Season's first half yields unanticipated results
Tigers, Angels digging out of deficits while unexpected Mets, White Sox rise to contend
Though it may seem like longer at this point, it was only eight months ago when many started to declare the Angels and Marlins the favorites in the American League West and National League East, respectively.
After all, that's when the Winter Meetings were wrapping up in Dallas, where the Angels reeled in free agents Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson and the Marlins nabbed Jose Reyes to pair with Hanley Ramirez on the left side of their infield.
Only a month and a half later, another division -- the AL Central -- was seemingly claimed by the Tigers when they swooped in and brought Prince Fielder to Detroit. The Tigers were likely to be the division favorites even without Fielder, but many considered them a lock to be runaway division champions following the move.
However, apparently nobody alerted the White Sox or Nationals. Chicago and Washington are among a group of teams -- the Orioles, Indians, Reds, Pirates, Mets and Dodgers being among the others -- that struggled a year ago yet are currently in strong contention despite electing, for one reason or another, not to make any big offseason moves.
And with the first half of the season quickly drawing to a close, those clubs have backed up the old cliché of "that's why they play the games."
Even with Pujols and Wilson, the Angels are in basically the same position they were at this time a year ago, sitting in second place but within striking distance of the Rangers. Meanwhile, the Marlins are in better shape than the club that was in last place at this time in 2011. Miami enters Monday fourth in the NL East, 7 1/2 games off the pace.
The Tigers will look to break out in the second half for a second successive year after another slow start that has them one game under .500 and three games back of the division-leading White Sox.
For the White Sox, this past offseason was far from encouraging with the one big move -- aside from manager Ozzie Guillen's departure -- being longtime ace Mark Buehrle leaving for Miami. With the seemingly immovable contracts of Adam Dunn and Alex Rios on the roster, there wasn't much leeway for general manager Ken Williams to do much else.
Under new manager Robin Ventura, however, everything has seemingly fallen into place on the South Side of Chicago. Dunn has rediscovered the power stroke that inexplicably disappeared last year. Rios has also bounced back, 23-year-old Chris Sale and a rejuvenated Jake Peavy have more than countered the loss of Buehrle and young left-hander Jose Quintana has filled in admirably for an injured John Danks.
Toss in a solid, young bullpen led by Addison Reed and Nate Jones and suddenly you have a legitimate contender that nobody was talking about when Fielder signed on in Detroit.
"It's real big," Ventura said of the returning players stepping up from last season's down year. "I think all of them. You get Alex and Adam, what Paul [Konerko's] doing, it's a big deal. Everybody has to pull their weight for you to be in it for a long season, and they're all doing it."
And while the Marlins have struggled -- especially in June -- the Nationals and Mets have certainly earned their spots atop the NL East standings. Both clubs have played impressive brands of baseball over the season's first half, thanks in large part to their pitching staffs.
The Nationals added key pieces to their pitching staff in Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson, a healthy Stephen Strasburg and a strong core of young players have significantly contributed to the team's success. Fourteen of the 25 players currently on Washington's active roster made their Major League debuts with the Nationals.
"It feels a lot better when it's your guys," general manager Mike Rizzo said, "and when they're homegrown guys."
"I think we saw it coming a couple years ago," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "We've had a great farm system. They've drafted well. We've been talented. For them to come in and contribute day-in and day-out at a young age, it makes you look around and think, 'Yeah, we can do this.'"
Similar approaches benefited the NL Central-leading Reds and the upstart Pirates and Orioles -- all of whom hope to remain in contention down the stretch and nab a long-awaited playoff spot.
For the Pirates, a postseason berth seemed like a pipe dream after they hit .228 as a team in April and followed that up with a Major League-worst .210 average for the month of May. Yet, the bats suddenly woke up last month as Pittsburgh hit .268 with an NL-best 39 homers and scored a Major League-high 146 runs. Needless to say, the offense led the Pirates to a division-best 17-10 record for the month.
"You package that into one month, you go, 'Whoa,'" manager Clint Hurdle said of the offensive surge. "But the two months' drought before, that makes you go 'Whoa' as well. So I think for me, it was going to come. I believed it would come. It's come this month. It's come hard. It's come heavy."
The Orioles have put together a more consistent season so far, but know there's a lot of games left on the slate. With the surging Red Sox only a half-game game back of the Orioles for the second Wild Card spot entering Monday and four other teams -- including those lingering Tigers -- within four games, there's plenty left to be determined.
"We've put in the work. We battled. We obviously have a lot to go," said Orioles center fielder Adam Jones, who has spent the past five seasons with the club, none of which have resulted in 70 wins. "It's going to be an exciting second half here."
And that's why they play all 162 games.