MLB Points 7/17
The first week after the All Star break is usually a good indicator of how a team will perform in the second half. For already-contending teams it’s vital to slip back into a winning groove, while for underachievers the last 70 games can take on a rebirth of sorts. The two squads I highlighted as “big money sleepers” in my midseason report last week, the Cubs and Yankees, have clearly embraced the second installment of the season as a second life, as they’ve combined to go 8-1 since the All Star respite. Meanwhile, my pennant front-runners, the Mets and Red Sox, are a combined 6-4 over the last week, but most importantly both have reverted back to their respective bread and butter. Let’s expand on those thoughts.
Cubs They are men on a mission in Wrigleyville. They have a coach, Lou Piniella, who has them believing they can’t lose. And he may just be right. The Cubs are the best team in baseball since June 1 (26-12), and have run off four straight to begin the second half. More impressive is the fashion in which they’ve won the games. First Carlos Zambrano threw 6.2 shutout innings against Houston, his seventh start in the last eight giving up two runs or less. In the second game Ted Lilly beat Roy Oswalt before the Cubs completed the three-game sweep by roaring back from a second-inning, 5-0 deficit to win 7-6. Finally, Rich Hill showed signs of returning to form as he pitched eight solid innings as Chicago beat the Giants 3-2. The Cubs are sniffing first place in the NL Central, and are closer to the Brewers (3.5 games) than they’ve been since April. Milwaukee has been playing mediocre baseball of late (6-8 since the end of June) and now their ace, Ben Sheets, has landed himself back on the DL and could be sidelined until late-August. Watch as the Cubs take over the lead in the NL Central in the next few weeks.
Yankees The time is now for the Yanks and they’ve responded. Obviously Yankees fans are (and have been) talking about 1978 and 2005. They won’t listen to me but I’ll spare the words: the AL East is lost. There will be no epic Sox collapse this year; no Bucky Dent reincarnate; no Matt Clement. In my opinion the Yankees should try comparing themselves to the 2004 Red Sox if anything. Here’s my rationale: the infamous Varitek-glove-in-A-Rod’s-face game was a watershed moment for the Red Sox, and a career-turning-point for A-Rod. Since that July-game in ’04 the Red Sox have had the upper hand in the rivalry, with Tek representing the bullying Red Sox and A-Rod the cowering-Yankees. The Yankees have not won a playoff series since The Comeback and A-Rod’s pitiful cumulative postseason performance (4-43 since Game 3 of the ’04 ALCS) has been one of the chief reasons. So what’s my point? A-Rod might have had his watershed moment for the Yankees last month. His statement-home run on ESPN against Jonathan Papelbon in the top of the ninth inning gave New York their most important victory over Boston since the late-September game that effectively clinched the ’05 AL East. That bomb represented two games in the standings (a possible 14.5 game lead became 12.5) and that game was the last time the two teams played before a two-month hiatus that they are currently in the middle of. Since that Sunday night A-Rod has been a monster and the Bombers have had their best extended stretch (23-14) but still have made up only 3.5 games (and the Sox have been playing poorly to boot). So the Yanks best bet is to remember ’04, grab up that wild card and try to come take back Fenway in the ALCS.
Mets The Metropolitans sputtered into the All Star break, with a pitching staff that seemed to get old overnight (even though it had been quite old for quite some time). Part of the problem was a lack of stability around the young staff-ace, John Maine. Another part of the problem was the absence of Oliver Perez. The Mets lost six of eight in the week and a half leading up to the All Star break, while giving up an average of seven runs a game during that period. Mets fans have been happy to see that the pitching staff has righted the ship on all fronts. Perez has returned healthy, and pitched a quality-six innings in his return to the mound in defeating the Reds. The elder statesmen, Tom Glavine and El Duque, both benefited from the time away as well, each winning their start while giving up two runs or less. Minus a hiccup from Maine in his first post-break start the Mets staff as a whole has taken back the reigns of the team, which is good news. Even better news is Pedro’s progress back from rotator cuff surgery. Of late he has been throwing as well as talking, which at its essence is the Pedro power-combo. He is scheduled to throw a second simulated game on Friday before embarking on a rehab assignment in the minors. All signs point to him returning to a pennant race in mid-August wearing an antagonistic smirk and boasting a reconstructed shoulder capable of throwing over 90. Time to start getting excited in Flushing.
Red Sox PHEW!! After watching Manny and Papi the last week I think Red Sox Nation has collectively exhaled. Our bash brothers in the middle (remember the tandem who’s only comparison is Ruth/Gehrig?) have at last begun to awake from their surreal power-slumber. In five games since the break Ortiz is hitting .429 (9-21) with two home runs, 7 RBI and five extra base hits. Manuel has hit at a .350 clip (7-20) with two blasts and 8 RBI. It’s hard to fathom the Red Sox doing much of anything without Manny and Ortiz throughout the stretch run and into the postseason. That said, they’ve gotten to where they are (56-36, still the best record in baseball) on the strength of their pitching staff and guys like Mike Lowell and Kevin Youkilis. With the middle of the lineup having finally returned to being the most fearsome in baseball and Curt Schilling making slow but steady progress back to the mound (he’s targeting the last day of July), this team is primed to shake off six weeks of very pedestrian baseball and start winning games in bunches again. And that, ladies and gentleman, is why the Yankees have absolutely zero chance of catching the Red Sox this year.