelong Indian and reigning Cy Young Award winner C.C. Sabathia to Milwaukee. Ouch.   

Luckily for baseball, the geography of the struggling teams this year can be seen as a good omen. The worst teams are in big markets that should rebound and continue to bring in the fans in the meantime, while teams desperate for any glimpse of success, like Pittsburgh and Florida, are showing signs of real progress.

No. 4: The Johan Sweepstakes

The Mets, Yankees and Red Sox had a bidding war for the ages this past winter, trying to acquire the services of the game’s best starter. Once the Twins made it perfectly clear they could no longer afford Johan Santana, the hounds were released and potential offers were being reported daily. Just when it began to seem like nothing more than talk and posturing, the Mets landed Santana for an apparent bargain. The Sox, perhaps by choice, and the Yanks, perhaps by surprise, were left out in the cold.

The verdict can’t be sent down until October, but as is the theme these days, this one seems to have gone Boston’s way. The Red Sox’ young prospects - most notably Jacoby Ellsbury and Justin Masterson, both of whom were mentioned in possible deals - have played large parts in their early success. On the other hand, it seems that the wrong New York team may have landed the Johan. The Yankees always have a knack for creeping up the standings after the break, and if they had Santana trotting out to the hill instead of guys like Sidney Ponson it would be a much easier task. Maybe the Mets will trade him for Phil Hughes? Who? Oh … that guy. Sorry Yanks fans.

Now, for the team he did land on. Santana is 7-7 with a 2.96 ERA and doing a fine job pacing the Mets staff, but it seems quite obvious that he can’t fix this team by himself. They are only 3 1/2 games out in the N.L. East and Santana will light it up the rest of the way, but after last season’s collapse and the recent firing of skipper Willie Randolph, this team just does not have it. They remind me of the Cincinnati Bengals; they have all the pieces and a ton of fantasy studs, but they don’t know how to win.

No. 3: Name that pitcher

It’s tough to beat the Josh Hamiltons and Jon Lesters of the world when it comes to great stories, but there are some good ones buried here. Coming up with the starters who have tallied at least 10 wins so far in ‘08 would be harder than naming members of the U.S. soccer team. Outside of Brandon Webb, Mike Mussina and Roy Halladay, the list is full of “say what?” reactions.

You ready? Ben Sheets is 10-2. Yup - that Ben Sheets. Cliff Lee is 11-2. Yes again, that Cliff Lee. After Sheets was tacked onto fantasy blacklists everywhere and Lee was banished to the minor leagues last year, both starters have miraculously returned from the dead with the lights-out stuff we were teased with years ago. The two starters both have ERAs under 3.00 and strikeout-to-walk ratios that rank in the top ten.

By now we’ve all heard about Edinson Volquez and Tim Lincecum. The two right-handed flame throwers were always highly regarded prospects, but to think that either could potentially win 20 games and/or compete for a Cy Young Award this year would have exceeded even the loftiest predictions.

Two other young pitchers you might not have heard of that are getting it done in the win column are the Angels’ Joe Saunders and the White Sox’ Gavin Floyd. Floyd was once the talk of the town in the Philadelphia system, but big-time struggles in three separate attempts with the Phils got him shipped off to the Windy City last year. Saunders has come out of nowhere as a projected bottom-of-the-rotation guy to lead the league in wins. Rounding out the strange group would be Kyle Lohse (say what?!), Vicente Padilla, Aaron Cook and Andy Sonnanstine.

No. 2: The Maddon blessing

Like the receding hairline men neglect to acknowledge until it’s too late, you could see it coming. A few hairs here, a few there, and then boom! - you’re bald and you’re not ready for it. Eventually the Tampa Bay Devil Rays - excuse me, Rays - were going to be good; sooner or later all those draft picks had to bear fruit. I just wasn’t ready for it. I kept telling myself that it couldn’t happen because of their payroll and the 38 games they had to play annually against the Red Sox and Yankees. What I neglected to acknowledge was the fact that the Rays always played the top dogs tough, even if the wins weren’t there. They just needed to believe (well, that and some relievers). That’s where manager Joe Maddon comes in. He’s a fiery guy that brings an unwavering confidence and air of legitimacy to the club. Beyond the talent, which is plentiful, the Rays have a “don’t mess with us” attitude that makes them fun to watch and to pull for.

After years of suffering, the Rays are finally sailing the seas of success. The question is, how long it will last? It is now the second week of July and Tampa Bay is leading the A.L. East. They are 22 games over .500, for crying out loud. Since its inception in 1998, the team has never finished a season better than 20 games under .500. How they handle the pressure of expectations and the big dogs charging after them in the rear-view mirror will be the biggest story of the second half. My gut says they can’t keep up this pace, but their farm system is stacked with shiny new toys that could help come this fall.

No. 1: Enough is enough

Twentieth Century visionary Henry Ford once said, “Even a mistake may turn out to be the one thing necessary to a worthwhile achievement.” Now, I’m pretty sure he was talking about inventing the automobile and transforming a nation, but as you know, here in My Five we’re talking baseball and I think it fits. The mistake would be encouraging or at the very least enabling the game of baseball to be overrun by steroid abuse. The worthwhile achievement would be the wonderful state the game is in now. Ford’s wisdom points to the fact that we may not have one without the other. Surely there are questions that remain to be answered about asterisks and legacies, but for now, the game is as healthy as ever. Due credit needs to be given to Bud Selig, George Mitchell, Jose Canseco, Brian McNamee and the guys who conducted the BALCO investigations for moving baseball forward.

This is my favorite storyline of the first half just as much because of what we don’t have as what we do. No longer are there tired courtroom scenes of prepared statements and agonizing daily updates of hallowed records about to be sullied. Just baseball - good, fundamental, wacky baseball, where no-names win a ton of games, base-stealers and defense get as much pub as the big sticks, the worst franchise ever has the league’s best record and anything can happen … well, besides hitting 73 home runs in one season - that’s just ridiculous. For too long we were lost in the abyss of our own ignorance, but the time of enlightenment is upon us. They say you don’t miss something until it’s gone, and while that may be true, we have another chance because baseball - the real game, played the right way - is back, and I love it.

Sean Raposa’s My Five column runs every Wednesday here on National Pastime. He can be reached at sraposa33@gmail.com.

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Photos by The Associated Press

Be sure to check out our previous My Five columns: Starting Rotations, The Power Alleys, MLB’s Best Bullpens, The Table Setters, Young Guns, Burgeoning Bats.