Much of the focus as baseball heads into the second half is on the possible suspensions of Alex Rodriguez, Ryan Braun and a handful of All-Stars implicated in the Biogenesis performance enhancing drug scandal.
Puigmania, a Pirates revival and one impressive power show in Baltimore may shift the gaze back onto the field, where there will be a lot to watch headed down the stretch of the regular season.
Fans who have been celebrating Mariano Rivera at every stop of his farewell tour should get a chance to watch returning stars Derek Jeter, Chris Carpenter, A-Rod and even Manny Ramirez after a first half dominated by 20-somethings.
The American League won the All-Star game on Tuesday night, giving home-field advantage in the World Series back to the junior circuit after three years of NL dominance. Now the race is on to get to the Fall Classic, and some underachieving preseason favorites are looking to make their moves.
Every playoff spot is legitimately up for grabs, with no team leading a division by more than a half-dozen games. And the NL East, where Atlanta is up six on Washington, is the only place where the division leader is ahead by three games or more.
What to look for in the second half, that begins Friday:
CLOCK IS TICKING
_ The Washington Nationals need a healthy Bryce Harper to get into a groove and help them chase down Atlanta.
_ The big-spending Dodgers are suddenly surging, 17-5 since June 22, thanks to the youthful exuberance of Yasiel Puig, with a smile to match that of owner Magic Johnson.
_ North of the border, the Blue Jays made the biggest offseason moves but NL Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey’s knuckleball has been mostly off-target and Toronto finds itself in last place in the powerful AL East. But don’t count anyone out in what’s widely considered the toughest division in the majors.
_ Pedro Alvarez and the Pittsburgh Pirates appear poised to put 20 years of misery behind them, after two years of teasing their fans by being in the hunt heading into the break only to fade down the stretch. With the Houston Astros now in the AL, the NL Central is one of the most competitive divisions.
Reds manager Dusty Baker knew it would be a stiffer challenge this year.
“I figured it’d be close, closer, because none of us have the Astros in our division that we were counting on _ not to malign them _ but they were in our division last year and every team kind of counted on beating them,” he said. “Now you’ve got to beat each other.”
_ So far it’s only been California dreamin’ for Josh Hamilton in his first year in Los Angeles, even with Houston in the division. He’ll have to improve on his .224 average, .413 slugging percentage for the Angels to have a shot to overtake Home Run Derby champ Yoenis Cespedes and the pesky A’s. Albert Pujols’ ballclub is 11 games back in the AL West and nine games behind for the wild card.