Baseball / Sports

A look at each division entering the second half of the season

Bud Selig's fondest dream in his last year as commissioner, much as it has been every other year, is competitive balance. The National League surely is answering his every wish, then.

The top seven teams in the 15-team league are separated by only two games in won-lost record as the post-All Star break schedule began Friday.

The Los Angeles Dodgers, Western Division leaders, are 54-43, with San Francisco at 52-43. Central leader Milwaukee is 53-43. East co-leaders Washington and Atlanta are 51-42 and 52-43, respectively.

And the chasing Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds are 52-44 and 51-44, with Pittsburgh not far back at 49-46.

"There are a lot of great teams and a lot of teams that are surprisingly playing very well," said Atlanta All-Star first baseman Freddie Freeman. "You never thought the Brewers would come in and be in first place like they are."

Even with the two wild cards in play, three of those aforementioned teams aren't going to the postseason, no matter how close they are now.

Though the resumption of the schedule Friday suggests that the second half of the season is starting, that is far from the truth. Most teams, including the Cardinals, have played 95 or more games, leaving fewer than 70 games left for almost everybody. The stretch drive isn't that far off.

A closer look at the divisional races:

NL CENTRAL

The Cardinals have a schedule edge in that they are home for two of their three remaining series against Milwaukee and Cincinnati and they have Pittsburgh once at home and once on the road. The Cardinals also are through with West leaders Los Angeles and San Francisco on the road while Milwaukee has yet to play either team home or away, totaling 12 games. Of Milwaukee's final 12 games in September, nine are against the Cardinals, Pirates and Reds on the same trip.

The Reds have second baseman Brandon Phillips and first baseman Joey Votto out with injuries but have the deepest starting pitching. The Brewers have the hardest schedule. The Pirates have the fastest outfield. The Cardinals have the most experience. They've been in the last three league championship series and two of the last three World Series. But they don't have Yadier Molina.

Cardinals third baseman Matt Carpenter said, "You've got arguably the best division in baseball. Four legitimate playoff teams. Four great teams."

Pirates All-Star reliever Tony Watson said, "These are four quality teams, and there's a lot of familiarity because the rosters haven't turned over too much in the last few years. The division knows itself real well.

"It's a deep division. There's no gimmes. We're all beating up on each other."

All-Star center fielder Andrew McCutchen, also of the Pirates, said, "All we can do is focus on our job and my job, personally. If we do that, the sky's the limit and we should be playing playoff ball."

The Cardinals, Pirates and Reds all played playoff ball last year, but the depth of the division and the many intra-division games remaining among the four contenders mitigate against more than one team winning more than 90 games. From two wild cards last year, this division could go to none.

NL EAST

When both Washington and Atlanta are healthy, the Nationals have the better talent, if they can keep Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman, Adam LaRoche and Jordan Zimmermann on the field.

Washington has the deeper bullpen and a better rotation than Atlanta and was plus-61 in first-half run differential compared to plus-12 for the Braves, who are near the bottom of the league in offense, groveling with the Cardinals and San Diego.

Atlanta won seven of its first eight games against Washington. But the Nationals won the last two and took some confidence away from that.

Against the three bottom feeders in the East -- Philadelphia, Miami and New York -- the Braves are only 18-14 with 25 games left and Washington is 16-7 with a whopping 34 games remaining.

NL WEST

The Dodgers and Giants both could come out of this division as playoff teams, especially with the amount of games the two have remaining with San Diego, Colorado and Arizona, who have three of the four worst records in the league. The Dodgers have feasted on that trio at 26-11 with 20 remaining. San Francisco is only 19-17 with 21 left.

Los Angeles' second-half fate might hinge on the health (shoulder) of shortstop Hanley Ramirez, who was their best player down the stretch last year. Manager Don Mattingly again will have four high-priced regular outfielders to find playing time for in Yasiel Puig, Andre Ethier, Matt Kemp and Carl Crawford, now that Crawford is healthy, with phenom Joc Pederson, the best center fielder of the bunch, waiting in the minors.

The 'X' factor is that the Dodgers unquestionably have the best 1-2 starting punch in All-Stars Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke.

The Giants should get a boost with second baseman Marco Scutaro coming off the disabled list, but they must also hope that injury-prone center fielder and leadoff man Angel Pagan can stay healthy.

