- The Washington Times - Friday, July 14, 2006

FIVE STORIES TO WATCH

1. WILL THE BRAVES FINISH IN LAST PLACE?

Atlanta’s string of consecutive division titles, which stands at 14, is in serious peril. Not only does it look unlikely that Atlanta will claim the National League East, but the Braves face the possibility of finishing dead last. At 40-49, the Braves are 13 games behind the front-running New York Mets and just 21/2 games out of last place.

2. 40/40 CLUB

Nationals outfielder Alfonso Soriano has a shot at becoming just the fourth player in major league history to hit 40 homers and steal 40 bases in a season. Whether Soriano can accomplish that milestone in Washington remains to be seen with the trade deadline just a little more than two weeks away. The All-Star outfielder is just 13 home runs shy of 40, but needs another 20 stolen bases to reach 40.

3. WILD, WILD WESTS

Baseball has wide-open races in both western divisions. Just five games separate the last-place Arizona Diamondbacks (43-45) from the first-place San Diego Padres (48-40) in the NL West. Over in the American League, things are even more interesting with the last-place Seattle Mariners only 21/2 games behind the Oakland Athletics and Texas Rangers going into last night.

4. BYE, BYE BARRY?

Will the second half of the season be the final hurrah for Barry Bonds? The San Francisco Giants slugger has hinted that he may retire at the end of this season but said he will leave it up to the Giants’ fans if he returns for a 22nd season. Bonds is surrounded by controversy with federal grand jury proceedings on whether he used steroids or committed perjury when he was under oath while testifying before a grand jury in 2003. With 73 games left this season, Bonds is 35 home runs behind Hank Aaron’s all-time mark and would have to play again next season for a realistic chance at becoming the game’s home run king.

5. BEST STORY IN BASEBALL

Who would have expected the Detroit Tigers to have baseball’s best record at the break? Manager Jim Leyland has guided a largely inexperienced club to a 59-29 mark and a two-game lead over the defending World Series champion Chicago White Sox in the competitive American League Central. Can the Tigers hold up? Even if they stumble and allows the White Sox to overtake them, the Tigers appear in great shape for the AL wild card. Leyland isn’t talking pennants just yet. The veteran skipper believes baseball races don’t heat up until late August. Leyland has about another month to continue flying under the radar before people find out if his club is for real.

— Ken Wright

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