But is Tim Hudson losing his battle with Father Time? The 39-year-old Giants right-hander was 7-2 with a 1.97 earned-run average at one point for the Giants. He finished the pre-All Star break competition 0-4 with a 6.07 ERA.

AL CENTRAL

No matter how the division-leading Tigers slice it, this league probably has only two races and one of them is not in the Central. The Tigers, after taking three of four at Kansas City over the weekend, are 6 1/2 games ahead of Kansas City and seven ahead of Cleveland.

"I respect everybody else in our division," said staff ace Max Scherzer (Parkway Central), 38-7 since August 2012. "The Royals and Cleveland ... they're nipping at our tail. If we don't go out there with a mission to finish it, they'll catch us. They'll run us down.

"Do we like being in the position we are? Yes. Being in first place, up a few games, that's a good position to be in.

"Why would you ever want to be second?"

But, if the season ended today, the Royals would be the third wild-card team after the Angels and Seattle. They gladly would take second because they have the longest playoff drought of any club, not having advanced since their World Series run of 1985.

AL EAST

In the East, injury-riddled Toronto has collapsed to the point that Baltimore has surged to a four-game lead. The New York Yankees, Tampa Bay and Boston are farther back but all have been in the playoffs in the past two years.

Toronto hasn't been in since 1993.

Blue Jays All-Star pitcher Mark Buehrle said, "Everybody goes through injuries. It's just who doesn't have the injuries the longest or who has the minor league depth to fill in while those other guys are hurt.

"Right now, with the amount of guys in our lineup who are out (Brett Lawrie, Edwin Encarnacion, among others), it's hard to fill the gap. We've just got to ride the wave for a while until we get these guys back and, hopefully, we're not out of it."

The Yankees will be hard-pressed to win without Masahiro Tanaka, who could be out for the season with an elbow problem. Boston suddenly, stunningly, has scored the fewest runs in the league and Tampa Bay has struggled until the last couple of weeks.

But the Rays have made up considerable ground recently and another couple of good weeks could vault them into either the division race or the wild-card competition in which they are only seven games in arrears. They don't have to trade All-Star lefthander David Price now. He still is under their control for 2015 and could be dealt after this season if they don't want to pay him $20 million or more next year, which they won't do.

Baltimore, meanwhile, keeps hitting home runs. The Orioles' total of 114 ranks only two behind Toronto for the major league lead, but the Orioles also have the fifth-best ERA in the AL and, statistically, the top defense. The O's haven't been to a World Series since 1983.

AL WEST

Oakland, which has had the best record in the league most of the year, almost has been run down by the Los Angeles Angels, who have won 26 of their last 35 games to go 20 games over .500 at the break for the first time in franchise history. Seattle, while eight games out, still is the leader for the second wild-card spot.

But general manager Billy Beane and the A's struck first in the trading arena by dealing for right-handers Jeff Samardzija (a National League All-Star choice) and Jason Hammel from the Chicago Cubs.

"I was surprised," said A's All-Star third baseman Josh Donaldson. "I didn't think Billy was conjuring up something this early, because, for one reason, our pitching staff is pretty good. But then we add guys like Samardzija and Hammel and we definitely feel like that was a postseason move for us.

"The Angels have one of the best lineups in baseball, and to add a couple of guys like that, I feel like we're sending a message that says, 'Hey, we want to win the division, too.' "

The A's haven't won a World Series in 25 years and haven't played in one in 24 years.

Albert Pujols, who was hitting .147 with men in scoring position a month ago, drove in 20 runs in his final 19 games before the break for Los Angeles. The Angels have serious bullpen problems but they are also nine games to the good as far as securing a playoff spot.

Seattle has Felix Hernandez, probably the top starter in the league, and Robinson Cano, one of the top two or three hitters in the league. But the Mariners desperately need a right-handed bat to hit behind Cano, their No. 3 hitter who bats left-handed.

PLAYOFF PICTURE

If the season ended today, the playoff matchups would be:

NATIONAL LEAGUE

Wild Card -- Atlanta at San Francisco

Division round -- Atlanta/San Francisco at Los Angeles; Washington at Milwaukee

AMERICAN LEAGUE

Wild Card -- Seattle at Los Angeles Angels

Division round -- Seattle/Angels at Oakland; Baltimore at Detroit

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